In November 2014, while at a panel on authority and Muslim women bloggers at the AAR Conference (dang, I never wrote about that on this blog, did I? Oops. k, no more promises then), I discovered something about myself: Whenever I am inspired and feel empowered, I want to write something provocative. Provocative in the religious and cultural, especially Pashtun cultural, senses. And the moment I realized this, I felt uncomfortable with this response to inspiration. It’s just too sexy for me, for my people (the Pashtuns), to the understanding of Islam that I grew up with (not that I still uphold all of those ideas I grew up with – just that they influence how I carry myself years after having rejected many of them), to many Muslims. Because one of the presentations on this panel I’d attended was on The Fatal Feminist’s blog entries on nail polish during menstruation, I wanted to write something sexually provocative the moment inspiration was gushing through all over me. And then I stopped my thoughts, went back to the beginning of the thread of thoughts that had brought me to this “very un-Pashtun” decision, and I realized what a privilege it actually must be for a woman, Muslim no less, to be able to talk about her body and something considered so intimate and private as menstruation without feeling guilty and without fearing any consequences. It’s a privilege I am denying myself currently but one that I want to enjoy eventually. And, no, it’s not simple like: “You are freeeee! Write on whatever you want!” Shut up, please.
Now, what’s wrong with being and writing sexy stuff, you might be wondering. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If I haven’t made it obvious on this blog yet, I am entirely for choice – speak about whatever is important to you (including the right for you to talk about sexy things in public), carry yourself however you’re comfortable carrying yourself, believe whatever you believe is right (or just want to). So let me just clarify that my reaction to my reaction of wanting to write about a sexy topic whenever I feel inspired doesn’t mean I don’t think sexy topics should be written about. I actually wish I could and would write about sexy topics on my blog. So, yes, as much as I love the space I have on my blog, the opportunity to write about pretty much anything I feel like without being censored in any way, I have to admit to myself frequently that I do face limits – like the limit of not being able to write about sexy topics. This is why I believe that to be able to write about anything you want, including sexy topics, is to enjoy a certain privilege not all people have.
Back to The Fatal Feminist’s blog and the AAR panel I was enjoying.
Background on nail polish and menstruation: Since it is commonly believed among Muslims that a woman’s ablution (ritual washing for the Muslim prayer) is not accepted if she has nail polish on, many Muslim women don’t wear nail polish – except when they’re menstruating. And so, some Muslims think that the only time a girl wears nail polish is when she’s menstruating. In which case, it’s seen as an announcement to the world that “hey, hey, yo, yo, I’m on my period, and I don’t care if you know!” Most Muslims believe it’s immodest to talk about your period in public, especially in front of men, and some Muslims even believe it’s immodest and unacceptable to talk about it even in front of other women. People who know me well know that I reject all conventional definitions of modest and immodesty and shame; I see them as nothing short of preventing women from celebrating, loving, and enjoying their bodies the way they want to. More on this another time (remind me, though, somebody).
This is why I admire what I find to be The Fatal Feminist’s valor–her audacity, given the understanding of Islam that most mainstream Muslims uphold. It does take courage to speak like this, even if it comes easy to some and is more challenging for others. Writing on such “immodest” subjects can also diminish our authority as Muslim feminists. So some feminists respond by not at all discussing these “sexy” topics publicly, and others do in the hope that more and more Muslims will get accustomed to the reality of “immodest” subjects that some women choose to write on and speak on. Others might respond differently. The importance of writing about topics like menstruation is that it allows a variety of people to read about something that’s rarely written on. This includes men, who actually do need to understand how it works and how different women feel about and react to it. For those who are uncomfortable reading about sexy topics like menstruation is that they have the choice to not read what’s been written.
On intersectionality and being a Pashtun Muslim girl feminist, the question of “modesty,” and associations with the word “sexy”
Before anything, I find it necessary to point out that all Pashtuns are not the same (shocking, I know); there is not such thing as “Pashtun culture” or “the Pashtun culture” because, like all other cultures, “Pashtun culture” actually depends on individual Pashtun families and communities and class and so on. This is why I dislike it when people approach me or write to me about “Pashtun culture.” I have to remind people frequently that I do not represent Pashtun culture; no one does, and no one can. That’s just not fair to the Pashtuns as an ethnic/cultural group of over 60 million humans, complicated and diverse like all other humans.
That said, still, let me straight out say this: It’s hard being a Pashtun Muslim girl feminist who thinks critically about her culture, religion, the religious and cultural (read: patriarchal, often misogynistic) practices of the people I call my own. I want to write openly about so many cultural issues, but I sometimes don’t know how to do it effectively, though I don’t think everything has to be done effectively. Sometimes it’s okay to just write on whatever way you want even if it’s not going to be effective, even if no one will hear. We have problems, and it’s a challenge writing about those problems, especially when you relate to your people on intimate levels and have close ties with them. Several years ago when I first joined Facebook groups on Pashtuns, some of the members who were with me on multiple Pashtun groups decided to create a secret, private Pashtun group for Pashtuns where we could discuss the “bad” parts of our culture–stuff that we didn’t want non-Pashtuns to know because then they’d be like, “See, see, this is why Pashtuns are barbaric!” (You’n read all about this image of the Pashtuns over at this link.) So we do recognize the need to talk about the flaws of our people, but doing so comes with challenges.
