“I promise there’s a reason I’m flushing my hair!” and other superstitious concerns

“I can’t help but feel that this is my fault.”

My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.

The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.

What could make me think that?


I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.

South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.

I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.

The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazar lag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.

Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.

There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.

It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…

That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.

But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.

But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?

I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?

According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.

It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.

For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).

Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?

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Max Weber should have lied

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Pictured: Rotterdam’s City Hall which, I soon realized, has a statue of Hugo Grotius, who lay the foundations of international law – of which individual dignity is a cornerstone. Not pictured: me crying at the statue a little.

I’ve written pretty extensively about my horror, anger, and fear at the American attempts at a Muslim ban and its various iterations. But aside from the practical shortcomings and moral depravity of such an attempt, there was always another layer of outrage towards it:

How the hell can they make the visa process any harder and nerve-wracking than it already is?
Growing up brown and especially Muslim, there has always been a degree of solemnity attached to traveling. To be able to hop on a plane, with little to no paperwork required beforehand, is a distinct privilege that those of us with Certain Passports will never experience – and similar to how in some cultures learning to drive a car is a rite of passage, where I grew up? Your first visit to the consular services of a foreign country was about as important as learning how to make doodh patti chai right. Being granted a visa was something to celebrate. Commiseration over a more-likely-than-not visa denial was a week-long affair. Angry declarations of “I have a case, I’ll appeal their decision!” were, although well-intentioned, usually not pursued – and if pursued, doomed. No word of a lie, all the stages of grief were present in the aftermath of a visa denial.

I wish I could make light of this reality. But the fact of the matter is, realizing how little other countries want you is scarring. I have friends who have traveled all over the world, and it’s something I could never dream of doing simply because the process to get there is harrowing and exhausting. You need to steel yourself for a trip to the embassy. Every relative and family friend that has experienced the process even once will inundate you with tips: make sure you smile a lot, be as deferential as possible, try not to stutter or betray your anxiety, do NOT raise your voice, memorize the address for every location you’ll be staying at, have bank statements ready…on and on and on, until your brain is cacophonous with mantras. My A levels were nowhere near as stressful as the lead-up to my appointment with the American consulate in Dubai for my student visa.

I consider myself lucky. I’m a tiny woman, I look harmless. Others? Men? They don’t get the sympathetic looks and reassuring smiles I may sometimes (sometimes) receive. The first time I traveled to American with my family, my brother was detained by virtue of being a 20-something Muslim, Pakistani man, even though he had a freshly shorn face. Yes, you have to look the part too. Sufficiently western, your face hairless as the day you hopped out the womb. Hopefully, your parents had the foresight to give you a name that isn’t threatening or that – given the ubiquity of names that have Islamic connotations – doesn’t have Islamic connotations. My grandfather and grandmother, despite having a son who is an American citizen (a son they visit annually and stay with for basically half the year), get routinely pulled aside because my grandfather’s name is Aziz.

Look upon the cosmic injustice of a system wherein your name is looked at with suspicion because you share it with some shitty terrorist, ye mighty, and despair.

I thought I was a veteran when it came to foreign bureaucracies. Since I study in the United States, I’ve had to deal with all kinds of bureaucracy, and I’ve learnt to take the anxiety in stride. I thought this meant that I was set – talk less, smile more, laugh at their jokes, get waved through without a fuss. But my passport does weigh heavy in my hand, and I expect the worst no matter where I am. At least that way the cacophony of advice given to me throughout the years is quick to return to my head – like a rolodex, arrogantly waiting for me to flip through it.

So imagine my horror when I wake up to get registered at the city municipality where I live in the Netherlands and I find that I am quivering with a bureacracy-anticipating anxiety I thought I’d outgrown. I check, double-check that I have the right documents. I realize that I don’t know where to print the documents I only have digital copies of. I’m so anxious that instead of refunding the 1 euro credit I still have in the coffee machine at the City Spar downstairs, I just buy myself another coffee and walk around lamely with two burning, sleeveless coffee cups in my hands. I tell my mother I’m going to take the 30 minute commute to work, print my documents at the office, and then travel the 30 minutes back home – this is at 9:30am. My appointment was at 11am. I very quickly realized the stupidity of my plan, and also threw away the second cup of coffee.

