What is my queer zenana?

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Zenana is a word used in Urdu, Hindi, and Persian for women’s space.

As Pakistani women, the zenana is a homosocial space of women that we come into contact with so often; that we learn to feel comfortable in; that, as liberal muslims (whatever that means), we criticize as being conservative and prescriptive. And of course, the zenana is created as a controlled space by patriarchy, and of course it has a history of Purdah and upper-classness. What make the zenana special for me, however, is how women reclaim this controlled space to make it their own. I am interested in my own, and other women’s queer-ing of this space. A space that the Abbus and Uncles and Mullahs think is asexual and unworldly and “pure.”

To me, the zenana is a space where women celebrate love and intimacy. It is a space where we heal from our past traumas, and accept our bodies for what they are. For me, it is also a space of erotic encounters, or intertwined bodies, or intimacy and healing that can also at times turn into hatred and betrayal. It is a space of open possibilities that were not given to me in the heterosexual patriarchal middle-class urban environment that I grew up in.

To me, the zenana is the kitchen of my grandparents’ house, where Nani Ammi and her household helpers engaged in intimate conversations despite the glaring class differences between them. It is the living room where all the aunties buzzed loudly during dinners while the men stayed in the more formal drawing room and talked about the economy. It is the nook in the bazaar where two women share an ice cream cone in the Lahore heat, giggling as they win the race with the sun to slurp the ice cream (together). It is my childhood bedroom where boys weren’t allowed, but my “special friend” was always welcome by my family. It is the diasporic space of my dorm in an American college where I discovered the writings of Urdu feminist writers like Rashid Jaan and Ismat Chugtai. It is the safe women’s space where women and femme folks love and heal, in all kinds of ways.


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