Once upon a time I was called a girl carrying two lemons, and she who said this the most, the one whose lips and deep voice I sensed regularly in my sour soft dreams, would compare my chest to tiny lemons or tangerines or tennis balls. And once she, whose lips and deep voice tickled my daydreams and nightmares and wet dreams, grabbed and squeezed and laughed and mocked, size zero she called me, and the presence of her hands felt so good, and years later, the memory of her hands felt so bad
Once upon a time I stuffed my baby bra with tissues so that her whose lips and voice shook my belly would stop comparing my body to lemons and tiny tangerines/ once upon a time I wished my lemons away after his hands touched me in my sleep and I felt my spirit step out of my body and leave, unable to handle the violence of the thing that the internet told me was “child sexual abuse” and when I got my spirit back the next morning she was broken but silent, and I prayed and prayed and prayed surah falak forever because every night my spirit would get up and leave and it felt so bad every time my body and spirit were torn apart and each shredded into powerless little pieces that pretended to be all-put-together, and years later, when the pieces did reunite again, it felt jarring/ because there are things my body remembers that my spirit has forgotten / amnesia is necessary for survival, she says / no, amnesia is a privilege, my body responds / my spirit is still shook /
Once upon a time a man who I call father and abbu and babajan and king and hero and monster told me it was time to wear a dupatta when I wore a tight kameez because you know I was old now and you know, he was just saying it to protect me from the boys, because you know, his mother had given him special instructions on how to be a good father, and of course his mother meant everything to him because you know, he respected women, because you know it was her womb that birthed his agency, because you know she is my dadi after all, because you know we need to respect our elders, because you know feminism begins at home with respecting our elder women whose faces are etched with cracks of family labor, and you know he was a feminist because he had dedicated his life to being a puppet to an old woman who had seen so much violence, and you know its just a dupatta, just a piece of cloth, just an accessory, stop making it a big deal
Once upon a time there was a boy who kept looking at the lemon-like burdens I carried and I felt myself wanting a dupatta, wanting a chaadar, wanting to be naked, wanting a bandook, wanting a grenade, wanting an atomic bomb planted deeply under my ribcage that would blow up in his face as he looked and looked and looked and looked and — ha ha ha my bomb-breasts would explode into sharp shreds implanted in his destroyed face-rubble ha ha ha
Once upon a time my spirit felt like she owed too much to my broken body so I bought myself a low-cut shirt and a pushup bra in unprocessed efforts to reattach my body to my self to my spirit to my life. Once upon a time I thought that I needed to show the world that I could carry two sexy breasts and that the things over my ribs were my own to own, my own to fuck with, my own way to take away the violence embedded deep in the pores of my bulging skin, and so to honor my body, my spirit started to love the word breasts so much I would say it over and over again breasts breasts breasts breastsbreastsbreasts and let the stss sound hiss through my mouth through my vagina through my armpits through my ribcage through my utterances of surah falak
Now that child who giggled with thoughts of bombing boys straddles labels of gender clinging to my hips, undoes feminism handcuffed to my ankles, unravels the violence hanging heavily from my chest. but I still have wet dreams of her lips and deep voice mocking my size zero breasts, and I still have nightmares of his hands tearing apart spirit from body. Wa min sharri ghasikin iza wakab
Now my spirit is learning, is in awe of the spirits around me who also trans-ed out of rage, whispering surah falak, and binding my chest and gelling my hair back. Dupatta-hands-fingers-mockery-violence- – have culminated into – – Binder. I wonder if sexual violence turned me queer, and brush away the thought. I wonder if healing from sexual violence turned me trans, and brush away the thought. I run my fingers over my chest feeling the flatness, feeling the fantasies and dreams and nightmares living underneath my ribcage, and brush away my need to connect cause with effect, and step into this life feeling a little more attuned, a little less panicked, a little more weaponed, a little less armored
/Once upon a time I ran away from my gender because boy meant violence/
/But now I am becoming boy to avenge all the boys who made me run away from my gender/
Every time I enter a queer of color space with my clicks and my bowtie, I hear the words “community” and “family.” The two words that hold so much pain for folks like us. The two words that capture all the times our blood families alienated us, all the times our cultures rejected us. The two words that are supposed to shove this alienation and rejection back into the face of this white cishet world, and finally allow us some healing. With others.
But you know, when I hear “community” and “family,” the two words that are supposed to heal and refresh and decolonize me, I feel even more alienated. That is why I make up imaginary friends when I’m talking to the queer folks I meet at woke events. That is why I pretend to be all comfortable in my bowtie, even when my skin is crawling into my lungs. When I hear these two words, I feel a new kind of queer shame, one that is not caused by cis hetero culture but by the queer folks who assume that I too, must have a chosen family.
But I don’t. Most days, I feel utterly alone. No, I do not have twenty queer muslim friends living close to me who can come over anytime. No, I do not even have ten queer friends far away from me who I can have a heart-to-heart skype session with. And this is not just because I am a terribly anxious person. This is because I do not know how to find a new queer of color family. Because I do not have the energy to create new community ties when it’s trying so fucking hard to maintain the ones that were forced upon me.
And mostly, this is because I am out of balance: I am full of a painful love for a family that suffocates me with their normativity, and full of a painful emptiness for other queers who revel with their chosen families in their non-normativity.
