Who is a Pakistani? A Muslim? A desperate migrant? Different from an Indian? A caged woman?

Published: June 28, 2017

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.

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

Warda Malik

Warda Malik

The writer is a third year student at New York University, Abu Dhabi. She is pursuing a major in Public Policy, with a keen interest in national identity, transnational migration, and cultural imperialism.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Yousaf Haque

    During Muslim rule in pre-partition India most of the courtiers used to be Hindus.General public comprising of all faiths lived in complete harmony like brothers.Those ‘heroes’ who believed in Muslim Laws preferred Hindus as their advisers in state matters.How can you say that they killed Hindus?Recommend

  • Tommy Gunn

    For more than 90% of Pakistanis, Pakistan is a “Failed State”. For more than 90% of Pakistani women, they are “Caged Prisoners”. You don’t represent the common Pakistani in any way, shape or form.Recommend

  • only truth is nature

    I am in USA.There are some similarities with Indians in facial feature,food ,music and there are differences in taste of dressing,spending of money ,adventurism ,life style.indians explore more places,show more initiative, possess marketing skills.pakistanis spend more time in mosques, and in eating toghether .Most of Pakistanis are light skinned.their tourism is limited due to their other priori ties..indians economise in shopping ,pakistanis spend a lot. Indians mix up freely in other’s culture compared to pakistanis.pakistanis are more straight forward and less cleverest than the indians.Recommend

  • Duniya Hasan

    “Having black people of south as part of India proves we ‘aren’t racist’: Former BJP MP Tarun Vijay” …meanwhile the so called north indians rather relate with fair Pakistanis than with their own “BLACK” counterparts in South india. So which is a phony nation and have identity crisis?? LOL

    Also Look back at your history and identity too …all your history and identity is from Pakistani land including the name India, Hindu, Hinduism, Sikhism, indus valley civilization, first university, Aryan invasion etc all belongs to my land Pakistan. Your just a phony fake nation today living on glory of my brave ancestors.Recommend

  • Avinash

    you remove india from pakistan’s equation and then pakistan becomes insignificant. be it diplomatically, culturally or racially.Recommend

  • Sumit

    Being Pakistani is being confused and paranoid most of the times. As an Indian I always see Pakistanis as misguided brothers of the great Indian family. These artificial and superficial boundaries will go away soon – It is Physics.Recommend

  • Hashmi

    There is no identity crisis.

    The west is in a set of different crisis itself therefore this distorted lens of orientalism.

    Our roots are strong.. but nothing else is.. we are not India we know the Two Nation Theory.. if you do not ascribe to it, you will be in a crisis and complex without knowing it.

    We are the greatest country and nation to ever exist.. but ofcourse it seems not so.. let us all stick to the morals of our roots.. let us all bring back the glory that we never lost or we never had or we thought we never had..Recommend

  • Yogi Berra

    Indians = NOT Pakistanis. Indians are in different league all together. India’s religion is Hindu Dharma. Food habits, dress code, language etc are different. We are two different people. Hindu dharma is flourishing in India for thousands of years. Old heritage. In Europe I could not compare myself to Pakistanis, however I tried. No similarity at all.Recommend

  • gameplanner

    To start with,let all Pakistani Groceries and Restaurants in West (UK,USA ,Australia ,Europe and Canada) brand themselves as Paksitani,instead of passing them as Indian.Pakistanis in the west often pretend in Public as Indians and never give themselves or their businesses to be identified as Pakistani (except they are in their community) for the reasons best known to all..and you can not expect to create any identity of your own,unless you promote yourself or known to world for being famous or unique .But Pakistan has become notorious for wrong reasonsRecommend

  • vinsin

    Only some Mughals rulers had advisor.Recommend

  • Avinash

    oh yeah! hindus twist invaders as heroes to justify their superiority i guess.Recommend

  • Vincent Ianelli

    There’s only one important thing to remember. You see, there are only two kinds of people in this world. Italians and everybody else. And they all wish they were Italian.Recommend

  • Sane

    Don’t distort history. Whoever the invader was, always conquered India with a very little effort. No one turned back before capturing the targeted land of India. Almost all Muslim and other rulers were offered Hindu women to marry. Logically India belongs to Muslims as India was never ruled by Hindus before 1947.Recommend

  • Sane

    There is no nation called Indian or culture like Indian This is an illusion to talk about Indian culture. Yes, there are regional cultures. People of every region have different food, language, dress, religious beliefs and rituals. So much so that Gods (devi and dewta) Hindus worship are different in every region. The Dewta/Devi of one region is not acknowledged rather disregarded in other regions.Recommend

  • Duniya Hasan

    I beg you to prove me wrong. I am over confident of my statement because I belong to the original land where the history of sub continent was first started. What do you have to prove me wrong? I am looking forward to hearing from you.Recommend