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Sexual ‘Liberation’ and Class Struggle in Contemporary Pakistan

Sexual ‘Liberation’ and Class Struggle in Contemporary Pakistan


Four years ago, Vice published an essay I wrote on Pakistan’s “hook-up culture.”

Initially upon submission, the piece was less of a personal essay and more of an informative one. However, if there is one thing I have learned, it is that Western media loves publishing people of colour’s narratives and compensating them poorly and unfairly for it while casting South Asian sex communities as regressive or backwards. By finding an ‘ally’ from conservative South Asian circles who resists their own culture, the West absolves themselves from the responsibility of shaming these cultures (that would be racist!).

When my story “What I Learned Having Sex as a Young Woman in Pakistan” was published on Vice, I wasn’t ready for the aftermath. My piece explored consensual, heterosexual sex from a privileged Pakistani woman’s perspective, and discussed topics ranging from male hypocrisy, hiding from our parents, and the Hudood Ordinance. I had written the article naively, unaware that it could spread like a virus; for four weeks, I woke up to thousands of notifications. I experienced a range of emotions, answering interviews at ungodly hours, and entertaining book offers, the kind of attention I’m sure many aspiring writers try to attain.

The article Zara Haider penned for Vice in 2016

“I did not write this piece specifically to highlight my sexual experiences, or to become a celebrity!” is what I would say to swarms of people and journalists.

I was a South Asian girl, filled with warranted rage, trying to find a way to heal her wounds by sharing them with the world, which can be a cathartic but risky endeavour. I didn’t monetise from the article because it was simply a piece about rage and resistance. But the reality is, it was a piece that centred my emotions, and left out the experiences of poor women, trans women and sex workers in Pakistan.

Coping with the chilling aftermath

After a whirlwind two months, I began sinking into a deep depression, which I concealed under the guise of being high-functioning. Then, Qandeel Baloch died. Shortly before her death, an informant of mine whose family is intimately involved with the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence), told me a specific Islamic group wanted two women dead; one was me, the other was Baloch, who was murdered by her brother on July 15, 2016, in their family home.

An article on Qandeel Baloch’s murder from the BBC

Karo-Kari, “honour killing,” a term the West has enjoyably lapped up, is no different from domestic violence cases or homicide; Karo-Kari is premeditated gender-based violence. Baloch was made fun of by many on social media for simply, courageously, and unapologetically being herself. Society was so terrified of a woman’s power, of her claiming control of her own body and agency, that it triggered a violent frenzy of insecurity and inadequacy . In Pakistan, a woman choosing to embrace her sexuality or her agency can result in disownment, both public and private shaming, physical mutilation, emotional abuse, and even her death through murder or suicide. But do all women who step out of the box face the same end as Qandeel?

Why I wrote the article

I wrote the article, not because I embrace or value Western ‘liberal’ ideas, but because I was enraged and felt defeated by the violence men had inflicted upon my body and the bodies of other women I loved and admired.

DW writes about violence against women IN Pakistan

From the age of seven (perhaps even younger, I have no recollection), men made it clear to me that my body belonged to them and that it was theirs to colonise. Whether it was sexually, emotionally, or materially, there was always a strict reign of control on me by the men who surrounded me; whether they were in the family or not. I was struggling to maintain my silence and the anger that had accumulated in my body; I wanted to encourage a discourse about women’s sexuality and the burden of shame tied in with patriarchal hypocrisy.

That article was a culmination of everything I had endured and witnessed up till that point.

My story – the whole truth

My rebellion didn’t start with that article, as a teenager I began to rebel to the point that my father felt there was no choice but to take me for a psychiatric evaluation. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (which later turned out to be a misdiagnosis, a common one for those who, instead, have Complex PTSD). Instead of trying to figure out why I was behaving the way I was, my father simply sought to fix the problem, and failing that, discard the cause of that problem: me.

What I know now is that gendered gaslighting has occurred for far too long, where a woman is shamed, told she is “unruly” and perhaps even “psychotic” for her resistance.

While my Vice article succeeded in making me look like a “strong”, “brave”, and non-conforming South Asian woman; it lacked the truth about my own sexual trauma.

