Queer Shuttling (first published on Tanqeed)

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Read my full article here:


“I shuttle not only because I am always anxious of others appropriating my narrative, but also because I don’t really know how to process and narrate my queerness, how to come out politically through a narrative that is mine, that refuses to be globalized. Part of the reason for our collective shuttling is our lack of a queer narrative that is local, that is written in our indigenous languages such as Pashto, Balochi, Saraiki, and Balti, that moves beyond mining sufi poetry for (exclusively male) homosexual instances, whose plot line is not given to us by the global allyship of mullah-ism and neocolonialism.

The only way to find a comfortable spot on the bridge, to stop our anxious and at times traumatic shuttling, is to create a different narrative, a narrative outside of LGBT and pride parades, a narrative that fits with our local histories and cultures even as it seeks to challenge them. In a previous Tanqeed article on queerness in Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto astutely points out the need for a language that is specific to Pakistan and one which can do political work without always plummeting into western academic jargon. In addition to finding our own language, we also need to discover and create our own queer stories that defy, or at least lie outside of the, “Born this way” “I don’t have a choice” and “Love is Love” rainbow-washed narratives fed to us by mainstream LGBT America. We need to publicize those stories and write those histories that do not necessarily fit the romance and performance available to us through western cultural productions. Otherwise, we will keep shuttling as the West continues to box us into a development narrative, informing us that we are only 50 years behind, that we will eventually get to their rainbows with the benign help of IMF loans and liberal drones.

We need a narrative that includes our local smells, our local colors, that has the ability to embrace our dupattas, our qawwalis, our jaaman-colored purpled fingertips; one that our aunties can relate to, that does not let our western-educated generation use our privilege against our own communities. So even as I shuttle between dominant American and dominant Pakistani spaces, I dream of the day we won’t have to get our bodies torturously inscribed by the mainstream LGBT machine simply to justify our humanness to others. I dream of the day when we will be able to celebrate intersectional queer movements that are not western, that are not androcentric, that are not even national, but regional and local, that resist Pakistani nationalism as much as they resist western imperialism, that do not fall into the traps of NGOized feminism. Shuttling, after all, is just a painful and urgent call for the day we won’t need the colonizer’s “global” narrative to fight our own families as we justify our right to exist. The contradictions in our current narratives are a plea for a time when resistance will not encompass making violent edits to our own stories, when radical queer work will not involve selectively expunging parts of our own bodies and memories to fit our shuttling politics.”

[“Queer Shuttling” is part of TQ Salon’s series on queerness and the post colony]


Chai Mourning

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I heard about Gulshan-i-Iqbal park when I was wrapped up in my blanket in my warm apartment, oceans away from the carnage and body parts. My immediate response was worry—not about the lives lost but about my family. Having confirmed that everyone I knew was fine, I proceeded to get out of bed and carry out my daily morning rituals. I made alaichi chai, making sure to let the cardamom infused water boil for a long time. I responded to some messages from friends asking about my family, thanked them for their concern, and decided to make myself an omelet with onions and green peppers. Luxuries of a Sunday morning. I made a mental list of the errands I had to run, the electricity bill I had to pay, and the assignments I had to finish for tomorrow. As I sipped my chai, I opened Dawn on my phone, scrolled quickly through the news articles, and glanced at the image with the woman crying. I thought momentarily about how the idea of “women and children” is used by journalists to invite empathy, to amplify the “innocence” of the lives lost; thought about incorporating the images and headlines into a paper I’m writing on the problematic co-optation of women as symbols by nations while broadcasting news about tragedy.

