The Pakistani Paradox: How Not to Steinem

Its been a while since we last talked, and man, do I have a legitimate reason for you. It seems like all the metaphysical angst in my life right now has decided to manifest itself in a physical form, rather like a malevolent spirit in a horror movie. And so, instead of an ever present yet intangible state of disquiet, I now have an ever present and very tangible headache. Not the kind that leads to flowly kaftans, ten minute naps and sudden bursts of creativity, but the kind that makes you curl up in a foetal position and cry for your mother. Which is not necessarily conducive to writing, so here I am, weeks late for my update. Oooh, I made a funny!

Appropriate, seeing as Pakistan is not just where funny lives, but where funny comes to die. There is no dearth for humor in this country, intentional or otherwise, provided you have a functioning sense of irony and a pillow to scream into when the jokes get a bit too close for comfort. I mean, even something as prosaic and inconvenient as buying sanitary napkins is a comedy routine here. You shuffle off to the grocery store, torn between judging and lusting after the designer bags being toted around in a country where most people live on less in a decade than a Birkin bag costs. You make your way to the diaper aisle, or as we like to think of it, the aisle of secret secretions. There, huddled between the Pampers and baby wipes, is a tiny pile of sanitary napkins, right next to a pile of brown paper bags. You make your secret secretion selection, pop it in the brown paper bag, tuck it discreetly in a corner of the trolley, and cover it up with more acceptable purchases. Like meat, and cereal, and cleaning products. Its only respectful. 

If you think speed and precision are the only skills needed for the monthly purchases, you underestimate this land, my friend. The real show starts when you reach the counter, where the inevitably male, middle aged, and extremely respectable cashier will now be your acting partner. Don’t worry, he’s completely clued in on the charade. I wonder whether they are trained for this during their inductions? And if so, do the store managers, the most male and respectable of them all, ever actually use the name of these shameful products? Or do they just grunt and point? Well, whatever strategy they use in these clandestine training sessions, it works. The cashiers are pros at this particular play, managing to pick up your little brown bag of shame, pry it open, scan the barcode, and deposit it in your bag before you could scream ‘Leper!’ Honestly, you would never know they have that capacity for speed judging from their normal service, which lies somewhere between disinterested and deliberately malicious. 

Some people would find this offensive and sexist. To those people I would say, you haven’t been to Pakistan. After a certain point, you have to stop sweating the small stuff. Literally, its like 40 degrees on a good day. 

Whats still offensive to me, and I hope I will never grow immune to that level of depravity, are the women-only magazines that are exclusive to, and representative of, a certain mindset here. The mindset that suggests qualifying as a dentist is just something you do to kill time till prince charming arrives. They also believe that domestic abuse is acceptable in moderation (I think the current consensus is don’t need a DNR, don’t need a divorce), the colour of your skin is a perfectly justifiable reason for your husband to leave you (the Raj-iculous complex), and that you are in no way equal, let alone superior, to your mate. The anti-Steinem’s if you will. Luckily, this is just one mindset. There are also lots of people like my father, who not only put his girls through university without a mating probability calculation, but was also so deeply offended by my mother’s suggestion that he possessed such a magazine, that he left the comforts of his study willingly, and shirtless, to assure her he has never read a single one. Not a one, he argued, holding up his entire magazine collection for her inspection. Not a one. 

And for that I am glad. Glad that it would never cross my mind to give up a definite career in hopes of catching a man, glad that I would never even consider using a skin whitening product, glad that I have a brain and a backbone to go with my heart. And particularly glad that on the days the mercury rises, and the service at the stores is so slow it would give a tortoise a superiority complex, my brother will occasionally skip the brown paper bag and watch the cashier squirm. Sometimes the only way to laugh at the small stuff, is by watching someone else sweat it. 

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