On the topic of sex and love in Pakistan, the following seems to be true:
- Both arranged and ‘love’ marriages are common in Pakistan.
- Women generally play an active role in deciding whom they marry.
- Marriage is truly the blending of large extended families and therefore, arranged marriages are just as (if not more) successful as love marriages.
- The ‘no sex before marriage’ is widely followed.
- According to the Quran men may have up to 3 wives, and some do.
- Pakistan is the online porn watching capital of the world.
- Marrying your cousin is common, acceptable and sometimes encouraged for family cohesiveness.
- Many women marry after higher level education and continue to have careers after marriage.
- Child rearing is done ‘community-style’.
- Homosexual relationships are not very out-in-the-open.
- Sexual abuse of children is hugely under reported, under acknowledged and incredibly pervasive.
- Physical contact between males and females in public spaces is not condoned but grown men holding hands on a stroll is very normal.
- Any man will resolutely verbalize his respect for a woman’s ‘honor’
- Rape occurs once every two hours in Pakistan, and a gang rape every eight (source: https://www.hrw.org/)
- Divorce happens.
Prior to living in Pakistan, I had (thank you conventional western upbringing!) the pre-conceived notion that ‘arranged marriages’ were old school and backwards. I don’t think this anymore. The arranged marriages I’ve been privy to have strong foundations. Generally the families have similar beliefs and ways of life; the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ are involved in the decision process and fully in control of the weddings go-ahead or the opposite. This means that generally when an arranged wedding happens, everyone is happy, and the merging of families occurs with the expansion of an immediate, supportive community. The nuclear family is not common here because it’s not in the best interests of the family. Instead, children grow up with aunts, uncles, cousins and their grandparents downstairs or next-door. I’m sure not everyone views this idea with enthusiasm…we all have the 1 crazy relative I’m sure we could do without sharing a bathroom with, or the ever-invasive parent…but I always come back to the idea of support. In Pakistan there are no $2,000 a month child-care bills to pay, there are no latchkey kids and no ‘career’ single mothers taking speed in the middle of the night to finish the laundry and pack school lunches in time for the morning.
Women are supported by this system.
So, why do I feel so unsupported here?
I sometimes feel as though Pakistan has sucked my sense of sexuality, my ‘woman-ness’ out and pinned it up to dry in the sun. It’s now stiff and streaked instead of the supple cloth belonging to most 28 year-olds.
An important component of being a woman is feeling feminine. This doesn’t mean wearing high heels and/or dressing like a princess (though please do if the urge strikes you!) but a connection to your sexuality/sensuality as a woman that runs deeper. It’s that inner part that’s slightly more primal and instinctual; it’s both powerful and soft. And, it’s really not welcome here.
Enter the dupatta. A long, silken scarf often draped over the chest and shoulders that’s main job is to cover the curve of a bosom. It’s modesty in cloth! It partners with the shalwaar kameez, a graceful suit of free flowing material…the national dress of Pakistan. There are two differences between the male shalwaar kameez and the female ones; female suits are colourful and they come with a dupatta. Now there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with wearing a dupatta but there is something wrong with not wearing one, and that is where the issues land.
I do realize that a woman could wear a bag and look sexy; it’s always been more about the manner of the woman and what she exudes than what she wears. I have seen woman in burkas look sexy. And I suppose that’s the thing; despite what I wear, even if it’s complete with the chest covering dupatta, I feel like I’m in the wrong if I walk down the street with confidence…at least the comments and innuendo’s tell me so.
Frankly, I’m tired of questioning as I dress “is this too tight? Short? See through? Will this result in remarks and stares?” I know I run the risk of being ‘culturally insensitive’ but how much of this is culture? And how much of this is about controlling woman and their position through their manner of dress? Why should showing my shoulders or knees offend someone else? Why should walking with confidence imply that ‘I’m asking for it’? It comes down to the incorrect and fundamental idea that men can’t control themselves and so it’s up to woman to protect their own virtue through manner of dress and appropriate action. If we dress provocatively and men respond inappropriately, then who can we blame but ourselves?
Can we please give men more credit than this?
I guess that is the question, can we?
Pakistani males are human males and humans are a sexual species; hormonally charged with specific sexual needs. Yet, there are many 30-year-old virgins here. A Pakistani friend I had coffee with this week remarked “The men here are frustrated. I believe that is the correct word”. This comment followed her abandonment of learning how to swim. Despite wearing a ‘burkini’ in her gym’s pool, the men would leer from outside the chain link fence, understandably making her uncomfortable.
Pakistani men who are marrying after school, the establishment of a career and who value the idea of waiting until marriage (which like I said before are many of them) are working against biological instinct. Enter another fact previously stated…Pakistan has the highest number of online porn watchers in the world. Of course porn can serve a certain purpose at a certain time, but at its core, it doesn’t portray normal and healthy sexual relationships. Come on, the cheesy sub-plot scenes completely devoid of desire but chalk full of pathetic acting? Do we really want this to be the first and formative sexual experiences for a nation and generation of men?
There is (as far as I’m aware of) no Pakistani porn. Which means that most of the women actors probably look a far bit more like me than they do their sisters, mothers and aunties. Perhaps this is why I get more sexually charged comments? When my blonde co-worker and I go for a run in our local park we do so with the expectation of harassment… “sexy sexy” ,“nice ass”…. These comments trail us on the running track. To be fair, we also get thumbs up, friendly waves and plenty of requests for pictures. Ironically the worst time to run is just after Friday prayers, when streams of men walk from the mosque. Abolished of their sins, I suppose it’s time to accumulate more? Last Sunday I went for an afternoon bike ride, and on route had 4 positive comments from strangers, 2 sexual and inappropriate comments from men and more bewildered stares than could be counted. This is a typical outing in Lahore.
I do have to say, it was worse in India. Slightly more liberal but with a similar background of problems, India takes a ‘hands-on’ approach; meaning hands on boobs and bums at any opportunity. One of my friends was the victim of a drive-by-boob grab! A man on a motorcycle actually slowed down, crossed an empty street and with an outstretched hand, accosted my friend’s chest without stopping. Ridiculous! There are reasons for the ‘woman-only’ cart on the Delhi subway and the ‘woman-only’ line in the shopping mall but I can’t help thinking this exacerbates the problem. Men are frustrated and by moving woman further out of reach aren’t we increasing frustration? Isn’t the root cause of sexual violence and harassment left untended to? What if we embraced our sexual nature as humans and taught young people how to express themselves in healthy respectful methods? Easier said than done I know but when did sex become so ‘bad’? It’s sad that diminishing woman’s sexual nature seems to be the predominant way of preventing sexual harassment in these parts.
I know these aren’t original thoughts; they exist everywhere to varying degrees, just perhaps wearing different costumes. I also know that they’re incomplete at best, formed from the perspective of one individual over a relatively short period of time (3 years) and one that was raised in a very different cultural context. However, I also feel they’re valid and under expressed.
To end on a positive note, a point that I would like to be true (and because I don’t believe sending out positive sex vibes can hurt): May we all be happy and healthy in our sexual relationships with ourselves and with those we chose to share this part of our being with.
Love, from a hopeful-for-change woman in Pakistan