Conversation: Queerness and the Postcolony
This is the second essay in this conversation. TQ Salon is a series of conversations among activists and scholars of South Asia. The first essay can be found here.
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A trans activist I admire, Alok Vaid-Menon, once said in an interview that their coming out was much more about their politics than their gender or sexual identity.1 This statement resonated with me because it resisted the western queer imperative to make public declarations about one’s queerness at the cost of one’s safety; but more so, it resonated with me, because the political has always been personal for me. Because sometimes I wonder if it was actually my experience with Pakistani Muslim patriarchy and my resulting feminism that turned me queer, that re-directed my desires from heteropatriarchal confinement to queer feminist self-care. I wonder how I can safely “come out” with a narrative that I know will inevitably result in a ferocious backlash by those want to convert me “back” to heterosexuality. And I wonder constantly how I can nurture such politics that challenge, and perhaps even harm, “global” LGBT movements, the only movements available to me and my brown queer comrades.
Alok grew up in racist America; so for them, coming out meant identifying with a movement that was anti-racist and anti-colonial. I however, grew up in Pakistan and went to America for college; now I have two different primary audiences, and my arguments directed toward one audience constantly get appropriated by the other. How does one come out with a coherent politic when one is constantly shuttling between spaces that attack in different ways? How do I make a consistent anti-colonial feminist queer argument when I know that my truth will get taken up to suit a kind of “progress” that I stand firmly against, to perpetuate a kind of “culture” that turned me queer in the first place? How do I speak about the Pakistani heteropatriarchy I grew up in without my voice getting appropriated by white feminists and queers in America to feed their homonationalism and colonial feminism? And how do I challenge the racism and inherent imperialism of western LGBT movements without letting the religious right wing in Pakistan appropriate my critiques to justify their homophobia?
My story, like the stories of so many others who live on bridges and are fighting different fights on the two sides, is full of violent edits. It is filled with crosses and absences. This is not because the two sides of the bridge are opposed to one another. Rather, the religious right in Pakistan (with its homophobia and misogyny) has historically worked in tandem with western imperialism to dismember the brown queer body. Yet, despite overlapping histories, these two forces of violence appropriate different parts of our bodies. Western liberalism appropriates our struggles with our community’s heteropatriarchal violence to feed American exceptionalism and homonationalism, while the mullahs at home (and their followers) appropriate postcolonial arguments to dismiss any fight for gender and sexuality as a western evil.
So my queer “coming out” shifts and slips as I enter and exit my two different spaces. When I speak to white feminists and LGBT activists—and their whitewashed native informants— I find myself defending the worst parts of my upbringing to resist their orientalizing gaze. As I make vicious revisions to my narrative, I find myself telling white people that no, in fact, my Pakistani father and uncles were not all vile patriarchs. Sometimes I even find myself glorifying the homoeroticism that was fostered during my teenage interactions in patriarchal homosocial spaces as I amplify the delicious queer ruptures of girls-only classrooms, and erase the accompanying everyday trauma present in bedrooms and kitchens.
When I am in Pakistani Sunni Muslim spaces, spaces that constitute most of urban Pakistani experience, I find myself reiterating the arguments made by white feminists to resist mullah misogyny, magnifying the voices of women who alienate my mother for not being “empowered” enough. I fight with the self-righteous Muslim men around me by using a colonial language of social justice that has historically disempowered my own people. When I talk to my family about that thing called LGBT rights, I find myself inevitably stumbling into English. I argue with my father by using words like “normative” and “homophobia,” even though I know that such language marginalizes my silent mother, who usually observes such arguments without being able to participate, despite her compassion for the disempowered. And when I try to tackle the violence of compulsory heterosexuality in my community, I find myself quoting the manifestos of western women who made sure my own grandmothers would never have the power to resist their raj.
So as I keep on shuttling between spaces, I keep on making edits. I keep backspacing important histories. I keep alienating my aunties. And I keep defending my uncles.
Like many of my queer comrades, I shuttle not only because I am always anxious of others appropriating my narrative, but also because I don’t really know how to process and narrate my queerness, how to come out politically through a narrative that is mine, that refuses to be globalized. Part of the reason for our collective shuttling is our lack of a queer narrative that is local, that is written in our indigenous languages such as Pashto, Balochi, Saraiki, and Balti, that moves beyond mining sufi poetry for (exclusively male) homosexual instances, whose plot line is not given to us by the global allyship of mullah-ism and neocolonialism.
The only way to find a comfortable spot on the bridge, to stop our anxious and at times traumatic shuttling, is to create a different narrative, a narrative outside of LGBT and pride parades, a narrative that fits with our local histories and cultures even as it seeks to challenge them. In a previous Tanqeed article on queerness in Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto astutely points out the need for a language that is specific to Pakistan and one which can do political work without always plummeting into western academic jargon. In addition to finding our own language, we also need to discover and create our own queer stories that defy, or at least lie outside of the, “Born this way” “I don’t have a choice” and “Love is Love” rainbow-washed narratives fed to us by mainstream LGBT America. We need to publicize those stories and write those histories that do not necessarily fit the romance and performance available to us through western cultural productions. Otherwise, we will keep shuttling as the West continues to box us into a development narrative, informing us that we are only 50 years behind, that we will eventually get to their rainbows with the benign help of IMF loans and liberal drones.
We need a narrative that includes our local smells, our local colors, that has the ability to embrace our dupattas, our qawwalis, our jaaman-colored purpled fingertips; one that our aunties can relate to, that does not let our western-educated generation use our privilege against our own communities. So even as I shuttle between dominant American and dominant Pakistani spaces, I dream of the day we won’t have to get our bodies torturously inscribed by the mainstream LGBT machine simply to justify our humanness to others. I dream of the day when we will be able to celebrate intersectional queer movements that are not western, that are not androcentric, that are not even national, but regional and local, that resist Pakistani nationalism as much as they resist western imperialism, that do not fall into the traps of NGOized feminism. Shuttling, after all, is just a painful and urgent call for the day we won’t need the colonizer’s “global” narrative to fight our own families as we justify our right to exist. The contradictions in our current narratives are a plea for a time when resistance will not encompass making violent edits to our own stories, when radical queer work will not involve selectively expunging parts of our own bodies and memories to fit our shuttling politics.
Nayyeema is a Pakistani queer-lesbian feminist who writes about anti-colonial and anti-nationalist politics. She believes strongly in decolonizing mainstream feminist and LGBTQIA movements, and is usually found reading Audre Lorde over and over again. She blogs at https://queerzenana.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7Gh2n9kPuA [↩]