Thursday, December 17, 2009

How Not To Write About Sex in Pakistan

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.

Here’s another:
“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:]

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.


Mariam Shah said...

Brilliant! I laughed my ass off! Thank you!!

Nothingman said...

Wow, that was a looooooong post. I skipped the last few paragraphs :P

It's all funny, really but then again i really don't know.


Nabeel said...

Hahaha,brilliant post!

To be fair to the Newsline writers, they probably tried too hard not to be controversial and went academic, but then the editor realized that it was way too dull and inserted that opener about frosted diamonds and kinky sex.

Jeanette Khan,as obvious,failed in her best attempt to improve an infertile area of discussion in Pakistan :P

Anonymous said...

I was hoping for some curry when I come to Pakistan.

ishma said...

I LOVED THIS REVIEW/RANT! I saw the Newsline and debated about buying it, then thought (and turns out, correctly) that it would be tedious and exhausting.

A for effort to Newsline, though.

Ali said...

"courageous as their attempt might be, Newsline was choosing to duck a ball by euphemistically representing rape as ‘forced sex’."

This is completely untrue. Take a look at the cover at the link below.Rape is clearly mentioned, and in a much larger type set than forced sex.

Nida said...

The articles: Extremely sad reflection of journalism--especially the Huffington Post one.
Your commentary: Absolutely brilliant, hilarious, insightful, and sarcastic!

Great Post!!! I LOVED IT!

Philistine said...

Most awesome :)

Sohaib said...

uff allah, itni berukhi, itna ghussa?

Mohsin Siddiqui said...

I was about to start writing about the Khan article in some depth, but you beat me to the punch. This is one of the funniest pieces I've read in a very long time--I don't know who you are, but based on your commentary, I suspect we could very easily be(come) friends!

Only in a clandestine sort of way though, after we spend a few hours spinning a web of lies in order to get a cup of coffee. Obviously.

Aaminah Haq said...

I kinda thought that a decade ago when I used to write my Girlfriday articles, it was assumed that us "fast girls" get around and most of us were having sex(makes you think of the 90's song). Anyhow, thank you for writing this, now if someone would only hold a Sex March to save our souls..........

Omar R Quraishi said...

fukin hilarious

Ambareen said...

Brilliant article!

adeel said...

frickin brilliant job.

the Janette Khan post deserved to be blown to pieces...

Khizzy said...

oh God...i'm just going to copy paste what i wrote on a friend's FB page when he posted this(also in disgust):

"and how old is she? this honestly sounds like a 15year old telling her American friends all about the third world country called "PackisTan".
and she's obviously confusing social etiquette with being 'oh so super conservative'. we're SO narrow minded because we don't go around asking people if they're virgins, but she's really liberal and burdened by the 'intricateness'(intricacy?) of socializing with cousins here.

we should really stone her. because you know...thats what we do to outspoken women here. lol."

the only thing that bugs me more than the article is the fact that she will never know how many people have called her out on this piece. she'll never be told how stupid and ignorant she sounded. And Americans who read her sensationalist piece will just nod to themselves over their Starbucks cafe mochas and be satisfied that atleast they know one more thing about PackisTan that they didnt see on CNN or BBC.

Angela said...

I agree largely that the quality of the writing and research targetted here is poor, but it will probably always be thus when written from the outside.

Where are the Pakistani feminists to give a more accurate view?

If anyone has a link or book recommendation, i'd love to read some more insightful views of what i am sure are real issues, somewhere amongst the nonsense quoted.

Natasha said...

Brilliant! LOL. What a fun read.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't stop myself from chuckling whilst reading the last bit.

Sumeet said...

Simply brillaint

Saad Ghauri said...

Amazing, just amazing writing

Bolshevik said...

"A Huffington Post reader arrives in search of good bargains"


Majaz said...

What a ridiculous, ridiculous article. Huffpost seems to think THIS was worthy of publishing, my God. I didn't go through the tags, I wonder if it was a part of their 'spotlight on Pakistan' series and if this 'enlightened' young woman is a part of their 'experts' on Pakistan.

I'm not amused. Just pissed.

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Hyder said...

'you lost me at paradigm'!

Anonymous said...

Talk about covering sex. Read today in the News Karachi city pages how a sex abuse victim is "celebrated" as a Karachi Walla. So much to be proud of, na?

Faiza said...

I can't stop laughing - and this is after reading the post multiple times. (Esp. when I get to the last photo caption...)
This is insanely brilliant and spot on.

asad said...

to be honest, i haven't read either article, but i don't really see much substance in the criticisms here regarding jeanette khan's article, given the excerpts that you've referenced.
most people in pakistan don't actually have regular access to the internet. besides that, it's mostly in english. i also wouldn't think the internet's a very reliable source for sex-self-education.
to me, some of the criticism just seems based on semantics, or constructing far-fetched scenarios - it's fairly clear she didn't mean that people really should talk about sex at the valima! also, if two friends were to talk about sex, 'do you know what sex is?' seems a logical starting point.
from the comments, it seems like a lot of people have the same criticisms. maybe i'm just missing something.

stumblingmystic said...

