Who is a Pakistani? A Muslim? A desperate migrant? Different from an Indian? A caged woman?
Over the past two years, I have travelled to 15 countries, either by myself or with friends. Before this nomadic lifestyle of mine, I had lived my entire life within a bubble in Pakistan, and honestly, the question of what it meant to be a Pakistani never occurred to me.
But as I travelled and met more people whose cultures and values were as foreign to me as mine were to them, my innate assumptions about the notion of the Pakistani identity were challenged. Numerous people helped me reflect on the overarching perceptions of my country. I was a medium through which they could know more about a country they were unfamiliar with, but to me, their questions – figuring out what it meant to be a Pakistani – probed an internal challenge.
Who was a Pakistani?
As I wandered through the crowded souks of Cairo, an old man, who owned a jewellery shop in Khan el Khalili, asked if I was from Pakistan. I nodded and he smiled. He went on to say,
“Muslim!” and greeted me with an Assalamualaikum.
Does being a Pakistani equate to being a Muslim?
Our history taught us that this nation was created for the Muslim population of the Indian subcontinent. The reality, however, is complicated. The direct consequence is that the plight of religious minorities is often ignored and left out of the national narrative of Pakistani-ness.
I wanted to tell the Egyptian man about how my Pakistani identity didn’t automatically make me a Muslim. But was he really wrong in making this assumption? It isn’t unusual for a religious majority to become representative of a national narrative, but I knew that my Pakistani-ness had to leave space for those who did not ascribe to a similar religious faith.
While I attended an academic seminar on refugees and asylum seekers in Germany in the once divided city of Berlin, one of the speakers brought up the phenomenon of the growing number of Pakistani immigrants in the country. He argued that Pakistan was a failed state and could no longer promise security to its citizens. Thus, everyone in the country was desperate to leave.
Was a Pakistani a desperate migrant?
This statement put forward by the German intellectual was a powerful marker of the western idea of Pakistan. It reminded me of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism that is based on the West’s false romanticisation of people, cultures, and countries of the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia which distorts their differences and instead stereotypes them.
I argued that his statement was based on orientalist attitudes. After all, can we project the lives of a Pakistani situated in Kashmir to a Pakistani based within the gated communities of Islamabad, under the same emblem of Pakistani-ness? Some Pakistanis are desperate migrants, but some are not. Perhaps this desperation to emigrate does not unite us under one national narrative.
Last year, I travelled to the beautiful post-Soviet country of Georgia with a few friends. As I took the cab around the capital, Tbilisi, several taxi drivers played old Bollywood music when they saw me. Some pedestrians on the streets even shouted catchphrases from Kal Ho Na Ho at me.
A Georgian I met in a café asked me where I was from, and after mentioning that I was a Pakistani, she asked if I knew Shah Rukh Khan as she loved movies from “my country”.
Was a Pakistani any different from an Indian?
The line that distinguishes Pakistanis from Indians is also significant when it comes to the Pakistani identity. History and culture unite us, but borders separate us; so how do we navigate our similarities and differences?
The truth is that the state controls the national rhetoric that distinguishes our identity from that of the Indians. In light of the similarities between us, due to shared history and culture, it makes sense for the state to use media, education, and religion to make us view Indians as “the other”.
I almost felt offended when I was asked about the Bollywood industry in ‘my country’, despite the fact that I grew up watching Bollywood movies and dancing to Bollywood songs. The catch phrases from Kal Ho Na Ho sounded familiar and made me nostalgic, but as a Pakistani, I was taught to feel like an antithesis to Indians. However, I do know that ‘them Indians’ are significant for the existence of ‘us Pakistanis’ in the great national narrative, as the existence of ‘the other’ is pertinent to define ‘who we are not’. But how different was I from an Indian?
When my phone battery died in Amsterdam, I couldn’t find my way around the city and looked for kind strangers who might guide me to my destination. I met a Dutch woman who happened to be a half Pakistani. After I told her that I was from Pakistan, she was genuinely surprised and asked me how I ended up in Amsterdam and if my family knew I was here. She also asked if I was ‘forced’ to walk around in a burqa when I was home.
It turned out that her father was from a small town in the Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) region, and her perceptions about Pakistan revolved around the tales of her father’s childhood in the small town. She was afraid to visit the country, as she heard Pakistani women couldn’t leave their homes with ease.
Was a Pakistani a caged woman?
Pakistan is the third most dangerous country in the world for women. Was it really surprising when the Dutch woman made assumptions about what it meant to be a Pakistani woman? I told her various social structures in Pakistan were still quite patriarchal, but that we were fighting it one step at a time. However, every individual’s fight was unique, and depended on innumerable factors, such as geographic location, social class, and socioeconomic conditions, amongst others. I didn’t want to dispel her belief that all the myths about the difficulties that women face in the country were untrue, only to represent my Pakistani-ness in a more glamorous way. How could I say that the struggles of a woman based in a small town in G-B were not true just because they didn’t align with what I’ve experienced?
My struggles as a Pakistani woman are much different, but also legitimate nonetheless. I hope I’m not the only one who has heard the phrase ‘humari aurtein’ (our women) used by many Pakistani men to reinforce their dominance over women. I might not be a ‘caged (Pakistani) woman’ but my gender did, in my opinion, make me a victim of a national narrative that does little to promote and benefit the interests of Pakistani women.
Now that I look back at my travels, I realise that my favourite encounter about Pakistani-ness is from Kokota International Airport in Accra, Ghana. The airport security officer looked at my passport as I was about to board my flight to Dubai and said,
“Wait! So what is it like to be in Pakistan?”
Believe me, I know that it’s an inconvenience to get questioned at airports, but it was the first time that I was asked a question about my unique experience as a Pakistani. And it felt nice, for once, to have someone ask about my Pakistani-ness rather than an entity that is much larger than myself.
So, is there anything that unites us under the banner of Pakistani-ness?
The idea of what binds Pakistanis together as a nation state is convoluted. In my travels, I want to continue to navigate this Pakistani-ness to understand the shallowness of national narratives that we are fed about who we are. Maybe the quest begins with questioning the political, economic and social discourses that are instilled in us by state apparatuses. Before I relate a particular narrative, I have to ask myself which racial, religious, social, ethnic and gender groups are excluded from my perception of Pakistani-ness? The question of what binds us together is perhaps just as important as the question of what sets us apart.
All photos: Warda Malik
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.