Zenana is a word used in Urdu, Hindi, and Persian for women’s space.
The zenana is a homosocial space assigned to “women” that we come into contact with so often; that we learn to feel comfortable in; that we feel so out of place 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 cis-hetero-patriarchy, and of course it has a history of Purdah and upper-classness. What make the zenana special for me, however, is how femme and genderqueer people reclaim this controlled space to make it their own. I am interested in my own, and other folx’s queer-ing of this space. A space that the Abbus and Uncles and Mullahs think is asexual and unworldly and apolitical and “pure.”
To me, the zenana is a space where we 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 cisheterosexual patriarchal lahori urban environment that I grew up in. It is a trans-celebratory place where I want to hold space for all non-cis folx, especially ones who are violently excluded from this space based on perceived “manness,” and ones who are violently included in this space based on perceived “womanness.”
To me, the zenana is the kitchen of my grandparents’ house, where Nani Ammi engaged in intimate conversations with other women. 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 space, safe sometimes and violent at others, where we love other queers and ourselves, in all kinds of ways.