Who defines the ‘other’ Pakistan?

Published July 11, 2014
We are already the so-called ‘other’ Pakistan, perhaps just not ‘other-enough’.
We are already the so-called ‘other’ Pakistan, perhaps just not ‘other-enough’.

A recent Reuters photo feature posted on the Dawn website titled "Through a Foreign Lens: The Other Pakistan” has caused quite the storm in many-a-teacup - and for good reason.

It is no doubt problematic because it depicts a homogenous elite that is visually constructed (through photographs) to appear completely alien from what one imagines to be the ‘rest’ of Pakistan.

What I find particularly interesting about this piece is the title chosen, as it simultaneously alludes to a ‘foreign gaze’ operating on defining an ‘other’ in Pakistan.

In post-colonial theory, the word ‘subaltern’ was coined by Antonio Gramsci to describe ‘history told from below’ - groups that were completely removed or deliberately excluded from society’s power structures.

While often rendered incomprehensible because of her sheer verbosity, post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak does explain the problems with subaltern constructions and ‘other-ising’ very well when she says:

. . . subaltern is not just a classy word for “oppressed”, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie. . . . In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now, who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern. . . . Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don't need the word ‘subaltern’ . . . They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern.

The Reuters photo feature shows a class that is no less ‘Pakistani’ than any other because no matter what any of us would like to think, the minimum requirement for being Pakistani is still only a matter of citizenship, a CNIC number and an accident of birth.

Many of us would like to think we have the monopoly of defining what or who ‘real’ Pakistan or Pakistanis are, but we don’t. Everyone wants to claim this rather limited space of ‘reality’ for themselves.

The labourer, the feudal, the politician, the academic, the maulvi, the feminist, the poet, the artist, the elite, the Taliban… all think they have dibs on Pakistan’s ‘reality’. The truth, however, is that all these groups struggle for space within the ‘real’ geographic boundaries in the same land.

No matter how much we like to think countries are about ideologies and constructions, the lowest common denominator is that countries are about geography and citizens are responsible for creating identities for them.

Clearly, as this article aptly identifies, our constructions have become rather confused and one-sided.

As a principle, I try to avoid reading the comments beneath online articles because as much I wish this weren’t the case, I tend to believe that intelligent debate seldom occurs on the Internet. Certainly not on Internet comment forums, where the goal is not really to engage but often only to pontificate, with some exceptions.

However, I was intrigued about this piece, and where the thought strain flowed:

Wow, what a presentation by DAWN. They did full justice to one very tiny but very wealthy ultra modern part of Pakistan. Wake up Dawn, this is not the real Pakistan. All of them shown here are the imported lot of Pakistanis. They may be talented but may be wasted when it comes to culture and heritage.

Again, who defines the ‘real’ Pakistan? And who speaks for them?

If the ‘real’ Pakistan is the disenfranchised poor, then how do they speak and to whom?

More to the point, who listens to them and how often?

We need to think along the lines of such constructions if we are ever going to progress beyond name-calling between rich and poor.

As for ‘imported’, sad to say these people are just as home-grown and Pakistani as anyone else. They simply traverse the norm and so many of us might feel more comfortable if we didn’t have to deal with them by labelling them ‘imported’.

Dawn should now show pictures of how the maids of these very people live. How these people treat their gardeners, drivers and cooks will give a better perspective of these peoples mentality. It’s nice to be rich, but the real character of a person is understood by how they treat others who have less material wealth than they do. Pakistan is full of wonderful people who are not rich but do what they can to help others with what little they have. Dawn needs to shine the light on those also.

I fully agree with this comment. It would be interesting to see the flip side of this piece in terms of domestic labour and human rights, hopefully one that isn’t as fetishised in one direction as this piece was.

These people are o.ooooo1 per cent of Pakistan. Let’s focus on real life in Pakistan and not show how brazen is the divide. Hated the picture where the maid is waiting for Madam to get off her facebook and take the water glass from her. Is this what we should be preaching?

‘Real life in Pakistan’. This is interesting. What is that?

Are the lives of the elite and uber-elite in Pakistan not ‘real’, or is it perhaps, more effective, to say they don’t have problems but rather, issues. But who defines problems as only those of abject poverty and militancy as ‘real’, while everything else is relegated to the terrain of… the surreal.

As for the photograph of the Filipino maid, YES that is disturbing and it doesn’t send the best message, but does that mean it is preaching anything?

If most of us, who viewed it were disgusted by it, perhaps it serves a good purpose.

Naseer Ahmad Virk:
The culture what these people are trying to develop is totally unacceptable by the citizens of Pakistan. As it doesn’t suit in any way in our society. With such culture and lifestyle we are about to lose our integrity, religious values and recognition as well. Every nation in the world has some specific values and what do we have? Of course some people are ‘Other Pakistan’, they are mentally ill and abnormal as they can’t survive socially either in Pakistan or abroad. They are living but feeling hesitation to make themselves emerged in the society. There is no positive aspect to their life. Such lifestyle holds no respect to parents, no respect to elders, nothing to do with religion, no respect for lower-class people.

This particular comment is one I encounter often and it always disturbs me.

What is our ‘culture and lifestyle’ pray tell, if some people dressing differently, a woman playing cricket or kickboxing, can destroy it?

