Khanyisile Mbongwa

“Just adapt”: some thoughts on Pakistani culture

Culture is a fragile social construction that often inhibits dialogue and connections between people. The intensity of an outsider on native lands draws from the social conditions structured for social survival and can be detrimental in the engagement as two bodies attempt to occupy the same space.

NOTE TO SELF: My first few days in Islamabad (Pakistan) were challenging as they brought forward anxieties around being a woman and my body. Suddenly, I was visible to myself in a new dimension – as a sexually physical necessity. After a conversation that I think was to serve as a guideline as to how I should conduct myself, getting dressed in the morning became an issue, a process of censoring, and it was agonizing because now I was suddenly aware of my every curve, my protruding bosoms, which bra makes them appear bigger, the strip of my bra, my collar bones. You probably get the idea: everything in my suitcase felt and looked inappropriate. Oh my gosh.

In Pakistan there is no negotiation between space, language, ideas, identity or even of basic existence. Rather, negotiation becomes a one-sided affair, where conformity is the only option given. There is no alternative.

My presence then, was fatal to the natives of the land. Whether I questioned their cultural existence or not, mine was surely under scrutiny as I was subtly reminded that how I dress will determine the amount of respect I will receive in public spaces.

Disturbing narratives were being imposed on my body and its existence: a complete sexualisation which I (apparently) had brought upon myself because of who I am and how I presented myself. This was disturbingly evident from a strained dialogue I was having with fellow Pakistani artists that were sharing the space. My ordinary clothes had ceased to be ordinary – they had become sexual objects that further ostracized my plea of existing within the contours of the land and culture. I knew upon landing that I was going to occupy margins of some sort, but I had not imagined it being this intense. The brutal attack by a fellow artist going on about my aesthetical presentation marginalized me even further.  Although I felt (and knew) the attack was unfounded, her blunt unwillingness to negotiate even on a theoretical/conceptual level, was disturbing. Because, you see, the culture practiced here was “ultimately correct”, that Islam, beyond all questionability, was the “only way forward” both religiously and culturally. You should have seen my face when this realization hit me: my ears slowly turned red and my mouth started twitching – it was hilarious.

I felt oppressed by her existence within the same physical space since my private experience of alienation had become a debate between me and her. And her stance on how I had to conduct myself was clear: “Just adapt”, she said (as if this was an easy process that needed no negotiating, as if it was completely self-evident), suppressing me into a self that I had not even began to negotiate with – a self that not only contrasted with my previous selves, but one that I did not understand and whose inclination caused not only mechanical friction but also emotional friction inside of me.

Mundane activities suddenly became acts/performances of self-consummation. After every shower, the simple act of getting dressed became a terribly complicated one: The weather no longer exclusively determined how I dressed – the morals and culture of the natives suddenly became a major factor. I became increasingly self-conscious and uncomfortable.

The discussion-turned-argument with the fellow Pakistani artist completely negated my attempts to negotiate with existing here in Pakistan. I had already realised my failure to exist during the first four days, but now a new force had made itself known as it shaved me into this particular mode of being, without any consideration for  the complexity of such an act.


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Ayesha Omer says:

Dear Khanyisile,

I am a Pakistani woman artist activist. I just completed my Masters in Arts Politics from New York University and am currently living in Karachi. I write to you because I am troubled by your thoughts on Pakistani culture, and also troubled by the oppressive nature of your discussion-turned-argument with some Pakistani artists.

The concept of space is an important one for any artist. I am currently in the process of creating my own space where I am not oppressed creatively, culturally, politically and economically. This creation of space is at once an internal need and an external voyage–a journey, a process. It is not readily available in any society and, as you aptly call it, must be re-imagined. My struggle for such a space as an artist and an art student in New York City–one of the most artist-friendly places in the world–made me certain of that fact.

Since we are talking of space, i find your words lacking space for the other. I am also a poet and i like my words crisp, over-flowing with my voice, and that tends to leave no space for the other, either.

‘In Pakistan there is no negotiation of space, language, ideas, identity or even of basic existence’ .

I spent four years in the United States, and despite all the times I felt oppressed there as a person of colour, a Muslim, a woman, I still cannot describe the United States with the ‘apparent’ determination and absolutism of your words.

Because the United States isnt one thing, it is many things. pakistani culture is not one thing, it is many things. and sitting in islamabad, talking to some artists will give you an idea of the culture you seem to know like an expert, but it wont give you anything but an idea-a single idea.

complexity must be engaged to know, to re-imagine the detailed landscape of space.

no wonder everything feels sexualized.

you describe your Urban Scape movement as that which “engages with space through the historical and contemporary urban landscape – examining the credo of identity informed by language, race and sex”

i prefer the word observing to examining because in the examination of people as representatives of their religion and culture, you are committing the very act of ‘oppression’ and objectification that you are disturbed by. (examples of outrage of ‘examination’ lie in the gay rights movement, in colonialism where white men examined foreign, savage cultures, called them oppressive, pagan and backward, as they simultaneously occupied them).

some would call your morning censorship as an act of respect for the traditions of the ‘natives’ (who you don’t really know too well, because if you did you would know that Pakistan is a land of multiple ethnicities, each attributing different values to sex and women’s sexuality [i prefer using that word to female bodies]).

but everything is context. to an artist occupied in the politics of sex, race and language, everything will read as signifier of abuse. that comes as no surprise to me. (i am used to hearing and correcting the dialog: islam oppresses women, considers all non-muslims as infidels, wants to impose shariah law on everyone…i am sure everyone reading this sentence knows the rest). i reply usually with: no, women’s oppression is not religious but economic, all religions are divisive by design and there is significant history to prove so, and you know nothing about islamic jurisprudence so it is useless to even talk about shariah law).

what really surprises me is the fact that you find Pakistan unique in its call for adaption. if i go to cape town, will i not be expected to respect norms, customs, traditions?

i remember once getting off a subway in new york’s chinatown and hearing a black woman telling an asian man to learn english or go back to his country. i wanted to tell that black woman, hey this country doesnt really belong to you. it was stolen from the ‘native’ americans, as well as mexicans, so who do you think you are to raise such a claim?

how can you go into Pakistan, or any other country, as an artist who does not know its major customs? because your chosen ignorance is ‘apparent’ of a colonial mindset. a privileged mindset. and how can you insist on being oppressed, when you are conducting a similar oppression of judging a complex culture with one sweeping stroke of your singular failure to ‘exist’?