Monday, August 12, 2013

From a Traveler-Reader: On Pashtuns, Homosexuality, Gender, and Marriage in the Pashtun Society

I don't check my blog email as frequently as I need to so I can respond to my blog readers more speedily, so I apologize to anyone I haven't yet responded to or who thinks I'm very slow at responding. I tend to be, and I'm very sorry about that :) Especially lately, what with all the traveling and then coming home and more traveling and then family events, so I've been a little busy. I'm going to try to be better to my readers, so bear with me, all, please. Thanks!

Below is an email I received from a reader who has some great insight into the Pashtun culture and society--and Pashtuns themselves--and, with his consent, I'm going to share much of it here. P., as we'll call him, is a "gora," as he says in the first line (lol), which means a white person. He is an Australian male who's traveled throughout Pashtunkhwa and FATA (the majority-Pashtun northwestern province of Pakistan and the tribal areas of the country) and wrote to me share his experiences, observations and some of the conversations that he had with Pashtun men there.

The reason I want to share it is, as he notes himself, his observations here are keenly related to my interests (gender, marriage, sexuality issues), and the things he has to say about all this might interest many. As he realizes, he as an outsider/white traveler gets more privilege to hear some inside stories than we as insiders would. And then, of course, as a male, he gets to know it all from men's perspective, which is often left out when we discuss these things. Although he often reminded the men he hung out with that he was heterosexual, not interested in or involved with other men, they still discussed homosexuality and other men with him frequently. In his words: I always made it clear I was 100% only interested in women (however they would essentially make the same claim but then say something like "but girls aren't always available to us."

And the kinds of people he meets ... too fascinating! Basically: there's the man who got imprisoned in Denmark for robbery and his wife and her family never found out about it while arranging their marriage; there's the man who likes watching Australian cricket because "they show naked women" (lolz!); the boy who "kisses girls" and has a girlfriend he'll never marry because "she talks to boys" (but we know how typical this is, right? Hypocrites); the guy who told him he's often done sexual favors for older men for money. What's striking here, also, is the fact that, as P. notes himself, when it came to his (P.'s) western lifestyle, the folks were interested in hearing about love/relationships between girls and boys only, not in homosexual love/relations--as though it's a crime or a sin when  Westerners indulge in homosexuality while these people did it themselves commonly.  Then there is the brothel he visited. And, of course, the fact that Pashtuns are indeed the most hospitable people on earth. And that they take their pardah (seclusion of women) very seriously.
Much of it brought a smile to my face while reading (and now re-reading). So, enjoy!

Note: To anyone who might not be familiar with how the Pashtun (and many other Muslim and eastern societies) function: we're highly gender-segregated, so the mixing of men and women is generally uncommon. That's why you see that P. talks about his conversations and hang-outs with men only and not with women or gender-mixed groups.

Here goes his emails in block quotes in blue.
Given your interest I thought I (a humble gora ;-) would share some experiences of my travels in Pakhtunkhwa, particularly my interactions with the people pertaining to issues you seem particularly fascinated by (marriage, gender, sexuality, islam etc...). it might provide some primary (albeit emperically useless) research gathered by an outsider. I often got the feeling because I am am seen as a foreign sporn of shaitan, people were more open discussing and satisfying their curiosity about certain things.

The first time I visited Peshawar was in February 2011, then again in June 2011 and February 2012. 

