By Hasan Zakria
Disclaimer: The experiences I detail in this article are by no means limited to Pakistani men, but it is within the context of a Pakistani household that I write.
It’s 2004 and after following my mother and auntie to a mehndi class, I ask them to put some henna on my hand. Soft laughter echoes around the room, along with a few ‘Awws’. There is no hesitation, as my auntie begins designing a daisy on my palm. I am delighted by the result, and proceed to walk around the room, showing everyone. Although simple in design, and somewhat wonky, I still managed to appreciate its beauty. The beauty of the flower, the beauty of the dye, and the beauty of the method with which it was applied.
This is a memory which I will always hold fondly, for I know it can never be repeated. While back then, my request was seen in all its innocence, if it were to be uttered again, the response would not be as sympathetic. There are many memories I have similar to this, which were only allowed to exist due to my young age. The common trait between all of these memories was the presence of actions and behaviours which would now be deemed as feminine.
For Pakistani men, the onset of puberty triggers the forced acceptance of gender segregation, where the distinction between men and women is emphasised. The mind begins to make sense of its new surroundings, attempting to bring logic into this illogical situation. I tell myself, surely there is a justifiable reason why I cannot sit with my mother as we attend a gathering, as I struggle to make conversation with my uncle and cousins I never knew existed, in this new male-only space.
Now that I have lost the sense of belonging I took from being in female spaces, I find that I am recoiling into myself. I don’t feel comfortable with the hyper masculinity that exists within male-dominated spaces, but no matter how much I protest and plead, access to my previous space is now restricted. Regardless of how much beauty and comfort exists within female spaces, it is now a case of ‘You can look, but do not touch’.
For many years I existed in a state of limbo, limiting the way in which I expressed myself. I viewed much around me as distinctly feminine or masculine, whether it be conversation topics, clothing, music etc. In an ideal world, this is not how I wanted to exist, restricted due to the way I have been socialised to think and behave. The Hasan that existed was a hollow shell, I didn’t recognise myself.
It is only recently that I have begun to challenge the idea that anything is intrinsically feminine or masculine, but rather a label that has been placed by society. When my auntie tells me that I cannot be wearing that perfume as it is for women, I tell her “You cannot put a gender on smell”. I will no longer let anyone tell me what is and is not for me. I no longer have to exist within a particular space, to be allowed to exhibit certain behaviours. I can express myself wherever and however I like.
I would like to add that much of what I have detailed can be relatable for many people, regardless of ethnicity and nationality. However, I want to use this platform to stress the fact that within Pakistani society, we need to be having conversations about gender and the psychological impacts of enforcing views on what it means to be a man or woman. There is so much beauty in our society and it should be shared, not restricted.
Hasan is studying History and South Asian Studies at SOAS, University of London, you can find him on Instagram @madonnatriedtoadoptme