And this is how I forget the real women and children killed, the real Christians in Pakistan who undergo the horrors of existing under religious facism in a country where the sunni Muslims keep sipping their chai; in a country where folks like me never fear that we too will blow up like the suicide bomber with our anger and sorrow. We are devoid of anger, not because we are used to tragedy, but because we know that we will never be the chosen targets of the suicide bomber. We will never have nightmares about finding children’s limbs under heavy metal pieces, we will never fear the monsters unleashed on our religious holidays, we will never live at the literal margins of Lahore. We will text our family members to make sure they weren’t accidentally around Gulshan-i-Iqbal during the unfortunate bombing, we will drink more and more chai as we scroll through the news stories about Islamist militants, and we will continue to do our daily chores. And now and then in the coming week, we will discuss the state of Pakistan, express our contrived grief as we willfully create a rhetoric that highlights the unfathomable brutality of militants and erases the daily oppression lived religious and ethnic minorities. If we are leftist radicals, we will also talk about how our armed forces are not any different from the taliban; how the authorities would not mourn such an attack if “innocent women and children” had been killed in Balochistan by our nawjawan.

And in our condemnation of the militants, the government, the army, the taliban –who selectively target Christians, Hindus, Ahmedis, Balochis, Hazaras etc etcwe will forget that our chores, our schools, our jobs, our academic papers, our smartphones that provide us with latest updates on the bloodbath, are all tools of systems that selectively target those who live at the margins. We will forget that the lives at the margins exist in that periphery because of our complicity, our silence, our forgetfulness, our chai, our ability to calmly chop green peppers for a morning omellete while a Christian woman in Lahore is shaken by recurring visions of her chopped up sister.

Chop chop chop, sip sip sip. I hate chopping vegetables in the morning even though I really like having some color in my omelet. If only I had a bomb in my kitchen to chop up the limbs of the peppers and onions for me.

lessons of love

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the women in my family taught me how to love women by not loving men          no, they are not lesbians or queer or whatever labels you stick onto me, but they refused so wholly           to succumb emotionally to men

the women in my family are embodiments of light because they could not get tied to false ideas of hetero romance           yes, they spat out the lies fed to them by the afsanay they read the films they watched

the women in my family married men for circumstance, not love

and this is not their tragedy but their ferocity

[yes, this is not some sad poem about their oppression but a testament to their battle, to their unwavering courage]

the women in my family have been fighting since they hit puberty, and some even before then, and they do not tire           they labor on and on in the kitchens and bazaars and gardens by closing their hearts to men even when they can’t close their legs, by rising through hardened mud to build suns for their daughters

my mother has held the entire fucking world on her breasts and she still stands straight always             my phuppo learned to make love to god after learning that the man she called husband could only make rape, not love, to her           and my nani has had her head filled with clouds since she got married, and yet she never let it rain            because the women in my family are goddesses whose kisses planted wings on my back, who filled their own voids by loving each other, who taught me to look beyond the hetero romance ideas being drilled into me from all the arenas that were controlled by men

the women in my family taught me the different colors of love, the multiple directions that I can get and give love, the million ways of drinking and savoring and holding love so deep inside me, and none of these teachings           ever involved men

14th August: Kis ki Azadi?

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My grandparents are the only people in my family who lack patriotism. They are also the only people who witnessed partition, who migrated from Indian Punjab to Lahore a few days after the bloody subcontinent was split into a bloody India and an even bloodier Pakistan.

Nana Abu is vocal about questioning this new state-produced, army-generated nationalism that, according to him, does not at all resemble the spirit of those who fought for independence. Nani Ami on the only hand, is silent. She refuses to partake in these celebrations of oblivion, but she also does not correct our misguided understanding of history.

Nana Abu tells me that he finds it difficult to understand why his grandchildren dress up and sing and blow up crackers on the day that only revives traumatic memories of violence and hatred for him. It is easy for him to talk about how his cousin was shot by a Sikh man, and how his family lost all their belongings after their village was invaded by a frenzied mob. But his voice cracks and stumbles when he confesses how he was involved in opening fires on Hindu neighbors, on old friends. How does political rhetoric transform one’s desires, one’s attachments to land and people? I want to ask him this, but I don’t think he knows the answer.