Why doesn’t the fact that rape is almost never really prosecuted as a crime in our society destroy our ‘culture and lifestyle’?

Why do ‘honour killings’ not ‘destroy’ our culture but sadly, often affirm it?

How do we lose our ‘integrity, religious values and recognition’ based on what certain people do in the privacy of their homes, or how they dress in public, rather than by twisting our religious freedoms to label everyone but ourselves as the ‘wrong kind of Muslim’?

‘Mentally ill and abnormal’, as opposed to what?

Militants labelled ‘extremist’ who ‘butcher thousands’ but are still somehow ‘normal’ enough for us to want to have a national dialogue with?

Also read: The trivialization of rape in Pakistan

What this photo feature should really make us focus on is divides. And for once, how each of us, contributes to them.

There is a very odd, little loophole in subaltern studies that relates to ‘mediums’. These are agents within largely disenfranchised societies who have through education, privilege, money, power, et al elevated themselves along the class rank.

Traditionally, the agent is supposed to help bridge the social and intellectual gaps between communities. How do we do this when many of us cannot even admit or recognise the extent to which these gaps exist?

Also read: Bridging social divides

Let us think of a single forum on which the rich and poor in Pakistan engage or interact outside of the established power structure… it’s a difficult exercise. In the Western world, this space of interaction is filled in public platforms where people stand and wait in lines outside banks, passport offices and subway stations.

In Pakistan, many elite families get someone to ‘take’ their spot in these long lines and call them when their turn comes to avoid ‘public’ interaction.

Our grandparents had the opportunities to elevate themselves, and the phrase ‘self made’ really meant something back in the 60’s and 70’s when someone who tilled the fields could conceivably make it to an elite school, based on merit and pull themselves and their family into a different class.

This space is virtually non-existent now. How many children from elite families study with poor children in school?

Of course it’s about class. That is so obvious, it doesn’t merit stating. Everything is about class and constructed class.

 -Photo courtesy of Samia Haque/Facebook
-Photo courtesy of Samia Haque/Facebook

All the rage about how this feature and these pictures speak to and about the elite; let us all open our eyes - we are reading this article, hating or appreciating it on the internet, so obviously we can afford an internet connection, on a laptop or computer since this is a blog which means we have a computer, in ENGLISH, so we can obviously read fluently in English - and by that default belong to the small per cent of Pakistan’s elite.

 -Photo courtesy of Mahwash Ajaz - insidedisillusion.wordpress.com
-Photo courtesy of Mahwash Ajaz - insidedisillusion.wordpress.com

We are already the so-called ‘other’, perhaps just not ‘other-enough’?

So, let us all stop sermonising about how we are not reflecting the ‘real’ Pakistan. None of us really are.

We all speak for subalterns every day and think we are doing them a huge favour just by making the attempt. It is mostly an exercise in self-gratification. I know, I’ve done it and so have many others on some level because it is so much easier than acknowledging our own roles in class construction.

Real assistance doesn’t require redemption or recognition it is done in silence and the scale of the struggle weighs you down so cripplingly that one doesn’t have time to brag about their efforts.

These women are Pakistani. Let us please refrain from telling others who they are and are not.

It is dangerous; this whole ‘Let me tell you what kind of woman/person/Muslim you are… or aren’t. Because naturally, I am the best judge on ‘who you are’ is derivative, it is not a solution to anything and only perpetuates our problems.

These pictures - while some seem empowering and others reflect skewed power structures - are all pictures of real subjects, living in Pakistan. They too are a microcosm of the same society.

Does this mean they shouldn’t be heard or seen, just like we say certain classes or castes shouldn’t?

What good does that do for anyone?

If anything, we need to see them and try and identify where our disconnect arises.

Pakistan has a dwindling middle class, which means that the space between the proverbial ‘haves and have-not’s practically resembles the tiny funnel in the middle of a time-turner. We cannot afford for the globes at the top and bottom to become even further blinded to each other’s existence.

It’s really the title of the story that is … telling, to say the least.

We all have our ‘others’, the people we think are so far removed from our reality, that they couldn’t possibly find common ground to talk from. We reinforce these stereotypes everyday by removing all possible interactions between classes.

So, our ‘others’ and their ‘others’ will never even have a chance to meet ‘each other’.

There is a popular phrase making the rounds these days ‘Check your privilege’, it’s an exercise I make my students perform, each of us place ourselves into statistical boxes: Religion, Region, Province, City, City area, Language, Income, Gender, etc. and rank ourselves according to our privilege to denominate who we cannot speak for.

The goal isn’t to limit our expression but to revise it and contextualise it, so the next time we speak on behalf of someone we can recognise ourselves as part of the problem.

We should all do this, all the time and thereby try to talk to our ‘others’ whoever they may be, on a footing removed or at least aware of our individual privilege. The goal isn’t to shut out images and voices that are different but rather not to project ‘difference’ and divide as our only identity.

The title of this piece mentions a foreign lens and it is particularly telling that a foreign gaze looks at us and observes only the disconnect, the divide and the extremes.

That, my friends, is our fault… yours and mine, not theirs.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does the same apply for ‘ugly’? Or do we, the beheld, also need to start looking back?



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