Shehryar Sheikh, our News Editor, interviews Zahra Haider on her new article for Vice, which caused a firestorm on Pakistani social media.
Zahra Haider’s recent article for Vice detailing her sexual experiences as a teenager has caused a firestorm on Pakistani social media. At this early juncture let me just say that it is not a spectacular piece of work. Somewhat unfocused, it makes for mediocre reading at best and displays a sub-par choice of English (‘sex-ed is something that ceases to exist’ – so did it exist at some point?), in addition to being comically elitist and factually incorrect. For instance, Zahra translates zina directly as stoning, whereas zina refers to the laws surrounding taboo sexual relations in Islam. She reduced the entire country to an assortment of horny hypocrites, which naturally produced fierce rejoinders. Let’s not rehash the debate on porn statistics either.
My initial reaction to the article was a mix of incredulity and anger. I was afraid Zahra had scuttled the chance for an open discussion around sex in my Muslim homeland with her unapologetically graphic article. Then came the comments. ‘Open your mind, not your legs!’ would probably be the mildest. At that point, I started to reconsider her work and see it as part of something bigger.
Like Zahra, I grew up in Islamabad, a relatively small, planned city that serves as Pakistan’s capital. Like her, I attended Headstart school, which of late has produced more than a few graduates challenging the patriarchal shroud that obscures the female body in Pakistan. My earliest recollection of her is a conversation with some boys my age that included a discussion about ‘That gashti (slut) Zahra Haider.’ Even though I had never met Zahra, at 16 I automatically assumed this ‘slut’ was a bad person.
Zahra has shown a proverbial middle finger to a society where the Information Minister refuses to say the word ‘sex.’ Where women are killed for marrying those they love, not being virgins or even being raped, since this ‘dishonours’ their menfolk. She has bravely questioned why she cannot have sex (before marriage) and yet men often can, do, and are celebrated by Pakistan’s disgusting ‘lad’ culture. She has ripped a society that thrives in its unspoken patriarchal hypocrisy to shreds.
Let’s face it, if there is one point on which no Pakistani can disagree, it is that Zahra is right in painting us as a mind-bogglingly hypocritical society. This is a country where my Islamiat teacher delivered a fiery lecture on the demerits of usury and interest before unabashedly adding that her husband was a banker. Where people I knew ended their fasts in the month of Ramadan by smoking weed or hooking up. Where the same men who advocate ‘chadar aur chaar dewari’ (veil and four walls) for their mothers, sisters and wives go out and pinch women’s asses in marketplaces without the least bit of concern. In her own small way, Zahra has challenged the double standards that we Pakistanis impose on ourselves.
Her article is clearly elitist. She belongs to a small, Westernised and urban upper class that is entirely divorced from the realities of life in most of Pakistan. So do I. So do you, if you are Pakistani and reading this. However, that alone does not discredit her experiences. They are still just as real, for her. With the dearth of Pakistani voices in the global media, and especially female Pakistani voices, frankly even the most disparaging article is an achievement in and of itself.
Zahra shone a light on slut-shaming in Pakistan. The size of her vagina, sexual appetite and supposed lack of moral fibre have all been referenced in the most vulgar ways online. The trolls do not fully comprehend that the real irony is that their comments justify the writing of the article in the first place. Part of Zahra’s reasoning was that sex is natural. Sex is a choice. Shaming her for it or using straw man arguments such as ‘Western Christians don’t have sex before marriage either’ is pointless. Zahra is not religious. She clearly said that. The taboo around pre-marital sex is socially constructed and not objective or timeless. Whether you choose to wait till your wedding night or not, you do not deserve to be made to feel like shit for it. I only wish that the hundreds of moral vigilantes trashing her online could divert part of their outrage to honour killings, which claim 500 (mostly female) Pakistani lives a year.
Zahra described how the large number of Pakistani men she had sex with did not want to go down on her. This struck many I knew as perhaps the most unnecessarily graphic and attention seeking part of her article. However, as Farda Ali Khan, an English student in Exeter pointed out ‘It’s symptomatic of something deeper. They [the men] want to fuck her, to possess her, but not to pleasure her. Her sexual autonomy or gratification doesn’t matter. Gratifying her would emasculate them.’ Pakistani men by and large equate ‘feminine’ with funny, weak, bad. It still blows my mind to see athletic, straight men at my university dress/do stereotypically feminine things. Why? Gender roles, like attitudes to premarital sex, are not objectively good or bad. They are created through social consensus and evolve over time. Instead of getting into phaddas (fights) and protecting their ‘honour’ by responding aggressively to ma behen (mother sister) insults, perhaps Pakistani men should make opening doors for strangers an essential part of being a man. God knows it would be more fucking productive.
My Pakistani descent has informed my identity to a considerable extent, and I think some criticisms of Pakistan, particularly from amongst the diaspora, can be both unwarranted and unnecessary. However, I think that part of being a good citizen is calling out your nation’s flaws rather than being a petty blood and soil nationalist. Islam, regardless of how it’s portrayed, can be a tolerant, progressive religion, and unequivocally states that no-one should be forced to practice the faith. Even if I did personally agree or disagree with premarital sex, I would not shove my opinions down anyone’s throat or shame them for disagreeing with me.
Equally, I will not lie and say I was not shocked or scandalised by Zahra’s article. Heck, I am still scandalised by it, and think it was insulting and poorly conceived in many ways. However, between the haye haye’s of society aunties, the angry comments by foreign born/raised Pakistanis whose fantasy of a samosa eating Islamic motherland has been challenged, and the taunts (and boners) of self righteous young Pakistani men, Zahra has initiated a much needed discussion that is not likely to go away. Criticise her, yes, but appreciate that maybe, just maybe, she had a point.
Q: ‘What motivated you to write the article?’
A: ‘I wrote the piece with the desire to be as brutally honest as possible about my situation (and the situations of many others, it seems) by raising awareness around hypocrisy, intolerance, slut-shaming etc.
The need for sex education is another primary reason I wrote the article.’
Q: ‘As you pointed out, sexual awareness is sorely lacking in Pakistan. What can be done about this? Do you think your article helped bring this topic to the fore?’
A: ‘Education creates awareness, hence I am advocating sex education within Pakistan, that needs to be introduced in a formal manner for children of pubescent ages. We need to know how our bodies function. How passion and lust are normal human emotions. How sex is a basic human function and a fact of life. I believe I did definitely start a dialogue on the topic. It is a discussion we must have.’
Q: ‘A cursory glance at the comments section on your article shows that a solid majority of those commenting are men. Why do you think this is?’
A: ‘I think they are shell shocked a Pakistani woman has publicly spoken about her premarital sex life, that too on an international level and clearly feels no major qualms about it. Perhaps I may have poked the true sensitivities in some. Perhaps some are thankful I have assisted in relieving their guilt through my piece. Perhaps some are furious that I have shed a negative light on some Pakistani men and their egos are taking a beating. But then there are the ones who have messaged me saying “I want to have sex with your big titties and ass”.’
Q: ‘How would you respond to those who have said your article comes off as elitist and condescending to Pakistanis?’
A: ‘As I mentioned in my article, I myself grew up within that “elitist” society, so we can assume I would possess for knowledge and personal experience regarding that specific class itself. It was not my intention to come off as condescending, and I think the reason why people have assumed my tone is such is because they have decided to believe I am speaking on behalf of every single Pakistani in Pakistan (not true).’
A final reminder to the hordes of so-called ‘Muslim’ trolls Zahra has been facing: I asked the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ): “Who is the most excellent among the Muslims?” He said, “One from whose tongue and hands the other Muslims are secure.” (Bukhari and Muslim 18:2)