It’s not just that it’s tough to write critically about the people I call my own, but another issue is that I’m not simply a feminist or a girl or a Muslim, or what might be categorized as middle class (I’d say lower-middle): it’s also that I’m all of these (and more). So it’s not easy to do what would be considered feminist acts just because I’m a feminist; I’ve to keep the other layers of my identity in mind constantly. My Pashtunness is never going away, nor will my Muslimness nor my feminism. But I can grow and thrive in them and let each be a separate source of empowerment for me, sometimes simultaneously.
Now, as diverse as Pashtun “culture” and we “Pashtuns” are, with all of our culture’s ugliness and all its beauty, I don’t think it’d be wrong to make a certain conclusion about which things we’re not allowed to talk about openly, depending still on class and geography. That list of things is actually very similar to any list on “Islam” and many, many Muslim and non-Muslim cultures that one might create of the things you don’t talk about publicly. So, although these ideas are constantly evolving, check the following out.
A list of some taboo things (especially those associated with immodesty) that Pashtuns are traditionally not to talk about:
love and desire for anyone of the opposite sex and/or gender–but it’s okay to write Poetry about said desire and tell stories of legendary lovers like Adam Khan and Durkhanai; even marriage (it’s more acceptable in my generation to talk about your future marriage, who you’ll marry and won’t marry, etc., than it was in my mother’s generation); drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse, sexual abuse (common to all cultures in varying degrees); any and all things having to do with sex – pre-marital sex, adultery, group sex, sex between people of the same sex and/or gender, porn. Menstruation, menstrual pains (you don’t let males know in any way that you’re not fasting during Ramadhan because they’ll know you’re menstruating), pads, tampons (more and more girls are starting to use pads in my generation than they did in my mother’s, and so when I was in Swat a few years back, my aunts were complaining that girls throw away their pads in the dumpsters without any care for who sees them). Childbirth. Pregnancy, pregnant women, getting pregnant, even showing that you’re pregnant (pregnant women cover their bellies with their long saazar/chador when around not just men but also women, even if everyone knows they’re pregnant). Even hearing and reading the word “sexuality” makes many Pashtuns uncomfortable (and in my experience, many Muslims don’t respond well to the word “sexuality,” either, since I often introduce myself as someone who studies gender “and sexuality” in Islam! One Muslim (male) once told me, “WHAT?! That’s so ironic! How can you use the word ‘sexuality’ with ‘Islam’ in one sentence? That’s so wrong. AstaghfirAllah.”) Forget these things that have at least one point in history been considered immodest among all cultures. Let’s talk even about things like girls smoking, drinking, wearing pants and shirts as opposed to the traditional Pakistani or Afghan clothing like we’re supposed to wear (but, of course, it’s okay if men don’t wear these traditional clothing). Men don’t talk about their sisters, mothers, wives, marriage-able daughters in front of their male friends; that’s an insult to the females’ honor. But, yes, women can and do talk about the men of their households with others, men or women, and that’s not considered wrong.
Heck, Pashtuns don’t even like hearing or reading the word “sexy.” (Again, many Muslim cultures don’t, but let’s stick to talking about Pashtuns, pliss.) It’s an immodest word, the reasoning goes, and it has to do with sex because it includes all the letters of the word “sex.” Especially when a girl uses it – and especially when Orbala is sitting here saying, “Damn, I wish I could write about sexy topics…” since the word “sexy” creates certain images in most Pashtuns’ minds.
What makes it even more difficult is that, in certain cases, an unmarried woman’s voice is far more restricted than an married woman’s. Especially as an unmarried woman, for example, I can’t talk about marriage and marital matters (sex and pregnancy, especially). I mean, if I wrote about sex on my blog as an unmarried woman, may the Good Creator help me … because the expectation/assumption is that I don’t know anything about sex because I’m not married (cuz it none of my business as an unmarried woman). Which reminds me, a woman is also considered more of a child and a little girl if she is not married–even if she’s in her 50s. More on this in another blog post (remind me, someone, pliss).
But I’m my own person, you might think, so why don’t I just write about these “immodest,” “sexy” things, anyway, if I feel like it?
Because that’s not how stuff works; it’s not how life works; it’s not how writing works. Not for me, at least. I have different audiences to keep in mind. Pashtuns read me, and I care about them. While I value their readership and I’m often in a dialogue with them in my blog posts, my concern is not that I’d lose their readership. To be perfectly honest, I actually don’t care much about losing certain audiences, and I have no doubt that I’ve lost many readers already because of the other socially and Islamically uncomfortable topics I’ve written about. But I do care about Pashtuns and some of their cultural and religious sentiments that, if I don’t write about, don’t bring me any harm. Given that I’m currently not completely willing to write about topics Pashtuns consider immodest (other than homosexuality), I have nothing to lose by not writing about them just now. Once I’m fully ready and willing, nothing will stop me.
