Note to feminists out to liberate Pakistani women from the shackles of sexual repression: please don’t. Or do it in private if you must, with some scented candles, massage oil, maybe a handy illustration or two. But please, for the sake of all that’s unholy (in this case, sex in Pakistan) cease and desist from writing about it in the way you have been writing about it.
In the last couple of weeks readers traditionally starved of public discussion about the sex lives of Pakistani women have been treated to not one but two stories on the subject, one in the December issue of local monthly Newsline and the other by one Jeanette Khan first featured on The Huffington Post in April but currently doing the rounds locally. Both inadvertently illustrate why some of us still prefer to do it rather than talk about it.
The Newsline cover story by Shimaila Matri Dawood (who, I hasten to add, this writer held in high esteem till right about the time she decided to make legions of other Pakistanis never want to have sex again) was clearly a noble effort to shatter a dominant taboo about female sexuality, i.e., not talking about it. The magazine opted for a brave cover in red, white, black and yellow featuring the silhouette of a woman against a backdrop of key words. These keywords presumably came up when Newsline staffers brainstormed to identify what normal people talk about when they talk about the subject. They include shame, embarrassment, immodest, sexual dysfunction, molestation and forced sex.
This told me three things. One, I should probably never try to have a conversation about sex with a Newsline staffer unless I have a box of tissues handy. Two, courageous as their attempt might be, Newsline was choosing to duck a ball by euphemistically representing rape as ‘forced sex’. Three, Newsline wanted to do a lot of things to the reader – inform, educate, edify – but it certainly didn’t want to titillate. Which made sense, sort of. I mean, if you want to blow the lid off repressed sexuality, you certainly don’t want to blow the lid of repressed sexuality do you? Snigger snigger, nudge nudge.
On the flip side, you don’t want to bore your reader to death either. This, ironically, is exactly what Newsline ended up doing when it decided to make people wake up. For example, an extract from Naila Baloch’s "Why I Want To Talk About Sex":
“In order to transform the dominant paradigms of relationships in our lives, based primarily on manipulation, power and control, I feel a stark need for us to connect to sources of power within ourselves, most potently through opening up to our own sexuality. We need, as men and women, to connect to our sexuality in a more loving, nurturing and non-dominant manner, seeing it as a sharing, as opposed to a conquering, and seeing women’s engagement with their sexuality not as shameful (an attitude that many women themselves internalize) but as natural, exuberant, joyful and a cause for mutual celebration! In this way, we may start to feel more power over our own lives, and can become actively loving participants in all of our relationships, sexual and non-sexual alike.”
You lost me at paradigms Naila.
Or consider this, from Ms. Dawood’s main feature:
"Ask the educated Pakistani woman about what the term sexual rights means and most would link it to sexual needs, preferences and habits. All these terms, however, have different meanings. While sexual rights pertain to the right of the woman to make her own decisions about her body (including her reproductive capacity, health and right to privacy and information) sexual habits is the term given to the specific types of sexual behaviour, needs are based on libido and preferences and individual tastes.
"All these play a critical role in the empowerment of women. The lack of informed knowledge about sex, given the taboo nature of the topic, and the misinformation that men, women, and adolescents received, perpetuates myths and misconceptions about sex and serves to reinforce messages of shame, fear and guilt. This can lead to issues such as sexually-transmitted infections, sexual dysfunction, gender-based abuse and violence, including sexual violence.”If Newsline is now a brochure, why isn’t it free?
Interspersed with these inedible lumps of jargon was the odd attempt to make the piece readable, for example the opening itself:
“A group of well-heeled, sophisticated young adults are at a party, thrown by the host to celebrate her upcoming winter wedding. Strains of Nelly Furtado’s hit song ‘Promiscuous’ reverberate from the DJ’s sound system into the night. The women, frosted up in diamonds and dressed to impress, groove to the beat, sip margaritas at the well stocked bar, and discuss a range of superficial topics (or perhaps a range or topics superficially)…a socialite’s unflattering makeover, whether the Dubai default will cause prêt prices to fall, and if President Zardari can hold on to power for long.
"In a quiet corner sits an all-female quarter, aged between 25 and 40. One of them talks about a recent sex survey undertaken by an Indian magazine. “It’s called ‘The Fantasy Report’,” she says, “and it’s about sexual fantasies. They do one every year, in collaboration with a local NGO. Last year’s survey talked about under-age sex, sex with prostitutes and eunuchs, kinky sex, adultery, incest, homosexuality, preferences, favourite positions, attitudes towards role-playing and other sexual activities. I wonder what the findings would be if they could do one in Pakistan?”Show me a frosted socialite two margaritas in who can say "under-age sex, sex with prostitutes and eunuchs, kinky sex, adultery, incest, homosexuality, preferences, favourite positions, attitudes towards role-playing and other sexual activities" without slurring, and I’ll show you a feature writer who doesn’t make shit up.
