Culture is perhaps the most abused word in Pakistani society. Recently the political establishment of the country raised an objection to the screening of Turkish soap operas dubbed in Urdu on private channels saying they were “against the cultural traditions of Pakistan”. Similar arguments are raised against indigenous festivals like Lohri, Vaisakhi and the latest casualty is Basant, the spring festival. For years now, the orthodox segment of Pakistani society has been objecting to the celebration of Valentine’s Day by the youth. This year on the 13th of February, the Chief Minister of Punjab, a religious conservative himself, warned parents that strict action would be taken against youngsters who are engaged in practices not culturally acceptable. What really is “culture”? Everyone seems to point out what culture is not, i.e. Turkish soap operas, Katrina Kaif’s seductive ads and the celebration of Basant but to point out what culture is trickier.
I began the discussion with students of Beacon House National University in Lahore, around the definition of culture. My experience with students from other places has taught me that in the quest for searching of a real culture the students are gradually losing an understanding of what the indigenous culture actually is. In my opinion this has been a fundamental reason behind the “Islamization” of the educated youth of the country. The problem is not the youth turning towards religion or their Islamization. But the sort of religion they adopt. This in the recent years in contrast to the syncretistic and inclusive has been puritanical and exclusivist. “So is Valentine’s day part of our culture?” I asked these twenty odd liberal arts students sitting in front of me, in mixed groups of both sexes. Despite the fact that most of these students are practitioners of celebration of this day of love I was expecting the over whelming student body to say that it is not.
There were a few students who thought that it is not, and that it is an influence of the Western culture and hence necessarily contradictory to “our” culture. I engaged them in a series of questions about what culture is and so on. “It might have originated from the West but now it is part of our culture. It has been accommodated into our tradition,” said a girl sitting towards the end of the class. This coming from an undergraduate class was truly impressive. “When I did the same workshop at other places none of the students were familiar with the love legends,” I admitted to the students. “I now realize that I am at a liberal arts college.”
Our discussion soon arrived at the topic of forbidden love. In this section however the themes between these students and those from other universities began converging. Religion, caste, education and social status were some of the recurring themes. “BNU boys,” said one girl, sitting in the front row, holding in her hand her round lens John Lennon sun glasses. “To a lot of our parents BNU boys would be forbidden love for marriage,” she explained. I was confused by her comment but the rest of the class and especially the girls seemed to know what she meant. “You know because these boys don’t fit the right definition of how boys should be. They don’t have a 9 to 5 job. They are artists and hence not reliable husbands. Men in our society are expected to be stable. They are not supposed to be flute players.” She was alluding to Ranjha, who clearly defied the traditional upheld concepts of masculinity. “Would that also hold true for BNU girls?” I asked her. “Of course,” she said with a charming smile. “BNU girls are independent. They think and are taught to express their thoughts. They are every mother-in-law’s nightmare.” I showed them a ten minute clip from several Pakistani movies made around these folk love legends. I have chosen these scenes keeping in mind the themes I wanted to discuss during the workshops. The scenes accentuated the defiance of masculinity and femininity by the protagonists. There were also examples of religious syncretism, an anomaly in the Pakistani context. And last but not the least was the concept of love between two individuals being depicted as divine love.
“That’s not practical,” said one of the girls. “Divine love and love between two humans are different things.” Instead of sharing my own thoughts on this particular matter I allowed the discussion to jump from one student to the other. “Depends on how you define love,” said another female student. The males were conspicuous for their silence in the discussion. “If you have a love that is lust free then yes it could be compared to the divine.”
“So what you mean is that for love to be pure you need to take out the physicality out of the relationship?” I was careful in framing that question. Liberal arts college or not, this is still a deeply conservative society and some topics are a taboo in any context. “Yes,” she replied. I caught a glimpse of a professor who was sitting amongst the student smiling at me. Her lecture was scheduled after mine and I didn’t want to test the limits of BNU’s hospitality. However I wanted to discuss the concept of spirituality and love in detail. The students here understood love as separate from spirituality but I was convinced that if allowed time they might have begun to entertain the thought.
Haroon Khalid is a researcher with the Hri Institute based in Lahore
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