by Salwa Tareen
To say that sex is taboo in Pakistan is an understatement. Just this week a Pakistani minister criticized party leader Imran Khan because his children lived in a city in England whose name alone was too sinful to say.
The city? Middlesex, of course.
With political leaders shuddering at the mention of the word, it comes as no surprise that sex is rarely a topic of conversation among Pakistanis at home and abroad.
Yet, when a young Pakistani woman recently offered an intimate look into her sex life for VICE, Pakistanis worldwide suddenly had something to say.
In the piece titled “What I Learned Having Sex as a Young Woman in Pakistan,” Zahra Haider wrote openly about her sex life both as a teenager in Pakistan and an adult in Canada. She contrasts Pakistan’s position as “statistically the horniest country in the world” with its identity as the Islamic Republic, where pre-marital sex is not only looked down upon but has been historically punishable by force.
Despite living under these conditions in Pakistan, Haider describes how she both pursued her sexual desires as a teen by sneaking around in cars and hotel rooms and faced the grave consequences of getting caught. Haider, now in her 20s, believed things would be different once she moved to Canada in 2012. However, even within a more sex-positive environment, she found that she still had much to learn about herself and her desires.
The article has since drawn a fury of celebration and condemnation from Pakistanis across the globe. Ali Moeen Nawazish, a popular Pakistani social media celebrity, called Haider an elitist who unfairly characterized Pakistanis as “diseased.” Other critics were far less sophisticated in their name-calling.
As for herself, Haider welcomes both her supporters and detractors:
“I wrote the piece in an attempt to burst the inherent bubble of denial and hypocrisy we tend to live in within South Asian communities. I wanted to create a much-needed dialogue around sex awareness and sex education – and it seems like I’ve succeeded. I believe we need to practice being more accepting, more tolerant towards people’s preferences and lifestyle choices; starting with something as basic as one’s sexuality, which is a fundamental part of being.”
As a Pakistani-American woman, I admire Haider’s courage to embrace both her identity and sexuality. While many readers have focused on Haider’s sexual preferences or the number of sexual partners she’s had, her story offers much more than a scandal.
Haider’s story is not the frivolous account of a reckless, high society teen. As Haider describes in detail, throughout her life her sexual experiences were defined by political and social forces. Therefore, it is impossible for her sex life not to be an issue of public discourse. Why then, should she not have an opportunity to respond?
It is true that women in Pakistan face a variety of significant problems from honor killings to acid attacks. It is also true that Pakistani women are some of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever known. And yet, these truths do not discount the importance of Haider’s own experience.
This is not to say sex-positivity is the only path to women’s liberation, but it does offer an opportunity to imagine a drastically different, perhaps more accepting reality. Whether you are sexually active or a virgin, one can appreciate Haider’s earnest intent to break with tradition and create a dialogue around desire, education and independence.
Salwa Tareen is a recent college graduate, community organizer, and writer from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Through her work, she seeks to explore the intersections of language, identity, and politics whether it’s in the form of a poem, dialogue, essay or literature review. In her spare time, as a Pakistani-American woman born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Canada, Salwa enjoys crafting clever quips to the question: “No, where are you really from?”