Choosing not to remain a faceless woman on Pashtun social media is being brave, okay!
I’ve recently started putting pictures of my own self on Twitter and Instagram. This is taboo. This is culturally unacceptable. Many Pashtun men (and Pashtuns aren’t the only ones who respond to a girl’s public photos like this) view this act of “bravery” as a girl’s invitation for men to 1) send her inappropriate messages and invitations (e.g., for sex – oh believe me; I get these, and one day I’ll post on this the screenshots of such messages with the men’s identities), 2) comment on her looks to say whether she’s pretty, ugly, something in between, tall, short, thin, fat, just-right, and say other stuff about her hair and specif body parts, 3) take her photos and share them with anyone and everyone they want, maybe even photoshop them and/or upload them to music videos so that other men can stare at them and pass comments on the woman’s looks and whatnot. This last problem–i.e., having her photos stolen and distributed on social media and even in person–can pose serious threats to a woman’s life in some communities. Someone did that to my photos a few years back, but details on this a paragraph later.
And for those reasons, for the last several years, ever since my social media presence, I’ve never shown a picture of myself to other Pashtuns in public. We (Pashtun women) show pictures of half our faces, our hair, our eyes, blurred faces with full bodies, our clothes, our shoes, our (covered) legs, our children, our pets, our fathers and brothers and sons, nature, our houses, our food. Basically any and all things except our faces. We (girls, women) are not to be identified by others in case they know us or the men of our families and report us to them. Many girls do not use their real names on their Facebooks and use word like Gul Jaana (“Beloved Flower”) in case someone among their relatives finds them on Facebook and sees what they’re up to and then stalks them. We, as a category of women, are supposed to be as invisible as possible and must avoid making any and all efforts that will indicate to the world that we exist, we’re alive, we breathe, we think, we are present in this world. Or men will harm us if we do make our presence known. For example:
Three times between 2009 and 2010, some Pashtun(s) took my photos from Facebook and posted them as background photos to some Pashto songs on Youtube. Without my consent or knowledge. I found out through friends later on. Back then, I used to add Pashtuns all the time to my friends list if they sent me friend requests and we’d had conversations in the FB discussion forums I mentioned earlier. It was supposed to be a slap in my face, a lesson to me — an apparently “decent” Pashtun girl –that if I show my photos to the world, this is what’s going to happen to them. This is why after years of contemplation on the matter, I’ve decided to show my face. By not doing so, I was letting those dummies control my options and decisions. I was showing that I’m afraid of the consequences of showing letting strangers get a hold of my photos online. Once I realized how much I wanted to display my own pics and stop fearing the consequences, I realized also how disempowering it was for me to submit to patriarchal and sexist ideas of what a woman can and can’t do with her own photos, let alone bodies; I realized how being faceless on social media was affecting me. Many Pashtuns online know, read, and respect me, and it is partially because of them that I’m not willing to write about the more sexually taboo topics (but be prepared, Pashtuns: I’ll start doing this soon), so I no longer care that they see the face behind this blog that creates so much controversy on their Twitter and Facebook timelines a couple of times a year.
Still, I’m not supposed to enjoy the privilege to put up a picture of my own face next to my own name (“Orbala” is not my real name) because of the consequences that I’m likely to face. You can see this with any random Pashtun girl on Twitter – she can’t and won’t show her face to her viewers. They’re all aware of the danger of doing this.
My discomfort with writing about these subjects just now also, of course, has everything to do with the values I grew up with. I no longer subscribe to the idea that being “a good girl” is important, that even if you want to be a good girl, you’ve to follow a certain set of criteria and must avoid doing and thinking certain things considered immodest; I understand now how modesty ideals work and what they were created for, and so I reject them. But the feeling of discomfort is still there, as a remnant of my upbringing.
So here’s a Pashtun woman (me) who’s not even supposed to be showing her face on social media and cannot use her real name … wishing she could write about certain topics that she cannot due to cultural restrictions. I understand that this must sound like I’m giving in to patriarchal rules here (I probably am), but in my defense, I’m not yet ready to talk about those things, so it’s not a problem that’s killing me or is stripping me of my agency. When I can’t safely enjoy seemingly very basic things like showing my face or my real name to the public, it’s going to take a lot out of me to freely write about any of the “sexy” topics mentioned in the above list of taboo things for the Pashtuns.
Before I end this, let me make a disclaimer about privilege and sexy talks: basically, none of this is to suggest that sexy talk is any more important than non-sexy talk. A person/girl isn’t any more lucky than I am just because she can raise certain issues more openly than I can. So until I begin writing on sexually provocative or taboo topics, I am going to be reading and supporting what The Fatal Feminist writes over at her blog – and going hmph the whole time. #love