This is utterly brilliant. I'll be following your blog more regularly. Well done and thank you for writing this!

Bolshevik said...

Anon1222 said:

Talk about covering sex. Read today in the News Karachi city pages how a sex abuse victim is "celebrated" as a Karachi Walla. So much to be proud of, na?

Itnee "anonimosity"? :-P Tabyat kharaab nahi huee aap ki itna bughz paal ker?

"Karachi walla", as the name suggests, is about people from Karachi -- their stories. We carry pieces about famous people with interesting stories, and not-so-famous people whose stories we think need to be told. To think that this section is merely about celebrities is the height of bimbo-ness.

PS: "Sex abuse" kia hota hai? Are you claiming, like some postmodernist feminists do, that all sex is, by its very nature, abusive? If that's what you're saying, then you're even more of a bimbo than I initially thought. If you aren't saying that, then the correct term is "sexual abuse" or plain "rape".

PSS: Also, surviving something as monstrous as sexual abuse, and coming out of it a stronger person, IS something to be proud of. Or are you one of those who think that rape "taints" a person / makes them "impure", etc? If that's the case, here's a slogan for you to chew on: "Mullahgardi nahi chaleygi -- nahi chaleygi!" :-P

Nadia said...

Brilliant takedown. I laughed my head off and I'm subscribing to this blog.
Re Jeanette Khan not knowing how many ppl think she's got it all wrong, you could always comment at HuffPo or write to them with a link to this post.

Khizzy said...

@Nadia: i tried to comment on her post,(had to go through a full registration process) but they'd shut down comments by then. i'm sure many others like us had already tried.

Anonymous said...

valima DOESNOT mean the bride n groom had sex last night

blueroses said...

So how DOES one write about sex? Ever-elusive, that. Hilarious article, though.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Asad.
Also, you are being as one sided and the HP girl. Instead of indulging in some intellectually stimulating discourse and looking and pros and cons of the Newsline article, you have come across as someone trying to show off their own command over English vocabulary (thanks to the colonialists). Not defending the girl at all.....don't like her at all either... but I do commend Newsline for trying to publish something and get the conversation started. That is what the problem is in (Paa)kis(taan). Can't write one thing about sex without the Mullah's starting a protest, burning buildings, and the psuedo intellects, with copious free time on their hands, running to their computers and scrutinizing the article to the bone and taking offense at every sentence on how is was written. Please, if you are uncomfortable with the newsline article, why don't you tell us in another blog post how conversations and articles in about sex in Pakistan should go? And no fairytales please. We all fight stereotypes everywhere in the world about Pakistan but sometimes I feel we are habitual whiners and always complaining what the West makes out of our country. It is time to grow up accept some harsh and common (maybe not in your circle but Pakistan does have a 60% rural and uneducated population you know) and at the least let conversations run free. There will be good and bad conversations obviously but you cannot muffle the voices (and tell them to shut up because they are stupid and hypocritical like we used to do to other kids in grade school) just because you decidedly take offense to it.....that is true freedom.

SSM said...

Let me just say that I think you are right. Let us talk about sex baby, lets talk about all the good things, not that bad things that may be. So if we are going to blow the lid off sex, let's start with interviewing you. What is your favourite position? How many times do you do it? What's your secret fantasy?
If you dont want to blow the lid off on your own sexual habits, perhaps you can inform us about others who may not mind answering these questions....

Kazim said...

Aa gaya hai tey cHaa gaya hai -- tHa kar kay.

Faria said...

I love the Newsline dictionary. Slut, kinky sex, sexual habits.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ugly Wornout Shoelace said...

Wow! Well-written!

Poor Miss Jeanette is dumb! Why would they post such a ridiculous article?

Anonymous said...

freakin hillarious!Brilliant job. Long, but the parts i read were great! I came accross another blog that talks about paksex - they have pictures too, so its kinda fun. I don't know if you are brave enough to read more about 'some feminist writing about Pakistani sexuality'

chek it out if u have the patience, I enjoyed it.

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Bolshevik said...

ROTFLOL @ the last comments above. HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!! :-D

Anonymous said...

Sarkaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar. Hosla, hosla.

This was brilliant.

Ishq Zaada said...

wah ji wah bara pasand kiya hai bachiyo ne article beta personal experience bol rha hai ya knowledge ahem ahem, sabar sakoon hosla hi to nahi hota haaayeee warna itney barey barey articles kon likhta jis pe guzarti hai wohi bolta hai :D