While waiting for a floormate to print out my documents, I thought I was going to vomit. I felt dizzy. I was genuinely afraid that I was going to be sent back to Dubai, or Boston, or wherever, and my kindly co-op advisor would use my story as a warning to other students: “Don’t be like that girl. Bring an actual copy of your birth certificate when you go abroad. Jeez.”

So much for the hallowed professionalism of Northeastern students.

More than that, I was afraid to become a cautionary tale told to other young Pakistanis looking forward to traveling. I have had the opportunity to do so much more than is expected from my little green book – to be relegated to “Look, opportunities don’t pan out sometimes”? I couldn’t. I can’t.

I speedwalked the 10-minute route to the municipality in 5 minutes. I was there 40 minutes early. So I started writing this blog, to process this residual trauma from one-too-many cautionary tales. And I started thinking about Max Weber, one of my favorite sociologists. He was wary of modernity and the automation inherent in it; not in the sense of robots or artificial intelligence, but in the sense of humans not being able to realize their natural autonomy. In political science, we are taught the three Weberian features of modern states in the post-industrial era: territoriality, violence, and legitimacy. All these elements feed and reinforce one another. From these elements come further factors such as a monopoly on the use of force, and, for our purposes, bureaucracy. It is essential for a modern state to use its legitimacy to create a central government efficient enough to maintain things like censuses, be able to levy taxes, and, well, make the lives of Pakistanis & Co. really rather miserable. The United States of God’s Good America is (are? I’ve been staring at the plural too long) uniquely talented in this regard. And I recognize the need for it, truly I do. I study international security and from an objective standpoint, I get it, you have to be careful – but there are now entire populations terrified of the act of traveling, or have otherwise relegated themselves to not traveling. Dignity is the cornerstone of human rights; it is the central, foundational component in every treaty, statute, convention, etc, that comprises the human rights regime of our (post)modern reality. And one of the main push factors towards radicalisation of every sort is indignation: shame, degradation, isolation, all go against this foundational understanding of dignity. Being detained because your name happens to be Osama, named after one of the original Muslim Caliphs? That does not security make.

The proto-existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard (one of my favorite philosophers) characterizes anxiety as being the natural state of mankind in the face of possibilities. There is So Much in the world, therefore I am anxious. The world is composed of plurals, therefore I am anxious. We are multitudinous, therefore I am anxious. Bureaucracy, that central component of statehood, is itself sprawling and full of indefinites and unknowables. Therefore, I am anxious.

All the opportunities I have before me, in their glory and their hope, are overwhelming, and a good 60% of those opportunities require navigating the indefinites of bureaucracies.

I got lucky today. The bureaucrat I dealt with was a lovely man, and I was registered with the municipality before my appointment time even technically came around. But this anxiety will live with me for as long as my passport (the loaded entity that it is) bears potentialities…and I will carry the indignity in my heart forever, and unwittingly pass it on to my children. Iyad El-Baghdadi, an Arab Spring activist-turned-asylum seeker, talks about how his “[his] statelessness makes [him] fall between the cracks of this world order.” I can’t relate to that – but what I know is that, conversely, my statefulness (state-fullness), this Pakistaniat and all that is perceived as being packaged with this country of 180 million and counting, has me wedged in the cracks of a world order I have dedicated my life to understanding. What a truly postmodern heritage.

The day of and those after

The thing about bombings and terrorist attacks is that, after a little while, it’s too easy to divorce an atrocity from the monotony of the day. The horror sits heavy on your skin like a too-thick cocoa-butter moisturizer, and it’s hard to let it sink in. But, with enough time and distraction, you get used to the weight.

That happened to me just this past weekend at the International Model NATO Conference where I was representing my university. After an overnight, nine-hour train ride from Boston to DC, I found myself sleepless and exhausted in a hotel room. I heard the news right as I lay down to take a power nap.

The power nap was my first mistake. I’ve never taken a good, worthwhile power nap in my life and certainly, this one was doomed the second I decided to scroll down my Twitter timeline. I follow a lot of Pakistani political and social commentators, and what was marked about that day was the despondency and profound sadness and exhaustion writ bare in those 140 or however many characters.

