Bachpan ka Zenana

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Growing up, my zenana used to the All-Girls School that I attended in Lahore. It was a place full or rules and regulations: about how to dress, about how to behave, about how to talk. The girls in my school had a reputation of being boy-desperate, which is why the teachers regulated our behavior even more. Until O-Levels, the B-word (boyfriend) would raise the teachers’ eyebrows and result in some kind of verbal intervention. Wearing shorts or a strapless sari to a school party would raise more eyebrows, and funnily would also make some girls drool and others jealous.

I remember this place as one of confinement. But the weird policing, and the resistance it inspired in the girls also transformed the place into one of possibilities. It was here that I started to develop a feminist consciousness. It was here that I could engage in intimate friendships with the friends who perhaps meant more to me than I meant to them. But since there were no boys to dominate our gossip and minds, I experienced a wide, wide array of friendships in this pseudo-convent.

I met my first crush in this space. Munazza was a tomboy, with a British accent. And of course my colonized mind found her persona sexy. She and I engaged in all sorts of role-playing eroticism. I would pretend that she was my husband, and I would role-play the wife, since I was the shorter, more petite one in the pair. And during this role-playing, she would let me explore her crevices, her soft spots, her anger at the world, her big big heart that was wide enough to fit every sharp part of me. She and I fought a lot too. We were both young readers of romance fiction (the awful novels of Judith McNaught were our favorites), so we enjoyed romantic drama. We liked sending each other melodramatic songs as dedications. We listened to those songs and cried silently under the sheets. But we never stopped to plan our lives as queer Pakistani women. There was no possibility of that to even make me think that I could live a life with her. Even then I knew that we would end up with men even though we both said “eww” to any mention of shadi. That was the queerish zenana of our girls school. A space where our friendship meant more to us than our brothers’ lives, a space where we held hands and listened to American music to seem cool, where we shared our pubescent angst, but never entertained ideas of living actual queer lives. Everything about me and Munazza was queer—our efforts of gender-bending, our light pecks on each others’ lips behind buildings, our palms exploring the growth of breasts—but our minds weren’t queer. We had no narrative, no role-model available. We were taught Iqbal’s poems, not Ismat Chugtai’s stories in our Urdu classes.

Munazza recently got married. I was not invited. She texted me this a week after her wedding: “hey, guess what lol, you were my first lesbian lover, lol :p”

I imagine that the queer zenanas of young middle-class Pakistani girls who go to English medium all-girls schools is still being covered up with tongue-out emoticons and LOLs. We think that sending cover-ups like LOL’s in messages will take away the intensity, will make the deviant seem okay, will somehow add a layer of comfort to something that we cannot otherwise even articulate. But despite the LOL’s the rush of heat through my stomach is still there, a rush that is evoked not because I still have feelings for Munazza, but because of the tragedy of heteronormativity and marriage-obsession in my culture. I wish I could inject such emoticons and LOLs into my blood stream every time I lose a friend from my first queer zenana to the violent construct of marriage.

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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.