Nani Ami says nothing. There is nothing for her say during partition stories. She was there, she was migrating along with her family, but her worth was murdered as Pakistan was born. Nation, state, army, Jinnah, Islam, Pakistan, all stood up to sow her lips shut. If they could, they would’ve sowed her vagina shut too, to prevent her vulnerable body from bringing shame on Pakistan. 14th August 1947: When my grandmother was rendered non-human. She was made into a mere symbol of religious nationalism that her brothers and uncles and the Muslim League could use for their own nationalistic purposes. Unlike thousands of other women, she reached Pakistan unharmed, untouched by enemy men. She was protected by the freedom fighters because her body was now suddenly Pakistan. They had to protect it –not to spare her of trauma and pain– but to satisfy their honor-obsessed nationalistic appetites.

During these partition stories, Nani Ami only looks up and nods when my aunt mentions how during the war, fathers were willingly burning their daughters’ bodies to “protect” them from rape. I want Nani Ami to elaborate, but she merely keeps nodding.

14th August 1947: When killing daughters seemed a more honorable deed than risking their rape. When different groups of independence fighters threatened each other’s ownership by stealing women.

When chants of La ilaha ilallah rang in the air. What such chants actually screamed: Pakistan ka matlab kya: land is more worthy than a woman. Pakistan ka matlab kya: escape oppression to create a more varied kind of state-sanctioned oppression.

14th August 1947: When Pakistan and India weren’t actually warring for freedom from anyone. They were simply competing to create more oppressions: who could marginalize more and more groups of people? The winner would get ample rewards from the capitalist global economy half a century later.

14th August, this year: We continue to celebrate the freedom of the heterosexual Punjabi patriarchal Sunni man but don’t give a fuck about Balochistan getting plundered by our military forces, or the Afghan immigrants losing their kachay homes at the hands of the state, or the Khwaja Sira folks getting killed and raped and forgotten, or the Ahmedi patients being refused treatment, or the women being shamed and mocked and molested and killed, or about the Dalit communities still entrapped in caste-based violence. 14th August 1947: when certain men fought for “freedom” but didn’t give a fuck about others’ basic right to exist as humans.

14th August 1947: When nationalistic men started to confuse women’s bodies with land. Raping women equaled invading land. Why does nation-incited zeal make men rape?

14th August 1947: When the air rung with low-pitched chants of freedom. Male voices. Male freedom attained by forcefully grinding Nation to Woman until the two merged into a new-found thing called Culture.

14th August 1947: When women were talked about only for the sake of political sensationalism. When women’s bodies were incised by border-making. When even the few progressive men like Manto decided to use narratives of silent raped bodies in order to shock and shame the mainstream, without really doing anything about the silence, about the rape, about their own male gaze. [Sometimes left-wing masculinity is just as toxic as majoritarian masculine nationalism]

14th August 1947: When many manly wars were fought: between the Muslim nationalists and the Hindu nationalists; between the Muslim nationalists and the anti-partition Muslims; between the Muslim nationalists and the Muslim left-wing anti-nationalists. But all these manly wars used women as symbols, as things, as property, as nation, as theories.

So when I talk to Nana Abu, I hear him talk of enmity between Muslims and Hindus, of the unjustifiable violence of both sides, of how war makes one mad. But I do not hear about the erasure of women. I do not hear about how all of this 14th August mess– the nationalistic mess the army reveres as a fight for “justice,” as well as the mess of anti-nation ideology that questions Pakistan’s warped purpose– erased (and still continues to erase) women.

This is why Nani Ami refuses to talk, refuses to cry. Perhaps she knows that if she cried, her pain would be misused to serve another theory of nation and culture. Perhaps she foresees how her narrative would get twisted into one of nation-land and Hindu oppression and la ilaha ilallah. Perhaps she understands that neither the Pakistani state, nor Jinnah, nor Manto, nor her grandchildren with their green and white painted faces really ever cared about her.


to this day,

quiet she remains.

[this piece has been republished on Tanqeed on August 14th 2016. URL:]

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.