When I was sixteen years old, my father, with whom I had lived for seven years at the time, exited my life. He was physically unwell and decided he was incapable of caring for his rebellious teenage daughter. I still remember the day I was sent to live with my maternal grandmother, a day drenched in uncertainty and regret. During this time, I felt extreme patriarchal rejection and abandonment. I remained in a state of ambivalence for quite some time, unknowing whether I was loved at all because my father insisted (an insistence so strong that it resembled parental kidnapping) on having me with him for most of my young adolescence. But on a foggy and crisp January afternoon, I had become an inconvenience to him; I began to self-harm through drinking alcohol and smoking hash, anything to quieten the voices in my head, suggesting I was ‘defected’ and not ‘good enough.’

It was during this period of my life I decided to have sex for the first time (mind you, I had sex much later than many in my social circle, mostly due to a desexualised sense of self). It resulted in more rejection because the person I engaged with, who was an old friend and reassured me of my safety — fell completely disinterested afterwards. Once again, the shame erupted and felt like a violent burning. What propelled me to have sex in the first place was an indifference; a few months before this, someone I was dating within my social circle (whom I will refer to as J) sexually assaulted me. And it was because of this sexual trauma and having my agency stripped away from me that compelled me to let go. I cared little for the romanticised notion of sex and with my “f*** it” attitude, I did it to fill a void.

The Express Tribune reports on sexual violence in Pakistan

J took advantage of me in the passenger’s seat of his car. We had been at a mutual friend’s party in Islamabad until I realised how late it was and urged J to drop me home to my Nani’s as quickly as possible. On the way home, I passed out in the car, quite drunk – being drunk is not an anomalous experience for young and privileged Pakistanis. He managed to remove all of my clothing and violated my body in ways I had never felt before. The pain raised me to consciousness, and I immediately kicked him off of me while screaming, threatening to call my father and have J arrested. I was fifteen, and he was nineteen. The pre-existing shame that inhabited my body began to boil into a fury; not only because he had assaulted me, but because at the time, my boundaries around not being ready for a sexual relationship were cataclysmically disrespected.

Ironically and shockingly, half a decade later, J was engaged to  someone who was very close to me, and with whom I had always felt a sense of safe, womanly understanding. She refused to believe my story of sexual assault; her relationship with J ended, but she and I have not reconciled. I now also understand that women who silence or normalise other women’s sexual assault stories are contributors to patriarchal violence, and these contributions can be more subtle, such as fearing no-one will marry her daughter for being too fat or dark-skinned, or shaming other women by gossiping about them. However, these behaviours are not limited to South Asian women and depend on different socio-economic intersects.

The reason behind the number

The words “dozen guys” echoed in my social media comments and inboxes. “She had sex with a dozen guys, what a [insert misogynistic slur]!” To address those who shamed me for mentioning a number, or for telling me I “shouldn’t have mentioned a number at all,” I have one question to ask: why does the number matter so much? I wrote “almost a dozen,” because my logic had assumed that the quantity was irrelevant, yet I was severely mistaken. Does society think that the more men a woman has sex with, the more she is tainted, unworthy, and less deserving of respect?

What the article didn’t mention: women on the peripheries of social acceptance

While I felt the need to tell my story on my own terms, I realise I have responsibilities towards women who break traditional conventions around sex in Pakistan, and I didn’t touch upon these responsibilities let alone mention them in my previous article. ‘Purity’ and ‘virginity’ are both constructs, meaning neither of those things truly exist because they have been constructed as a tool to govern bodies and sexualities throughout patriarchal domination. How is it that a woman’s anatomy is such an important — if not essential — symbol of her worth? Many cisgender women are born without a hymen, and many tear the tissue in prepubescent years through physical activity or sexual assault, but unfortunately, due to the patriarchal nature of our society, it is regarded as a symbol of ‘purity’.

An excerpt from The Guardian’s article ‘The transgender women on the trail of Pakistan’s missing children’

Acceptance in selected circles

Another aspect I find relevant to address was the idolisation I received from cis-gender, heterosexual brown women, mostly from upper-class communities. But my article was not representative of the violence and marginalisation the queer and trans community in Pakistan face. I possess an exemplary amount of privilege to have experienced “hooking-up” in Pakistan the way that I did, with access to resources, birth control, and no-questions-asked type attitudes.

