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Unveiled: Naked in Pakistan

Our reporter in Pakistan discusses the hypocrisy surrounding the showing of flesh in public

Fri, 15 Apr 2011 15:17:41 GMT | Updated 5 years today

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 seems.

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.

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 year.

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' girls

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 trainers.

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 conservative elements.
Nonetheless, it's likely that cultural change will only go so far. Nudity and nakedness remain - and I believe always will - a taboo.




This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, December 2007

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