Some random memories.... I snuck into FATA with some new friends and visited a school with primary aged boys and girls studying together. I discussed love and girlfriends with students of Islamia College, I met a Danish-born Pathan who had been to jail for 6 years for armed robbery, got out, came back to Peshawar for basically the first time in his life and had an arranged marriage with a girl whose family knew nothing of this past. I met a shopkeeper in his 40s who when he found out I was Australian told me he liked watching watching Cricket from Australia because they show the naked women. For him "a lady in a t-shirt is naked". I made a friend originally from Darra Adam Khel who claims to have/had girlfriends he kisses, who was in love with a girl in his class at College (but would never marry because she has spoken to other boys) and acknowledges he will marry his cousin one day. I was regularly asked how many girls i have slept with in my life. I visited a hijra brothel tucked away behind the old city with a journalist who lives in FATA but was making a documentary about the brothel for Dutch television, he told me "later that day when we go to eat with my family members do not under any circumstances mention this visit as there are parts of my work they can not understand." The brothel itself was actually really depressing as most of the girls? had run away from home and seemed to have only found acceptance (love?) in the brothel among people like themselves. They all said their customers are drunk and often rough and violent. I took the bus overland up to Chitral, through Malakand and Dir. I was invited by people from 18 - 40 to eat and have tea at their houses, sometimes even to stay. i constantly heard direct and subtle allusions to homosexual love however whenever i tried to question this, people would laugh it off as jokes, yet somehow it was a constant theme. Sometimes it was explained to me that male friends will love each other, but not technically be lovers, however another guy told me when he was 13 or 14 and went to sleep in his village, his elder male cousin had propositioned him ( a common social occurrence he claimed), another guy who worked in a guesthouse I stayed at admitted to me he had exchanged "favors" in his past for a good job from an older man (that reminds me of the taxi driver i met in Dubai from Kurram agency who bragged to me all the way to the airport about all the guys he picks up in Dubai -when i tried to temper him by telling him i was 100% not gay, he responded "no of couse not, but you are open minded" - Incidentally he deniedbhimself being gay, arguing he just preferred sex with men than women and it was easier to find when away from his wife. Anyway the point is, collectively perhaps because of myriad social and cultural issues, I felt like many people were as comfortable if not more comfortable joking about love between men as they were talking about relationships or love with or towards a woman, at least in the context of their lives and immediate environment. When it came to my personal experience and "western" life they were totally comfortable ONLY interested in love and relationships between guys and girls. To begin with the issue of local love between guys was something brought up by locals, but finally as I met new people and got talking about various things I would ask them "whats the story about Pathans and gays". Talk of girls often never got past commenting on someones beautiful eyes in class, people trying to dare me to talk to someone they were interested in (their argument being as i was foreign i could socially get away with this) and the odd person claiming to have a girlfriend they text or kiss. The only time i heard of pre-marital sex in regards to females was from two 30 something guys, married who work in the development industry (incientally one had recently spent 6 months studying French on a scholarship in Lyon - the first question he said his friends asked when he got home "how many girls did you sleep with") and knew of a colleague of a colleague who allegedly had slept with a couple of co-workers. Overall however a consensus among young people I spoke with was that "real-Pathan" girls don't have boyfriends or even interact online with boys before marriage. Also people of all ages consistently said that if a girl had been to University, a big concern of a suiting man's family was to find out what "type" of girl she had been in College. Kabuli Pathans had the reputation as the "wildest" girls locally. 

To ensure you neither myself or the young men of KP are depraved deviants, the types of things I mentioned above represented only a fraction of the conversations I had. Most times people were interested in more mundane things relating to jobs, education, money, family. One things for sure, Pashtuns lived up to their stereotype.... as practicing the best melmastia on earth. They also treat Purdah really seriously!!! in three visits I never spoke to or was introduced to a women. The exception being a friends Waziri work colleague in Islamabad. (I just reminded myself of the visit to Khyber agency I took with two friends, as its illegal to go there was a foreigner I was obviously dressed as a local but as we entered they said no matter who we greet, never talk to a women even to offer salaams, they will literally shoot you dead!..... Afridis...... )

Hope you learnt something new and nothing was overly shocking. It was fun recalling those memories. There are loads of others...

Write back if you have time

Best wishes


Ps. I tried to visit Swat in 2012 but the provincial government wouldn't give me an NOC (no objection certificate). I think foreigners still need special permission. Next time I think I will just put on my partug and kameez, get on the local bus and hope I don't get asked for my shanakti card at a checkpoint. 


Da khoda pa'aman
In an email response, I mentioned something about homosexuality, Islam, and the whole "desire vs action" deal, to which P. replied: 
I have travelled all over the world and it is certainly unique for the openness amongst friends for at least joking about gay love and their admiration of male beauty eg. people would introduce me to a group of friends and then say "don't you think [insert one of the group members name] is beautiful." To be honest I found this really weird to begin with but eventually i sort of got used to it.
Thank you, P., for sharing your memories with us and for allowing me to share them on my blog as well. :) Feel free to share whatever more you're comfortable sharing as well!

In peace and with gratitude,


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