I’m not unused to being able to interpret that language. It usually means something Bad happened.

Heart-pounding, I went to Dawn, and sure enough, a massive explosion had torn through the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. The number of lives taken and the name of the shrine took a second to hit me.

O lal meri pat rakhio bhala Jhulelalan

Sindhri da

Sehwan da

Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar

Ah. Right.

Here’s the thing about Pakistanis. You can tack any Muslim label on us that you want but in our hearts, our absolute heart of hearts, we are all undeniably Sufis. We tear up listening to qawwaliyaan, we have a ferocious love for our musicians and artists, we revere poetry and dance and love itself. No matter what front the Fundos try to show you, their hearts will melt like everyone else’s over Sabri and Abida Parveen and Nusrat and Rahat.

This was a betrayal of the deepest kind. This was a betrayal of our culture, our history, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence; more than that, it was a betrayal of 75 lives, men-women-children, who came to revel in our culture, our histories, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence. It’s the kind of betrayal that can’t be forgiven.

We’ve all grown up listening to Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. Before I even knew all the lyrics I had an emotional connection to the qawwali. There was a visceral joy in its singing, the clapping that came along it, the family concerts that would surround the words, the often-subsequent marriage that it was contextualized in. It was important and it was necessary.

Pakistanis are used to being betrayed. Sometimes by our government, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by the world. Music is almost a coping mechanism to that end. In troubled times, our music and art industries blossom angrily. Defiant international literary festivals, antagonistic and triumphant rock bands, scathing indie, the fusion genre that has become part and parcel of what it means to be a musician in early 21st Century South Asia, performing arts festivals – but you take that away from us and you get the wrath of a country that is simmering with rage and years’ worth of inconsolable sadness.

Our wrath is in coming back to the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine the very next day and ringing the morning bells. It’s in devotees arriving proudly to carry out their prayers. It’s in the dhamaals that continued despite the bombing. Daesh in Khorasan would not have this cultural victory over us.

**

Despite this tumult of emotion, I went about my day. Embassy visits, opening ceremonies, falling asleep on my own feet, I went about my day. A friend asked me if I was okay. A single friend. But that’s neither here nor there.

Eventually, thoughts of the massacre were shipped off to the backburner of my mind, unaddressed and unprocessed. A weekend followed where I pretended to be an official from a country that did not belong to me; a conference where the organizers take gleeful joy in faking crises that are often as absurd as they are horrendous; a conference where I spent more time thinking about fake dead people than I did about my very real, very dead fellow countrymen.

I trucked on. I did my best. I pushed away the creeping horror and self-awareness because I was there as part of a team. Eventually, once the bulk of my responsibility was carried out with skill and maybe some degree of reckless bravado, I found myself sitting on the floor of our hotel bathroom, crying. My roommates eventually found me and I said what I didn’t have it in me to say before: “75 people died in my country, 13 in my hometown, and I’m here, pretending I don’t give a shit about that.”

As terrible as it sounds, I needed the breakdown. I couldn’t process my grief without it. The day-to-day compartmentalization catches up to you at some point and I’m honestly lucky it happened sooner rather than later. Grief, bottled up, is more destructive than any display of anger. I was able to process the pain without too much collateral (see also: yelling at people who may or may not have deserved it) and I’m glad for that. Of course I was – I am – still sad, but I’m sad in the way that is tucked in your heart along with all the warmth and love you hold for your people. It’s the sadness that has lived like a constant ode to Pakistan from the day I realized I was one of 180 million people and a then-some diaspora. It’s the sadness that is inherent in our national anthem. It’s what makes me Pakistani for more than just my overseas citizen ID and passport.

**

I’ve been afraid of waking up lately, for fear of news that will hurt me. It’s the curse of living in Trump’s America as a non-resident alien (the fear of being put on a travel ban, namely) as well as the general sense of malaise I’ve had since this awful year began.

Evidently, I woke up this morning. I should have put it off.