“Take, for instance, the daughter of privilege. Essentially nocturnal by habit, she’s seen at all the haunts at which ‘liberal’ Pakistanis congregate- intimate dinner parties, charity extravaganzas, raunchy theatre productions such as Chicago, The V-Monologues, Mamma Mia, or even the OGS shows, raves and midnight dances at the beach. Her daytime pursuits include a few select fashion shows, or exercising her toned and exposed limbs at a zealously private club. She works in a bank or a multinational, drinks, smokes, has boyfriends. At weddings, she wraps herself in her latest Indian Satya Paul sari, a garment which was banned in government offices in the Zia era. For more casual dos she dares to bare in always western-wear.”Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super Slut flying down the lane!
Nocturnal bankers? [Source: Partylicious.com.pk]
There are so many things wrong, indeed grossly offensive, about the assumptions made in that paragraph that I’m going to have to just let it go. Except, if Super Slut with the boyfriends and the toned and exposed limbs is nocturnal by habit, how the hell does she keep her job at the bank?
So there you have it, jargon, stereotype and cliché. Cliché, stereotype and jargon. That’s the stylistic wrapping for you. And now for the meat on the bone (no pun intended, honest), my other big problems with the Newsline story are:
1) All the men in it are either sex-crazed lunatics who like nothing better than a bit of marital rape to relax on a lazy morning, sex-crazed lunatics who ‘abandoned’ their wives when they refused to allow a bit of marital rape on a lazy morning, or "Mullahs and conservative politicians" that "support brutal tribal traditions that throw allegedly adulterous women in front of dogs and bury them alive." No, wait, there’s an insert by a male psychiatrist. He tells a delightful story about a little old lady whose "missing front teeth and loss of hearing in one ear" bore witness to "the viciousness of her husbands beatings." In one fell swoop, Newsline has invented the perfect anti-aphrodisiac. This particular issue could well be repackaged and sold as The Diminisher, The Deflator, The Emasculator! So buy your copy now, ladies, and read it aloud to your lover next time he starts humping your leg at an inconvenient time. If you still have one, that is. After reading the sweeping indictments of Pakistani manhood contained therein it might seem simpler, and more tempting, to get a dog. And shoot it.
2) My second main problem ties directly into the first one. In a 15-page spread about female sexuality, repeatedly professing a desire to educate women about their ‘sexual rights’, the word ‘pleasure’ is used twice. And never by the writers. If that doesn’t tell you they were doing something wrong, I don’t know what does.
Quibbles aside, let’s congratulate Newsline on having the ovaries to do the well-intentioned story in the first place, and wish them luck in finding a less pedantic tone the next time they attempt something similar. One that inspires as well as informs (it's a little hard to change things when you've been bludgeoned into a defensive coma you know), stimulates rather than sedates, and doesn’t accidentally alienate the half of the Pakistani population without whose cooperation there can be no significant progress in women’s rights. Let’s also congratulate them for burying us under a landslide of fact rather than farce, which is what the other piece I mentioned earlier does.
Enter Jeanette Khan via The Huffington Post, under the rather unfortunate headline "Let’s Talk About Sex Baby, Let’s Talk About Sex in Pakistan." Still reeling from prolonged exposure to the Newsline story, I’m already groaning Oh no do we have to. But I will, because I am a Pakistani woman dammit. And if I can suffer in silence while I am violated at will by my demon lover I can certainly read 1200 words of forwarded text without a whimper. Except…I’m barely into the first paragraph and already oh god it hurts!
“I'm a red-blooded woman. I'm comfortable talking about sex and all aspects regarding it. As a full-fledged member of the Millennials, I'm accustomed to asking people "Are you a virgin?"
Asking random people ‘are you a virgin’ does not make you comfortable with yourself and a red-blooded woman Ms. Khan, it just makes you rude.
“In Pakistan there is no such thing as sex-education. People mostly learn about sex through their married friends or first-hand experience.” And also “Playboys are smuggled into the country.”On behalf of all the passengers on Flight 2009, Ms. Khan, I would like to welcome you to our service and urge you to take advantage of all our facilities. They include this pretty little buttony thing here, it is called the INTERNET. But reading on, it appears Ms. Khan made a convenient leap into the future because then we have…
“A few years later, as a late teen, on another trip to Pakistan, my friend Nadia told me that teenagers were having sex; they would go to their houses when the parents weren't home. My older male cousin also told me he knew of a girl who had gotten pregnant.”
