Representing Pakistan – Who gets to tell our stories?

So I’ve been watching this giant Twitter argument between a foreigner married to a Pakistani, raising Pakistani daughters, who wants to express his opinion about the state of Pakistani women, versus actual Pakistani women (with Pakistani men lining up on both sides of the debate).

This has tied in to a previous argument about whether or not another foreigner, who has been allegedly hired to promote Pakistan on social media by highlighting the positive aspects of the country, has the right to make comments on Twitter about Pakistan’s internal affairs.

The argument seems to center on how authentic their voices are. Can they really speak for/about Pakistan, being foreigners? Does their whiteness lend them extra credibility, or are they colonizers because of their skin color?

I think the real sensitivity is about who should be telling our stories. When Pakistanis tell our own stories, we reclaim our narrative. Something that former colonizers denied us. This is also related to the wider debate around cultural appropriation.

Can a white American woman who has been extended all sorts of security and protocol present a true picture of Pakistan, or is it the instagram filter version of Pakistan – colors turned up, flaws smoothed away, a sort of artificial positivity that belies the real picture?

Can a white European man truly know what it’s like to be a Pakistani woman? Can he make assertions about the state of Pakistani women’s liberation? Is it his place, as a man with great privilege, to explain Pakistani feminism to Pakistani women? And to dismiss them as “liberals”?

I don’t think that an outsider’s viewpoint is necessarily invalid just by virtue of them being an outsider. Sometimes outsiders observe what insiders miss because of their own blind spots. There is no reason to blindly accept their viewpoint as gospel, nor to dismiss it out of hand as the work of the devil. Their opinion is just that – an opinion. You as a Pakistani are free to accept or reject it – hopefully with a modicum of politeness and a minimum of F-words.

Their being gora or white or foreign or whatever does not lend that opinion extra weight. It just means their perspective is different. Think of it as looking at a painting from two different positions, closer and further, or to the left or right of center.

For those of you defending the foreigners, remember that as Pakistanis, we cannot outsource our representation. It’s our own actions and our own representations that are critical and vital to how we are perceived in the world. No amount of white approval can change that. For those of you cursing the foreigners, it’s tempting to remind them of their place – as outsiders, no matter how many years they live here. Why bother? No need to give them so much importance. Thank them for their service and move on.

Just remember, they’re looking at the painting from a different perspective. It’s we who actually painted the painting. They can tell us what Pakistan looks like to them. But we made Pakistan and continue to make it. Their opinions don’t need to make us feel secure or insecure. What matters most is what we think about ourselves.

And as for those men who dismiss Pakistani women speaking out as “liberals” or “lazy” or part of an elite that can only speak in English: You do not get to tell us how to speak, what to say, in what language to say it. We are Pakistani feminists. We will raise our voices in all the languages our tongues can speak. We have reclaimed the language of our colonizers and WILL use it to disrupt the patriarchy. By dismissing us as “liberals” you reveal exactly on which side of the status quo you stand.  Let us get on with the business of living, working, and agitating against men just like you.

Now, for a great example of Pakistanis telling their own stories, here’s a lovely piece by feminist sociologist Nida Kirmani about how girls and women having fun in Lyari – on bikes, boxing, hanging out – is a defiantly feminist act.