The freedom (or lack thereof) to just ‘be’ in Pakistan

“Sarah, I miss Pakistan; can you be the bridge between Pakistan and I? Share some podcasts with me that talk desi, news, food and culture.” This was how a cousin based in Boston, United States recently connected with me over a Skype call. I was able to share Khaula Jamil’s Instagram profile with her and also forwarded the link to MystaPaki’s podcast, from when he partnered with Patari. We talked about Karachi and Karachi walas and at some point during that exchange about all things desi, I asked if she had ever thought of relocating to Pakistan.

Oddly, she did not take long to respond to what I hoped she wouldn’t take as a trick question. But how she responded and what she had to say left me wondering if Pakistan continues to live up to or (alternatively) if it has deviated from what she spoke about.

In her words, Boston was a typical college town – known for its cultural vibrancy and the amazing quality of life that it offered. But beyond that, she said Boston was a hard city, reeking of rudeness and irritability.

Though she was born and brought up in the US and continues to live there, she mentioned she had no emotional connection to the country. Every trip to and from Pakistan instilled a realisation that her heart belonged here and it was this very country that she looked for in everything she at ate, the clothes she wore and even the culture she identified with.

So, what was it that held her back from making a permanent move to Pakistan?

“Freedom.” One word, that immediately struck a chord with me – since I was able to relate to her stance.

It wasn’t the freedom to publicly wear mini-skirts, to dance at a nightclub or randomly get drunk; it wasn’t the freedom to attend a rally, concert or film screening that suited your fancy, or to befriend people not of your colour or class, or to nap under a tree at Aunty Park in Clifton. It wasn’t any of these superficial freedoms. It went beyond and deeper than that.

What she was pointing to, was the freedom to just ‘be’.

Having grown up in Pakistan myself, I often wondered – why are all the women I know or hear of, either teachers, doctors or housewives? Growing up, why did I never know any female engineers, scientists, athletes or dancers? I always wondered why I couldn’t hop on a bus or rickshaw to get to a friend’s place instead of having to wait for the driver or my parents to drop me. Why couldn’t I pray at the neighbourhood mosque or play cricket on the street?

Why? Because that’s just the way it worked, I was told. But of course, it was entirely because I was a girl.
It was never fair, especially because it was considered presumptuous and daft to question why my brother could do all these things and I could not.

Realistically though, life still went on and the girls in my class eventually did graduate from classrooms to TV screens and charity fundraisers – socially acceptable, yet superficially liberal. But the greatest inhibitions remained.

What if we wanted to go into social work: visiting slums and prisons? Or venture into performing arts, outside the protective walls of our communities? Or wanted to go for a midnight stroll, randomly sit at a roadside khokha (tea kiosk) or live on Napier Road – of all the places in Karachi? I could only imagine getting married for love to a man below our own social class, or worse: to a gora?

Taking it to the scandalous next level, what if we wanted to do all of this, without making any statements or being provocative, without being judged, seen or talked about, only because that’s who we were or wanted to be, and doing something contrary would literally be killing ourselves.

In today’s day and age, there are so many of us females who ironically still have these considerations. A handful of courageous women dared to break into non-traditional roles and spaces, women such as activist Qandeel Baloch, lawyer Asma Jehangir, of Soul Sister Pakistan fame Kanwal Ahmed. These women were or are trailblazers in their own respects – but are often implicitly looked down upon by the infamous morality brigades. They are often called arrogant, promiscuous and ‘unfeminine’.

In Boston, my cousin claimed that such inhibitions generally don’t exist. You can actually be the person you perceive yourself to be – without anyone staring at judging or harassing you. As a female, you are treated as a normal human being – making you essentially anonymous. While she said it often made her feel lonely, I would like to believe that it might also be incredibly liberating. Liberating, I mean in terms of choice – thereby exercising the truest sense of feminism.

One could pursue their passion, get married or not, be the neighbourly aunt whom society praises for keeping a tidy and efficient household and yet be lifeless inside, burdened with regret. I bet we all know that one aunty, who nurtured a secret wish that she unable to fulfil – for whatever reason.

So, what is it that truly holds my cousin back from following her heart permanently to Pakistan? Probably the inability or the lack of choice to just be, the double-standards and the disparity in rules for men and women. Because in our part of the world, there will never be a day when aunties cease to match make, the uncles cease to lecture, and society stops its preaching.