More so, I am privileged to be in a position where I felt courageous enough to create a conversation about sex and its societal repercussions, without fearing the consequences I would have to tackle on a personal scale (whilst compromising my mental health). Many queer and trans-Pakistanis, similar to religious minorities, cannot share their sexual experiences for public consumption without fear, and instead are criticised for giving into ‘identity politics.’

In Nivedita Menon’s essay How Natural is Normal? Feminism and Compulsory Heterosexuality, she writes:

“Caste, race and community identity are produced through birth. So too is the quintessentially modern identity of citizenship. The purity of these identities and social formations and of the existing regime of property relations is protected by the strict policing and controlling of women’s sexualities. Thus, the family as it exists, the only form in which it is allowed to exist — the heterosexual patriarchal family — is key to maintaining both nation and community […] In other words, challenging patriarchy, capitalism and anti-democratic forms of identity politics is inescapably linked to challenging the naturalisation of the heterosexual family.”

What exactly is ‘normal’ and who gets to decide?

Menon discusses how the patriarchy requires institutions of “compulsory” heterosexual family dynamics to survive. Sexual identities were more fluid in pre-colonial South Asia, and the coerced normalisation of a heterosexual identity was enforced as part of colonial modernisation. What exactly is ‘normal’ and who gets to decide? Queer theorists have attempted to highlight that the violent and discriminatory term “natural” has been constructed, i.e., made up, to keep specific social reforms and practices in place. The longer a social norm is enforced, the more likely people are going to conform to it. Yet, those who have enough resources and possess a particular type of privilege can remain unseen and unmarked in regard to their gender and sexuality.

Filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s ‘Darling’ – a short film on identity, theatre and dance featuring a trans lead – won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at the 76th Venice Film Festival 2019. Excerpt from DAWN Images.

An example is the elite queer community in Pakistan, who have the resources to feel safe within their sexualities, or at least the funds to travel to the West to do so. Within the context of my social class, accepting someone’s queer identity is an unspoken agreement — however, due to their own parental pressure, forcing oneself into heterosexual marriage is common. The lower-class queer and trans community, of course, does not have the same privilege and are more exposed to community violence, particularly Kothis (a feminized male identity). Hijra is not interchangeable with transgender, because they are born intersex, and the Hijra community have their own culture, explains Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan in their publication Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India. Labels deem what “natural” is and what is not, and this caters to binary-thinking and marginalisation.

How my views have changed four years later

At the time of the article’s publication, I was twenty-two — and my views were not as nuanced as they are now, nor was I aware of my privilege. While my article portrayed the experiences of women from upper-class Pakistani communities – and many did thank me for making them feel ‘seen’ – my experience is not a generalisation of the Pakistani woman’s experience as a whole; women from lower socioeconomic strata have different problems when it comes to sex, including lack of education, safety, etc. The film Mughal-E-Azam depicts the symbolic dehumanisation that has occurred towards courtesans (tawaif), yet mujra is a large part of Pakistan’s cultural production. Courtesans from Heera Mandi were widely respected and were considered the cultural elite of Pakistan before the transcending of cultures, globalisation, pornography and a redefinition of what prostitution is ‘supposed’ to be.

Excerpt from Dawn Prism

Conditional acceptance and understanding extramarital sex in Pakistan

Growing up, I knew young men who visited sex workers at their brothels, and the same men would later take their upper-class girlfriends to one out of two of Islamabad’s five-star hotels. Those who lacked the connections or finances needed to obtain a suitable temporal ‘space’ would instead go to a guest house or park their car in an isolated spot. And some couples would engage in what is referred to by them as “wife-swapping” or collective sex. I know this because I know these men.

However, sex is often unrecognised for its nuances within the heterosexual community; it is mostly accessible healthily and safely to those with class privilege — many women choose to refrain from having sex, some are raped and are uneducated on consent, so it is normalised for generations to come. Some women are involuntarily impregnated, contract harmful STIs and do not have the resources to have them identified or treated. Some are murdered in the act of violence. Some, however, choose to have sex of their own volition.

