What is 'Pakistani culture' anyway?

Updated October 05, 2016

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Navigating one’s way in Pakistani society often involves an encounter with two pertinent social check posts.

Both of these markers are concerned with how individual behaviours intersect with what is loosely, and often lazily, defined as ‘Pakistani culture’.

There are two key phrases that are touted regularly in this context; the first pertains to the individual, and the second, to society in general.

Every time a Pakistani is likely to find anything objectionable, the catch-all category used to express this sentiment is that the act goes ‘against Pakistani culture’.

The second category is self-ascribing, usually following the grandiose proclamation that ‘Pakistan has a rich and diverse culture’.

Both of these everyday-isms fail to identify what actually constitutes as culture. Both categories also somewhat contradict each other, as rich diversity is generally synonymous with embracing differences.

As a concept, culture is quite hard to confine.

It includes everything that anthropologist EB Tylor defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

This admittedly leaves us with a rather wide canvas.

So when we constantly condemn something as ‘against our culture’, it is often because we have a clearer impression of what our culture ‘isn’t’ rather than what it ‘is’.

Recognising a Pakistan before Partition

Defining what Pakistani culture comprises of would first involve settling on a yardstick and that is a contentious debate in and of itself. It demands a study and acknowledgement of a history that pre-dates partition and locates itself in the ‘land’ of Pakistan as well as the ‘idea’ of Pakistan.

This involves embracing the myriad of languages spoken, local dances and poems that do not ascribe to a religious denominator and unequivocally demands embracing our artists and artisans.

Above all, it means accepting that Pakistani culture is a composite of the events and people that have shaped this land, not just since 1947, but also before it.

Most people tend to be confused about which of these overlapping categories to embrace and which to reject.

In an interesting twist of fate, the ‘culture’ category that we list on postcards and display for foreign dignitaries at embassy events tends to centre around art and literature, language and music.

The very ‘cultural activities’ that many of Pakistan’s self-appointed moral monitors take it upon themselves to denigrate in the interest of safeguarding its ‘culture’.

It is obvious that over time, our ideological and tangible definitions of culture have been framed in opposition.

It is essential that we begin acknowledging more voices in shaping and reimagining our definitions of culture as a concept.

This means embracing minority groups and their narratives; it involves safeguarding traditions of different communities and provinces rather than imposing majority Punjabi / Sunni hegemony onto every single aspect of Pakistani existence.

The reason this project is essential is because at present, Pakistan finds itself divided on its own identity both religious and otherwise.

What one means by the term ‘Islamic culture’ is by no means a monolith, as many would have us believe. There are a myriad of Muslim cultures around the world and none of them seem as vested in buying into a Saudi brand of Islam wholesale as we do.

Being an Islamic country by no means closes us off to evolving and exploring what Pakistani culture means in the 21st century. However, many of us seem hell bent on closing the dozens of doors of interpretation and contexts rather than opening new ones.


We must accept that Pakistani culture is a composite of history, ideology, language, food, art and religion.

Not just religion.


We cannot continue to categorise all these areas separately and always divide them by religion to deem them acceptable or unacceptable.

When underscoring culture, Pakistanis need to acknowledge that our religious identity itself is not a single category.

It is framed by our history, geography and our present policy – what being ‘Islamic’ in a Pakistani context means is variable from person to province and incorporates everything from language to clothing.

This is why it is rather absurd how so much of our cultural baggage involves overly simplistic triggers – modernity, western, honour and of course, women.

The bulk of what we condemn or condone within these categories is purely cosmetic.

Pakistan is far more concerned with maintaining its Islamic appearance rather than its religious values.

This is why what women wear, or where they can walk is of greater collective concern than having an Islamic banking system or punishing violence and corruption. One is a visual confirmation of religiosity that takes little effort and the other is structural, which requires a shift in values and policy.

One loses count of how often we hear about ‘corrupt’ Western practices infiltrating our culture and yet our government has yet to reject Western aid, Fulbright scholarships or boycott junk food.

What we mean by ‘western/modern/secular’ in this context is entirely selective; it has little to do with values or practices and often exclusively rests on the freedom or lack thereof afforded to individuals.

It is about time we stopped viewing culture as a pure, sacrosanct category almost synonymous with religion.

Our culture has never been purely Islamic, from our mostly Hindu-inspired wedding ceremonies to our varying folk dances and dresses.

Eschewing ‘modernity’ in the interest of preserving some false notion of a pure culture is both destructive and debilitating for Pakistan. We cannot stop the rest of the world from filtering into our consciousness through our cell phones and television screens.

Who are 'we'?

What matters is which aspects of this world we embrace, reject, engage with and how.

Moreover, what are we projecting to the rest of the world about who we are?

A recent comment on Dawn.com states:

“@safdar shah We are quickly copy pasting cultures from other societies and expect everyone to accept and follow them. this is transition and there will be causalities. the social media network has catalyzed this process. Sadly, 10 years down the line our local cultures and traditions will be non existent.”

While alarmist and a tad dramatic, the author has a point.

Culture is not a static entity, no matter how invested some of us are in having it remain so.

There are cornerstones of culture, religion definitely being one of them.

But there are also streams and valleys where there is an ebb and flow to tradition.

Our failing lies in assuming that for culture to remain ‘pure’ it somehow requires guardians and gatekeepers.

What we really need to embrace are our multiple histories, languages, art forms and narratives as Pakistanis and embed these alongside our religious identities rather than use the latter to stamp out or downplay all other influences.

Our culture is Faiz and Faraz as much as Friday prayers and Eid celebrations; it is Ajrak and Soosi as much as hijab and sherwani; it is Qawwali and tappay as much as naat and majlis.

All these categories tell stories about the same people in different spaces and none of them cancel out the other.

The reason why Pakistani society seems so deeply divided between the desire to cling to the illusions of a glorious past or fall blindly into a foreign future has a lot to do with our deep failing to negotiate with our present.