On Desire and Objectification

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If we must extend the umbrella of the word “queer” to all places and cultures, then we must also realize that being queer and doing queerness looks different in different places, since the normative is different in different spaces. Even within urban Pakistan, class and cultural capital allows for a certain kind of normative. I am always surprised when the coming-of-age stories of my fellow queer Pakistanis resemble so much the stories of American queer kids. I think that such story-telling stems from the narratives that are available to us. Since we have no way of understating queer coming-of-age other than the western ideas of “coming out of the closet” and “feeling attracted to the same sex,” we start to narrate our stories similarly. We begin to argue that are we are, like all queer folks around the world, “born gay” (as if our desires were coded into our genes in the uterus) even though at times we may not believe such narratives ourselves.

Since a long time I have been trying to understand my own queer coming-of-age as a woman who grew up in a relatively privileged urban environment of Pakistan where the normative was not the pure virginal Islamic, but the pseudo-western and hybrid ways of doing romance. In my normative environment, the social codes were written by a mixture of western music and films, Hum TV drama serials, classic British fiction or trashy romance novels, the Quran and hadith, and of course, Bollywood.

I realized that I was queer not when I started to accept my desire for women, but when I realized that I could not like boys the way my friends did. It was not a realization of lesbianism or uh, homosexuality (I cringe every time I use this word). It was a realization of failure. Failure to participate in the societal fantasies that are so ingrained in us from TV and romance fiction and pop music and Bollywood. Failure to dream about being a dulhan, about having a fancy wedding—and this was not because the 14 year old me was critical of the wedding industry at that time (I had no anti-capitalist consciousness then), but because I thought I could not feel. I could not feel the way my friends felt about boys and marriage. I could not participate in the excitement over a boy’s love note, or a rose, or a valentine’s day gift of chocolates (we all were too young to understand clichés then).

Therefore, my queer journey began from a sort of asexuality. I could not like boys; and my burgeoning feminism made me resistant to chivalry; resistant to saving sad girls oppressed by their fathers. This inability to actualize my romance fantasies cast me as a failure. I failed to attract, and I failed to desire. Even when I learned what lesbianism was, even when I realized that I liked a girl in a very intense, non-normative way, I was resistant to transferring the cultural fantasies of romance (in which one party woos and the other is wooed) to her.

Having been a victim of so much traumatizing sexualization and objectification, I did not want to look at women sexually. I thought that simply wanting a woman meant objectifying her. I was not taught a way to desire and love that could not sexualize and commodify, that could love without intruding upon her body. So I told myself again and again that I was asexual. That I would not participate in either culture: the romance fantasies with boys, or the erotic desire for women.

This is the tragedy of our culture. Children are not taught the difference between respectful consensual erotica, and intrusive and abusive objectification. Growing up, I thought being “liked” by someone was to be gazed upon by male eyes. And that meant being stripped naked, being pierced into, being penetrated by their violent gazes. So I thought “liking” someone else meant I had to do the same to desire “correctly.” In a patriarchal culture, the proper form of desire is the objectifying male gaze. Proper or real sex is porn, not shared consensual intimacy. And of course, the woman is always used for the man’s pleasure. As a queer woman, I thought that practicing my sexual desires would mean that I had to use a woman’s body for my own fantasies. That I had to look her up and down, to notice her breasts, to imagine her naked, to whistle at her as she walked down the street, to imagine what lay under her kameez. So of course, as a feminist, my own desires repulsed me. Desire turned into self-hate—not because I felt guilty the way my fellow Muslim queer folks did—but because I thought that desire for a woman was incompatible with my feminism.

When we can’t distinguish discomfort from excitement, trauma from pleasure, and erotica from pornography, there is no way we can fully give and receive love. In a world without sex education, and without education about the difference between sexual violence and sexual pleasure, we will never be able to heal from trauma, or allow others to heal through love. Being “in love” will always be violent, and “loving” will always be purely asexual. Even now, many years after my first desire/objectification dilemma, I still worry if I am dancing on the fine line of abuse/love. Despite regular communication with my partner, I still wonder if I am unable to understand fully the difference between the kind of desiring gaze makes one feel forcefully stripped, and the desire that makes one feel beautiful and safe. There is still so much I have to unlearn. I guess this is a queer feminist life: a constant and active struggle to unlearn all social codes that we are always, always implicated in.

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Gay Pride 2015

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My kolapuri is not tough enough to walk this

Mile-long march of rainbows and glitter and flamboyant-oriental dances

It gets stuck now and then, in the rubble of the Nepali dust where

Brown women’s feet and breasts are crushed into one mouth-shaped organ that screams

Through the slabs of sharp concrete and earth-smelling darkness

To their children as the rainbow hoisting men adopt brown babies

Oh so very nicely

(and his still-burning cigarette slips through the cracks of concrete into the open mouth of a rubble-mother)

Go on, save my brown baby and leave my feet camouflaged in the debris

Make scarves and saris out of your rainbow flags, make rainbow fags out of my bruised tongue

—go on, steal the colors

Of this kolapuri.

My baby is covered in a white blanket to blend into the

arms of a macho gay man and you all sing

You sing praises for him while I moan elegies for my baby, lived and saved.

My kolapuri has all the glitter and shine and dance that you

Profit from oh so very nicely

But you– you do not see these intricate sequins sewed on Sindhi cloth,

The multiple hues of vegetable dyes painted on the

worn out soles that bear the weight of baby and mother,

These are the wrong kind of colors for your pride.

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.

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.