I’m never prepared to see Lahore in the news. I was even less prepared to see Defence in the news, the neighborhood I was raised in. My family and I moved to Lahore when I was about two-years-old, and my earliest memories are of my beautiful house, my mamma’s marigolds, and the jaamun tree I was too afraid and bookish to climb. The bombing happened in the popular commercial area I had basically all my birthdays in and around. Not a week went by where we didn’t go shopping there, whether for groceries, or clothes, or pirated CDs. All my eid money was spent in those bookstores and toy-shops. My brother is in Lahore right now and the area is one of his haunts – I haven’t felt that sense of panicked “where-is-he-where-was-he” in years. The rush of nostalgia felt like bile in my throat.

And look – it’s 10:30am. I’ve been awake, in bed, trying to process for the past hour. I have an exam I’ve given up caring about in another hour, and a class after that. Invariably, I will forget about Lahore – about Y-block and Defence – and wonder why I’m so sad. Invariably, it will hit me when I least expect it and I’ll probably end up crying on someone’s couch or in a bathroom somewhere. Invariably, it will happen again.

This isn’t my first rodeo. But somewhere in the stubborn dancing, showing up to class despite my better judgment, and even in my forgetful laughter, there is resistance.

At least, I hope there is.

O lal meri, o lal meri

Edhi

I don’t know when I became aware of Abdul Sattar Edhi. I guess that’s the thing about “givens” – they have no origin, there is no place in time to which they belong, they simply are and Edhi simply was in a way we could only hope to be. Edhi was a fixture for every Pakistani. Not a day went by where you wouldn’t see an Edhi ambulance weaving its way through dusty, dangerous Pakistani traffic presumably to save a life. The stout little vans with Edhi’s name in red emblazoned across them were a sign of hope and life in a country where the former was in short supply and the latter could be construed as a lottery or a game of roulette. If anyone ever asked what they could do to change anything in Pakistan, why, donate to the Edhi Foundation of course. Whenever there was a crisis, a disaster, Edhi was one of the first to respond, casting the widest net with the least fanfare. Edhi was a reflection of the best of Pakistan.

Someone on Twitter said that Edhi was one of the few who has left behind a working institution, and not only that, but he left behind one of the few institutions anyone could trust, and so wholly at that. He created his foundation, his network of ambulances from the ground up, with hands that wanted nothing more than to service humanity for the sake of humanity. It’s no coincidence that his humanist institution was oiled better than any other institution sanctioned by the Islamic Republic; the oil he used to make the cogs turn wasn’t cut with corruption, brick dust and tribalism.

But then, this is not the time to be cynical. Using Edhi’s death to criticize inaction is not what he would have wanted. He was critical of religion as it manifested itself in Pakistan, critical of the kind of education that blew rose and jade tinted glasses for the wealthy, but he never let that criticism defeat him. He was not an exception; he was only exceptional because we chose to defer all action to people like him. He merely showed himself to be the kind of person we could all be. He showed that he could be the rule.

Past tense is unique in its ability to make one despondent. Edhi was, yes, but he will always be. He created the foundation – literally – for something beautiful.

The world has been truly horrible lately. Edhi’s passing is too much to bear in the wake of all that has happened. But maybe his death, his life, were meant to cauterize the wound. He was a beacon of hope, and even in his passing he is magnificent and benevolent in his reminder that we can be BETTER than we are.

We have not lost him. He saw to that. We can mourn his passing but he’d want us to pick ourselves up and affirm life. There is so much more we can do if only we stopped deferring to the Edhis of the world and internalized what it was that actually set him apart for ourselves.

Thank you, Edhi. May your spirit live on in the actions of the country you nurtured.

The peculiar chivalry of Pakistani men

Before I begin: I don’t want to seem as if I’m singling Pakistan out as a means to condescend the country that reared me. Pakistan as a “case study” is the terrain I’m most familiar with and, therefore, most comfortable with discussing. Anything else would be irresponsible. Moreover, this is a legitimate problem in Pakistan that is important to highlight in light of recent…regressions…regarding the status of women in Pakistan’s upper decision-making echelons. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard from friends further underscore why I’m writing this in specific reference to Pakistan.