My dear fellow queers who have found a queer of color family, this is not an attack. This is a confession. This is a confession that when I see another person like myself—so queer, so muslim, so brown—lean so comfortably on so many folks, I feel jealous. I feel jealous because I don’t have what you have. I feel jealous because I can’t have what you have. But mostly, I feel jealous because I am supposed to have what you have. I am supposed to have a chosen family, I am supposed to have queer of color friends, I am supposed to have a community that sustains me, I am supposed to have folks who pull me out of this depressive shell. I am supposed to survive it all, collectively.
Sure, I have some online queer muslim and PoC friends. Sure, I know some queer folks in different parts of the world. Sure, I sometimes have someone I can “connect” with to talk about politics, and perhaps even go to a protest with. But this is not family. These connections don’t heal when I feel like the world is thinning me. These connections don’t comfort when I’m crying over her departure. These connections don’t validate when I feel guilty for lying to my mother. These connections don’t laugh, or hang out, or weep, or listen. They are mere connections after all. Not “family” or “community.”
So my queer fellows with chosen families, stop shoving these two words down my throat. I am already living within the ever-enclosing ball of queer loneliness, but your assumptions and your prescriptions fill me with a different kind of alone, one that is terrified of your pity, and ashamed of existing in this queer loneliness.
Read my full article here: http://www.tanqeed.org/2016/07/queer-shuttling-tq-salon/
“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]
Despite the borders and histories and impossibilities etched into our lives, I still plan for when I’ll introduce you to Lahore and Lahore to you. I think you both would be able to share wounds, admire each other’s earrings, enjoy some alaichi chai
Your brown would look so beautiful surrounded by Lahore’s, but I’ve told myself over and over again that you and Lahore are not meant to meet, that sometimes circumstances are just so queer that even the safest softest closets cannot straighten them
But I plan still
To show you the long legs of Maall Road with the kind of stubble I know you’ll find sexy for its i-don’t-give-a-fuck flair; to slide with you into the inner crevices of the reddened walls of purana Lahore and spot that one blue kite flying amidst the orange heat; to feel the moist sponginess of the monsoon air; to tickle the erect tips of Badshahi Masjid’s minarets; to kiss with our mouths open and catch the smoke of centuries on our tongues—you see, when it comes to Lahore, even the clichés feel so good
When it comes to Lahore, even the most mundane act amongst sullied roads becomes a romantic cliché
Like the ice cream cone from the roadside stand in Liberty bazaar I so deeply want to share with you, watch the whiteness of the cream diffuse into your tongue, watch you hold the cone as I recount to you how getting ice cream from a street stand became my favorite thing to do in the evenings, tell you how I used to imagine eating that ice cream off of you, tell you that there is no better place to fantasize about our sex than amidst honks and dupattas and aging rickshaw cylinders
You see, when people ask me if I was born with the queer gene or if something ruined me later in life, I want to tell them that I was born into queer by being born into Lahore. You see, there is something so deliciously feminine about this city that the strength of it lingers on my tongue months after I leave it
Perhaps the intricacies and difficulties and love of Lahore have taught me to taste you properly, to travel through your crevices and find your tender spots, have taught me that the walls that guard your heart are made with the toughest red bricks but can soften up with a glance, that there is so much rare beauty in your layers and nuances and shadows (the kind that fell asleep and buried itself deep in my lungs (the kind that makes me smile every time I smoke and see clouds of you coming out of me))
So when I told you I love your rawness, this is what I meant: that perhaps you remind me of a place that is so bruised and bold, but so delicious and sweet still, whose femininity swallows buildings and bazaars but gags on men—refusing to take them in— the unswallowable men who colonize, terrorize, globalize, the men who force us into an exhausted rage
So when I want to bring you to this city perhaps I just want you to feel that something deep within Lahore— despite its men, despite its visible upper class, despite its global bullshit— is in solidarity with our love
i am tired/ of shuttling between the binaries of mullah and white/ of defending the worst parts of me my history my trauma/ of constantly laboring to shatter stereotype to complicate your simplistic reductive bullshit that makes me want to give up the parts of me that are meant to be the most radical
your mullah, your imam, your man who holds hadiths like knives makes me defend the feminist movements that have harmed my mother my grandmother my aunties, makes me suck up to your imperialism, sows my mouth shut when the white cis gay man shrouds me in this rainbow veil/ i do not know how to critique the neoliberalism and colonialism behind feminist and queer movements when my womanhood and queerness is being charred slowly by the sparks of the holy quran/ in the name of god who is most merciful and kind but only in his tyrannical ways
your white, your western, your liberal makes me defend the religion the culture the traditions that i always ran away from, makes me suck up to all things islam, sows my mouth shut when my own brown men shroud me under their protective possessive violent gaze/ i do not know how to critique surah nisa and the thirteenness of khadija-zainab-saffiya-ayesha-etc.etc. behind the faith that has protected me against the swords of whiteness that do not slay, but only probe me slowly split my skin slowly/ you don’t kill straight-up you maim bruise torture me islamophobia
i’ve had enough of this shuttling/ of defending the violence of my brown muslim men in the face of your islamophobia, of defending the colonial violence and prescription of my western-educated feminism and queer liberation in the face of your blasphemy laws/ i am tired of shuttling between your islamophobia your blasphemy your mosque that pushes women to the back your fucked up imperialism your pinkwashing your homonationalism/ when will i give up this defending this justifying this explaining this educating/ when will i finally give up this body, this womanness, this ism, this islam, this muslimness, this brown queer bullshit that is supposed to make me radical but only makes me want to/ wash away my brown, tear apart my quran, vomit out my womyn my queer my desire, and surrender to you/ all of my shields and all of my explanations and all of my contrived broken strength
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
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.