Dear young western-educated Muslim sisters: I see you priding yourselves on your “love” choices as you get ready to marry that boyfriend. I see you dancing in the limelight of capitalist delusions as you celebrate how “free” you are of religious and traditional constraints. I hear you demonize my Muslim mother for having consented to an arranged marriage thirty years ago as your talk about your “modern” love. I see you hate on my Muslim grandmother for looking at your boyfriend suspiciously, for refusing to believe the narrative of “freedom” espoused by the younger westernized generation.
Dear smug sisters: my grandma’s suspicion is a lesson in the traps of patriarchy. It is meant to teach us that self-chosen marriages are not inherently liberatory; they are the exact opposite of liberatory because they have us duped into thinking there can be any choice in this capitalist-heteropatriarchal messy world. My mother’s arranged marriage was so much more radical than your “love” marriage: she was under no such illusions when she unsmilingly signed her nikkahnama; she never believed in the emancipatory potential of the neoliberal ideas of free-will and autonomy. And perhaps she can teach you about the oppression that lies under willingly happily entering an institution that commodifies women as property. Perhaps she can show you that illusions of post-patriarchy are even more dangerous than in-your-face patriarchy.
So when you differentiate yourself from those oppressed Muslim women to make your own muslimness palatable to whiteness, know that your willingness to “choose” love cannot even match the strength of my mother’s refusal to love. My mother’s lack of smiles and laughter in her wedding pictures symbolizes resilience. Your smiles and laughter at your wedding symbolizes coercion, a kind of coercion that manifests itself through an arrogant patronizing feminism.
Our educated, westernized, modernized generation is not any less oppressed than the generation of our mothers and grandmothers. Self-chosen “love” marriages are not any different from the older generation’s arranged marriages. They are simply veiled under the dark illusory shrouds of love and choice. But how can there be choice in an act that inadvertently transforms a relationship into a contract in which the woman is an object of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy? My mother understood the inherently patriarchal nature of this institution when she consented to an arranged marriage years ago. My grandmother understood the violent nature of marriage when her consent didn’t even matter years and years ago. These are women who can surely give you lessons in feminism, who can write correctives to your arrogant feminism that privileges Western-capitalist patriarchy over Muslim patriarchy.
Dear “modern” Muslim sisters, this is why certain older women refuse to participate in your contrived happiness. They have a knowledge that is so much deeper and sadder than the theatrical romance fed to us by heteropatriarchal capitalist culture. Despite her lack of English-medium education (or perhaps because of its lack), my grandmother can see the violence in both “arranged” and “love” marriages. So how can you demonize her for eyeing your boyfriend-turned-fiancé with suspicion? My frail aging daadi who recently said to me “shaadi se burri cheez is dunya main koi nahi” knows better than to endorse such false “love choices.”
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.