A Lahore girl, living in US, returns home to find a changing society.
[By Maryam Arif; picture by Jawad Zakariya]
Coming from an all-girls Convent school, it was taboo to talk about boyfriends. Not to say that people weren’t going out, just that no one ever spoke about it. We believed that guys never married girls they went out with, and we were training to become good wives, not girlfriends.
But times were changing. My juniors seemed more confident, and their juniors even more forthcoming about romantic relationships. Unlike most of my friends, I went from Convent to a co-educational college. Things were more relaxed there. There was less sexual tension. Somehow it seemed a more natural and normal environment.
Boys and girls could be friends or lovers, both roles being for the most part quite acceptable.
Then I decided to come to the United States for higher education. I was to live in Boston, a city in the most liberal part of the country. Thanks to the globalization of MTV and McDonalds, I did not really experience culture shock. There was however an identity crisis. What does it mean to be a Pakistani, a South Asian, and a Muslim in American society? Initially, I felt like I had to defy all things American to be Pakistani. I had to preserve my cultural values in their purest form. It was all about holding on to the roots and showing cultural pride.
I must not smoke, drink, eat haram food or think about boys. Must not become like those American girls who flirt openly and talk loudly about their sexual experiences. I decided that best way would be to adorn the traditional attire and be reserved. I couldn’t let them corrupt me.
When I went home in the summer after freshman year, I found that I was too conservative for my Pakistani counterparts who embraced modern culture. While I walked around with a paranda in my long braid and a dupatta on my head out of respect for the local culture, the locals were bold in their fashion statements. The shirts were tighter, the shalwars shorter, the jeans lower and the cargos baggier than I remembered. I felt outlandish. That was culture shock.
Next year I witnessed more changes. More cafés and chic restaurants had sprung up all over the place. Smoking "shisha" and going to dance parties was as cool as speaking English with an American accent. After two years of living in the U.S. my accent did not compare to that of Lahoris working in call centers.
A friend from Karachi, whom I had met in Boston, came to visit. We went to the hip Café Life for dessert and witnessed what we never imagined we would see in Pakistan - lots of intimate couples romancing openly. Why was this so shocking?
While "dating" sounds like a western concept, the idea is in fact not. It is a human concept. People are attracted to each other and look for ways to express their emotions. If it is not suppressed, I think it is a pretty universal phenomenon. Of course, people in different cultures at different times have different beliefs regarding the practice of courtship.
The college experience in America has transformed me in many ways. I can connect better with rebellious lovers and have come to resent their over-protective parents and family members. I have come to value freedom and independence.
As far as the question of traditional values is concerned, we must ask ourselves what part of orthodox society is worth preserving and what is not. Certain traditions must be challenged. Silence is not a virtue. Suppressing and discouraging natural processes can lead to frustration, aggression and dissatisfaction with life. Society will benefit from individuals being aware, open, and accepting of their sexuality. It will lead to a more educated, responsible, and enlightened world.
[This viewpoint completes the Dating in Pakistan Series. A Valentine's Day Special Photo Essay by acclaimed photographer Usman Ahmed will draw the curtains.]