Are you sure he wasn’t talking about his mother? Ok that was a little rude but I have to say, considering the sheer volume and scale of the ignorance professed by the cousins and aunts that Ms. Khan periodically enlightens about the birds and the bees throughout her piece, it doesn’t seem like the brightest family ever does it?
“Before my cousin got married, I asked if sex had been explained to her. My aunt said that she had friends who had recently gotten married so they explained it to her. I wanted her to know her rights and that she had the ability to say "no" and that sex is something to be enjoyed for both parties, not just one. There is actually a celebration in Pakistan for consummating the relationship, it's called the Valima and it's held the night after the wedding. It seems so odd that there would be an actual celebration for the consummation, but no real explanation about sex.”
Good point Ms. Khan. Do you think our reluctance to have long, complicated, graphic discussions about the consummation we are celebrating at a Valima has anything to do with the fact that, unlike you, we don’t think talking about sex with our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, strangers etc in a formal, public setting while simultaneously stuffing our faces with korma and biryani is particularly healthy? Or remotely erotic? Or entirely sane?
“I have another friend here who isn't married and when I asked if she knew what sex was, she said she didn't. Even after all these years my mouth still fell open in shock. Our other friend is married, and she just looked at me as if to keep quiet. Pakistan has become more Western in a lot of areas, but clearly not in this one.”Here is what actually happened. Ms. Khan tried that whole rude, intrusive question thing she indicated she had a thing for in the first para again, and a mutual friend shot her a warning ‘wtf is wrong with you shut up’ look. So yes, we in Pakistan are indeed grateful that we are still lagging behind the west in the Munhphat arena.
And now for a handy clue as to why she is so obsessed with the sex lives of others.
“Here, there is no "flirting." I've tried to flirt with men, but normally get told off. Once I was in the car with my aunt, who's a bit conservative, and she noticed me staring at this guy next to us. She told me not to stare as it doesn't look nice. How exactly it doesn't look nice, I don't know, I thought to myself.”
Platonic embraces only
That’s right. You read it correctly. Jeanette Khan wrote ‘here, there is no flirting’ in reference to Pakistan. The country where phool walas flirt with female drivers (overheard at traffic light yesterday ‘main Allah say kuch aur mang layta’), women flirt with vendors (all is fair in love, war and bargaining) and the president flirts with female dignitaries. The mind boggles.
“Sexual expression is fully repressed here, at least in front of families. Sometimes cousins are even kept apart after a certain age to dispel interaction. I'm not allowed to go to my aunt's house without the older family members because she lives in a huge joint-family system where there are a number of young adult unmarried men. I am an unmarried young female. When I do meet these cousins I just bow my head to greet them and that's the extent of our interaction.”Just another day at Meerkat Manor then.
No cousins allowed at this wedding obviously
“That's not to say that men and women don't date. They do, but always clandestinely. I've seen numerous couples and groups of men and women out eating and enjoying themselves.”Yes, being seen in public is exactly what ‘clandestinely’ means.
Then there is a vignette about the time Ms. Khan managed to get "an elder male cousin alone" one day. It involved a lot of cloak and dagger stuff, like his having to sneak out of his grandmother’s house, her father having to cover for her, her running out of their vacation home to his car parked outside the gate. It reads just like a Jane Austen novel, except without the masterful descriptive lyricism, compelling storyline, or interesting characters.
When she finally manages to get aforementioned ‘elder male cousin alone’, “he looked so shocked.”
Rohypnol can do that to a person.
Ms. Khan makes an attempt to contextualize her utter and complete lack of self awareness with the following paragraph:
“The thing is that Pakistan isn't so wholesome sexually when it doesn't want to be. Lahore even has a famous red light district, called Heera Mandi. Men go there and pay a few rupees to sleep with the girls, often young girls who have been kidnapped or have to sell their bodies to make money for their families. Other women are from generations of prostitutes; it's their only way to survive. The thing about it is everyone knows what goes on there, but nothing's really done about it, at least officially.”
So now the readers of The Huffington Post think it costs a few rupees to sleep with a girl in Lahore - Ms Khan’s already tattered credentials are thus irreparably damaged by her misplaced faith in our currency - and that our culture fosters a strong tradition of prostitution while simultaneously doing all it can to keep cousins apart.
A Huffington Post reader arrives in search of good bargains [Photo: Noor Khan]
Her masterful encapsulation of sex in Pakistan ends with the following kernels of wisdom.
“Pakistan is caught somewhere between sexual repression and sexual exploration; only time will tell where it goes next.”
As a Pakistani, I would like you all to join me in a little prayer. May we never have to go to Jeanetteland. Ameen.