I’ve noted before (a generalization that I am absolutely willing to make) that Pakistanis are, on the whole, a hot-blooded people. My city in general is known for having the kind of people who put up their fists first, then think to argue, and then think to think. It is easy to romanticize and even exalt this sort of “passionate” behavior. I should know, I always did.

In dramas, you always have the emotional male lead who is protective and possessive, with little attention paid to the fine-line between. Any backlash he receives for being abusive or being smothering gets quickly fixed with a sloppy redemption arc, and his previous actions are never mentioned again (if they are corrected to begin with). More often than not his possessiveness is billed as desirable. Who wouldn’t want a man that would go to jail for them? Who wouldn’t want a husband that would kill for them? Who wouldn’t want a man who takes their wife/significant other’s honor so seriously?

“But those are dramas and steeped in fantasy” – if only. Real life isn’t much different, even if men don’t have quite the same nicely groomed eyebrows. Any young relationship between a Pakistani woman and a Pakistani man is laced with this almost paranoid consideration of your girlfriend’s honor. “Who are you going out with? Kaun hai? Pehlay kyun nahin bataya? How long have you known him? If he tries anything…”

This behavior is expected. When you’re a teenager, it’s cute. And then it stops being cute when the motions become rote and internalized. That’s how you get entitlement.

Women and children often hold their feelings and experiences close to their chest for fear of provoking an emotional outburst from the males in their life. The infamous socio-historical construct of “honor” comes into play here. Offense towards a woman or a child is no longer their offense; it is an offense that must be taken up by the men in her/their life.

An all too common example: a young girl is sexually assaulted. She weighs her options, and opts for silence because if she tells the male members of her family, they would take matters into their own hands and honor codes would suggest a violent beating is in order, at the very least. Not wanting blood on her conscience, the young girl considers telling the female members of her family. That particular honor code would lead to either complete silence, stories of “This happens to every little girl” normalizing what should never be normalized, shaming (depending on the age of the young girl and the nature of the act) or a pained admission of what the young girl already knew: “You know what your (male family member) would do if they found out.”

At best, accommodations may be made to spare the young girl the anxiety of seeing the perpetrator again. Some accommodations may be more stifling than others depending on the proximity of the perpetrator and the frequency of their interactions.

The young girl makes her decision. Her own silence is better than the silence of others, and vastly preferable to the grating of broken bones.

Autonomy is an incredibly underrated possession. Sexual assault is an act of violence on ones bodily autonomy. Consent is the ultimate act of autonomy, and the younger you are, the more volatile your grip on autonomy is. For a child coming into adolescence, autonomy is especially important – and for a girl in a (conservative) cross-section of Pakistani society, autonomy is a precious commodity. Reacting to what was told to you in confidence and trust with a declaration of violence and vigilante justice is never helpful. The problem with this usurpation of justice is that it takes the autonomy that was already stolen from the survivor and adds a deeper disconnect. It is incredibly important to support survivors and honor their wishes after they have their agency taken from them and to – despite all your instincts and protective urges – understand where they are coming from. Your violent justice is a retraumatization at best, and a heavy burden the survivor will carry for the rest of their life at worst. Your chivalry and honor have no place in the healing of a sexual assault survivor. Besides, are you really going to practice vigilante justice and then complain about mob mentality in the same breath?

Sexual assault is not the only realm where outdated practices of chivalry must end, but it is the most urgent territory. Parents express horror that their survivor child kept their experience from them for so long, but when your first instinct is towards punitive violence rather than truly nurturing and understanding, somewhere along the way you did something wrong. The message you are telling your child/friend/sibling/significant other/etc is that you are just another person who doesn’t care about their wishes.

Survivors suffer in silence for far too long. Take the first step towards their security: tone down your self-righteous outrage long enough to actually listen.

Chivalry ought to be dead.

Shame and retrospect

I don’t like admitting to it but I was frankly far more imbued in the Western than I was in the local growing up in Pakistan. American cartoons, British books, English music – hell, even Japanese media – were a staple of my early life far more so than my own culture or the immediacy of my surroundings. There’s obvious advantages to that of course: I grew up a globalized person with a great deal of general knowledge and trivia about the world around me, and (it has to be said) my English skills wouldn’t be as accomplished as they are if I hadn’t been so invested in Western media.

