All of your perceptions and attitudes change when you live in
Pakistan, as I did for five months earlier this year. In Britain, a
flash of cleavage is barely commented upon at all, but in Lahore, a
bare arm is considered quite risqué. In conservative Pakistan,
nudity and sex are intrinsically linked in the national psyche, so
most people - men as well as women - cover up in public. The only
places you're likely to see shorts, vests or anything remotely
revealing are in the bars and lobbies of the city's luxury hotels,
and even then only on foreigners. Hotel staff humour their guests'
lack of modesty in the patronising manner reserved for small
children or the mentally feeble. Most Pakistanis, on the other
hand, usually stop and stare. Cultural tourism works both ways, it
Living in Pakistan reminded me of some of the conservative views
on modesty that my Muslim parents instilled in me as a youngster
growing up in London, views that have gradually been eroded over
the years I've spent on the gay scene. I no longer know how I'd
explain the full-frontal nude male Escort pages in Boyz, for
example. Whereas before my friends and I would point and laugh, now
it's embarrassing to think of what my new friends and colleagues in
Pakistan would think of me, coming as I do from a country where
such explicitness is totally acceptable.
Since returning to London, I've had to bite my tongue several
times on account of my renewed cultural sensibilities; I'd risk
sounding like Mary Whitehouse and losing all my friends if I
hadn't. 'Lesbian pole dancing, you say? I'm so there! Shibari Rope
Bondage for Beginners? Put me down for two (gulp)'.
By comparison, Pakistani culture appears to be quite naïve. That
is, of course, until you scratch the surface. Working with my
native Pakistani colleagues, I spent a lot of time discussing the
cultural differences between our two countries. A workmate who
liked to think of himself as the office Lothario took great delight
in telling me about what goes on behind closed doors in Pakistan.
He spoke about the women who slowly undress by the window at night
to catch the attention of a secret lover across the street, about
love-struck teenagers who use the relative 'privacy' of an internet
cafe cubicle to fumble under their sweatshirts and undergarments,
and of government officials who enforce closing times in the
red-light district, only to enjoy the exclusive delights of the
'dancing' girls until daybreak.
PUBLIC VS PRIVATE
There's clearly some dissonance between public and private nudity
- or, to put it in crueller terms, hypocrisy.
There are no billboards or magazine adverts featuring nude or
nearly-nude models in Pakistan; it would shake the spirit of the
nation to its core. Let's not forget that this is the country where
Tourism Minister Nilofer Bakhtiar lost her job, due to outraged
pressure from religious conservatives, for publicly embracing her
male parachute instructor at a charity event earlier this
The irony for homosexuals in this often segregated society - of
being placed continually in same-sex social groups - is not lost on
me, either. It's never more acute than in places where people
undress. At the gym I belong to in Lahore, in the relative safety
of 'Ladies' Timings', women enter the changing rooms fully-clad,
head covered in conservative shalwar khameez, only to re-emerge in
loose towels and clinging swimming costumes as they go to the steam
room or the pool. Well, where is a girl to look? When you're a
lezzer in a semi-nude, all-female environment, you have your own
nudity to deal with, as well as having to make a conscious effort
to look like you're not perving. I suppose I should be relieved,
since my appearance is clearly 'female' - I have long hair, a
feminine face, and so on. However, my butch lesbian friends who
live in the city tell me it's excruciating for them; the prevailing
negative attitudes towards them as 'obvious' lesbians manifest in
cold looks and hard stares from straight women, who possibly feel
preyed upon. Thankfully, a lot of the female gym-users look more
like my Aunty-Jis than anyone I'd fancy.
A workmate delighted in telling me about
government officials who enforce closing times in the red-light
district to enjoy the exclusive delights of the 'dancing'
There are lighter moments to this naked naïvety, though. It never
ceases to amaze me how the need to find a non-revealing swimming
outfit can result in some hilarious creations from women wishing to
cover up. I've seen professional scuba gear, leggings, and even a
Lycra shalwar khameez in the pool. But then, buying a swimming
costume in Pakistan is always going to present challenges. There's
no sleek, andro, Olympic-style sportswear that proclaims, 'I'm a
serious athlete' in Lahore. It's mostly Made in China, abstract
patterned ensembles with ditzy, frilly-skirt attachments, the sort
that your mum used to make you wear when you where six.
Women go to great lengths in order not to be naked. In Egypt, I
saw women in full head-to-foot burkha wading into the Med. (Do they
carry a spare to change into and where do they change, I wonder?).
Even in my largely Asian neighbourhood, I've seen older ladies out
for their morning stroll dressed - bizarrely - in saris and shalwar
khameez, but with an East London twist of hoodies and
THE FUTURE & CHANGE
Conversely, there are places where it's almost acceptable to show
some skin. Pakistan has a thriving and vibrant fashion industry
that draws its influence from the runways of Paris, London and
Milan. There's even a TV channel dedicated to fashion, on which
you'll find the most revealing clothes lauded by the country's
fashion magazines and style-conscious elite.
What's the cause of such a dichotomy? It's simple, really; it's
all to do with filthy lucre. In Pakistan, if you're wealthy you
are, to all intents and purposes, beyond scrutiny. Like the rest of
the world, here money equals power, and if you have power, you have
the freedom to do and wear whatever you like. By and large, those
with wealth do just that.
But there are signs that this privilege may be spreading beyond
the moneyed elite. Dozens of new government-licensed satellite TV
channels feed the country's emergent youth culture, and a raging
thirst for all things western and 'modern' suggest that Pakistan,
too, is evolving into an Americanised culture. Whether or not this
is a positive development is a hot debate among cultural
commentators at present.
There are those who take the view that this is a retrograde step.
Traditionalists and religious political parties both argue that
anything associated with America and its aggressive foreign policy
is an assault on Islam and on the Pakistani way of life. Naturally
enough, this highly charged political atmosphere has given rise to
religious conservatives, and in many parts of the country
burkha-wearing is on the increase.
Indeed, it was the burkha-clad, staff-wielding female members of
an extremist religious academy - 'madrassah' - Jamia Hafsa, who
first alerted the world's media to last summer's tragic Red Mosque
battle. Over 100 people died in violent clashes during the
government clampdown on extremism.
Pakistan is a country of stark contrasts that, a mere 60 years
after its creation, is still struggling with its identity.
Characterised by mostly respectful rather than extremist religious
leanings, very liberal beliefs are rubbing up against more
Nonetheless, it's likely that cultural change will only go so far.
Nudity and nakedness remain - and I believe always will - a
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, December