The relationship between class, patriarchy and sex

In Pakistan, class and patriarchy go hand-in-hand. Growing up between Islamabad and Dubai, I witnessed the relationship between patriarchal violence and classism (citizenship elitism in the UAE, particularly) by observing power relationships between men of different classes. This classist power is seen through sifarish or wasta (name-dropping), status-flashing, asserting dominance and control over minorities and vulnerable persons, displacing rage on-to workers and those of a lower-class (e.g. service workers, public transit drivers). How, then, do these men reproduce this violence that their socio-economic class prevents them from responding?

Illustration by Pakistani illustrator Shehzil Malik.

It is not difficult to imagine they do so on those more vulnerable than them: women, children, and animals. Historically, this is how colonial violence has been reproduced by “othering” those of different class backgrounds, religious beliefs, and who threaten the system of ‘normal.’ Pornography is another influencer and supporter of contemporary patriarchal violence. While I rightfully faced criticism for including an inaccurate statistic in my 2016 VICE article, in July 2019, The News published a news piece on Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister, Shireen Mazari, stating that “Pakistan is number one in child pornography.” However, not only is this prevalent in Pakistan but in many Western countries too. 

In the essay Fuel for Fantasy: The Ideological Construction of Male Lust, Michael S. Kimmel writes:

The patriarchy has normalised sex and sexual deviance, more so than love. Love comes second to the desire to dominate and control. Why is that? Is it because men are less likely to be educated on social empathy, to connect with themselves and others emotionally, and to love and respect their bodies?

So, do all women who step out of the box face the same end as Qandeel?

My privilege has undoubtedly kept me protected, or at least more sheltered than survivors of patriarchal violence who lack the means to escape. I have experienced childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault after that, however, it was in contexts and spaces of privilege where I experienced such. Molested while buying PlayStation games, and assaulted by privileged men after drinking too much alcohol at parties for and by the privileged elite. I learned that being a woman meant I would never be “safe” if I chose to exercise my agency. Still, my class privilege has undoubtedly given me access to a more protected experience.

Unlike Qandeel Baloch, someone from my immediate family would not murder me — disown, yes — but this is an example of the stark contrast in class difference and how it affects women who attempt to assert their agencies and their freedom of movement. Not only was it my family’s name and status, but my appearance, the fact that I am normatively ‘attractive’ and thus more worthy of being ‘saved.’ In the West, it’s been continually educating myself, and asserting my power towards any form of toxic masculinity or patriarchal violence. I am privileged enough to be in a position where men fear me because I behave as a mirror to their abuse. This something I am not proud of yet have learned as a survival skill.

In an ideal society, we would all respond with love.

On a final note, I would like to stress what I attempted to convey when I wrote my article four years ago, which is agency over our bodies. Whether we are having sex or not, whether we choose to have children or not, and so on. Essentially, the point I desired to make was in fact, humara jism, humari marzi. We all deserve to be seen and understood, throughout class, religion, sect, gender, sexuality, and other intersections that do not fit the mould of the heterosexual and patriarchal nation-state or what is considered “socially responsible and correct.” The nation-state has fed us lies to keep oppressive structures in place, for there is no such thing as a pure or perfect identity. These are fictive myths the state instills in us to create violent patriarchal national subjects.

The author, Zara Haider, is a Pakistani-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist based in Toronto. She works primarily as a writer, comedian, astrologist, and is completing a B.A. in Social Anthropology and Gender Studies at York University. Her work explores issues on identity, gendered violence, and women’s trauma in South Asia, with a focus on Pakistan. She has written for and appeared on VICE, BBC World, Dawn News, Times of India, rabble.ca, etc. She can be followed here.

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Zahra Haider

Zahra Haider is a Pakistani-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist based in Toronto. She works primarily as a writer, comedian, astrologist, and is completing a B.A. in Social Anthropology and Gender Studies at York University. Her work explores issues on identity, gendered violence, and women’s trauma in South Asia, with a focus on Pakistan. She has written for and appeared on VICE, BBC World, Dawn News, Times of India, rabble.ca, etc.

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