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.