And that isn’t to imply that an appreciation of Pakistani culture has to exist in a vacuum – my own parents are testaments otherwise, being the widely learned yet rooted people they are – but it does shame me that for many years of my life I almost, almost looked down upon my culture for being paindoo¹. I didn’t pay attention in Urdu class and considered it a frankly useless subject and that’s a bloody misfortune, one that I will regret for the rest of my life. So much beautiful text ignored, so many stories and little quirks of the language that I went without understanding the nuances of…

Until, of course, I left Pakistan and felt that deep cultural void in me, the nostalgia that comes as punishment for the formerly disparaging displaced. That’s when I opened myself up to the history of my country, to its present, and to the possibility of a future back in it. I still have a huge gap in my understanding of it (small, silly things like gun control in Pakistan or public administration services, policy things).  But that attempt to understand changed me. It continues to change me as I learn more and more about my homeland and heritage. Nothing hits me quite as viscerally as its music and poetry, and through those channels I’ve been able to build upon my fluency in Urdu and hopefully guide it in a direction that can be beautiful, not just utilitarian.

Frankly, the day I realized I was taking my dad’s suggestions of taking my politics back home seriously was when I realized I was, mentally, back home. Now it’s just a matter of actually going back home.

I’ve come a long way from the girl who used to feel like a stranger in a shalwar kameez and scoffed at braided hair.  The universe has a way of turning you on your head – and my suddenly braided head is full of foreign service studies in Pakistan and echoes of Sunn Ve Balori.

To you, motherland – A Nation of Chronic Belittlers

Some things are so deeply ingrained in you that you do not become aware of them until you are faced with some kind of frame of reference. I always knew how deeply unequal Pakistan was – in a country where class is as apparent and omnipresent as rickety rickshaws alongside shiny new Mercedeses, you’d have to be deeply, deeply sheltered not to see that. But inequality also lies in the seemingly innocuous, the “take-for-granteds” of middle class and upwards society (and the fringe pretenders, the for better or for worse aspirants) and the language they use to describe those socially beneath them.

Paindoo.

It makes me wince, thinking back on how often I have used that word casually, callously. It wasn’t even aimed at a specific person most of the time: paindoo was a way of life, a conscious decision to be backwards, uneducated, illiterate, jaahil. Backwater villagers along the motorway, speaking thet Punjabi, with parandas in their hair and their dupattas tied at their hips and carrying water vessels on their heads. Or, worse, the paindoo log who had always had communities alongside the upper middle class – preexistent localities which were there long before Pakistan’s military elite gentrified the outskirts of their cities.

As if we, with our salaries and seasonally changing carpets, have a stake more concrete than their galling, preternatural claim to the city.

Paindoo. Said with a tongue resting briefly on the roof of your mouth, lazily lashing the bare, too-brown backs.

The colonizers never truly left. They were kind enough to teach us their ways so that we would continue the job of categorizing brown bodies – bodies as brown as yours, Fair & Lovely notwithstanding – for them.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I’m angry at myself for playing into classism-inherent. What right did I have to look down at the pedestrians from my Honda Civic ’95, when my parents have grounded me with stories of buying diapers with scrounged-up rupee coins?

It’s hard not to be a hypocrite sometimes. Good people, well-meaning people are hypocrites all the time. Moral absolutism is a farce. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to decolonize our minds; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be mindful of how we see our own countrymen. They are not props to your elitism; they are not fun themes to be used at graduation parties or fancy-dress shows. They are living breathing members of a dynamic society that we have ignorantly eschewed over and over again, that we neglect, that we employ as “the help.” They are the foundation of hundreds of thousands of lower-middle and upwards households in this country, the ones on whose knees your children bounce. Ayahs and bajis and uncles.

The next time you haw-haye over the countrymen you suddenly care about being exploited in the UAE, think about the countrymen you never cared about in your community that you belittled and othered.

Paindoo.  How many of them are killed, are martyred when extremist factions target low-income neighbourhoods and transportation most commonly used by those you would lump together under the category of “Can’t Even Afford A Mehran?”

Have some respect.