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Sexuality, to me, is about wholeness. It is about being human. It is about self-expression, and spirituality, and passion, and fun, a whole kaleidoscope of experiences, a microcosmic and macrocosmic reflection of life. As a Pakistani woman, it has been difficult and painful to witness myself and other women growing up with ignorance and active suppression of our sexual selves. How do we live an authentic life in such a circumstance, not knowing such vital, vibrant parts of the self? How do we participate as active agents in the world when we are ignorant of one of the greatest sources of power and energy within ourselves? And, what happens when that same power, and infinite source of pleasure, is subjugated to the will of others through often brutal relationships based on power and domination? When the basic instinct seems to be survival, how can we learn to love?
The trauma that most young women go through during adolescence, upon the onset of menstruation, and the beginning of changes in their bodies is a great cause for concern for me. There is usually a lot of shame associated with these experiences, augmented by the way families usually deal with them, and a shocking lack of information about what is happening, especially vis a vis sexual changes that occur. There is a double standard, in that adolescent boys are expected to start masturbating and become interested in women, though this knowledge is tacit and not necessarily talked about openly. Whereas, young women are expected not to have any sexual feelings at all but, simultaneously, become sexual objects for the male (and the female) gaze, usually a very disturbing experience. Young women are hence at once regarded as both hyper-sexual beings with a resultant heightened consciousness about developing and therefore covering their bodies; as well as having no sexual being up until the day (or rather the night) of their marriage, when they are expected to consummate marriage with someone who is often a virtual, if not a real, stranger. Needless to say, the lack of information and communication between the sexes oftentimes leads to traumatic first experiences, and some never recover.
In order to transform the dominant paradigms of relationships in our lives, based primarily on manipulation, power and control, I feel a stark need for us to connect to sources of power within ourselves, most potently through opening up to our own sexuality. We need, as men and women, to connect to our sexuality in a more loving, nurturing and non-dominant manner, seeing it as a sharing as opposed to a conquering, and seeing women’s engagement with our sexuality not as shameful (an attitude that many women themselves internalize) but as natural, exuberant, joyful and a cause for mutual celebration! In this way, we may start to feel more power over our own lives, and can become actively loving participants in all of our relationships, sexual and non-sexual alike.
But, how do we construct a different reality for ourselves when we have been exposed to the system all our lives? I would like to use the framework of global justice activist Starhawk to frame some answers. She writes in her book, Truth or Dare, Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery,
Compliance begins with belief. The authority, the institution, constructs reality for us, by limiting our sources of information and giving us the information it wants us to believe. (Starhawk 79)
So, in order to explore our sexuality, we need to create access to sources of information (within ourselves and with others) that can help us challenge the all-pervasive picture of sexuality, gender roles and dynamics that works for the dominant cultural paradigm in Pakistan. We need a means to create a transformation of inner consciousness, a sacred place that allows us access to parts of ourselves that have been limited, suppressed, silenced by our culture. Then we need to build bridges between this inner consciousness and our actions in the world.
But this path is not an easy one. Starhawk points out, “The rules tell us how to behave, what to do, and what not to do, and how we will be punished if we disobey” (Starhawk 79). This is how communities, society or an institution can exert control on individuals. Follow a certain pattern or paths or prepare to deal with the consequences, it says. So how do we bring a change of consciousness within our community, and then equip individuals with the wherewithal to engage with their lives keeping this new consciousness intact? Starhawk writes
When we are embedded in negative systems, only acts of resistance and refusal can move us in positive directions. Only by refusing to withdraw, to blank out and disappear, can we become present in the world and begin to create. And creativity itself may be an act of resistance, the ultimate refusal to accept things as they are. (Starhawk 86)
Hence, to connect to our own authentic sexual selves and engage in personal, and hence, communal transformation becomes not just a joyful, self-validating endeavor, but almost a moral and ethical obligation. But rule-breakers are generally regarded as trouble-makers. So, why should we want to risk such hardship, such difficulties? We should, because there is no other choice.
A life of compliance is a life of denial. We deny the body. We feel sick— yet we go to work. We feel hungry— yet we don’t eat. We deny feelings— for the jail requires that we suppress our emotions, especially our anger and our rage that might lead to rebellion. Obedience has its cost: the destruction of the self. To be good is to be a slave, unfree. When we comply, when we aid the system in its ultimate disregard and destruction of us, we hate ourselves. We know that we have been stupid, blind, weak. And so we cannot comply all of the time and live. At times, we must rebel. (Starhawk 81)
We can not live at all, if we cannot live fully, completely. Rebellion, however, despite being the impulse towards freedom and life, does not change the system. It seeks an escape from the system through “bad” behaviour. It escapes using the choices that are given to the individual by the system. The rebel is isolated and used as an example for reprimand by the authorities. For Starhawk, resistance is the productive way to rebel because it is more systematic, is consciously chosen and is sustained or is sustainable over a long period of time. “To resist is to engage reality, to act. Awareness, emotion, are not enough. Resistance is only real when it is expressed through action” (Starhawk 86). Resistance happens when we make choices outside the scope of the system. We do the unexpected; we behave in ways that do not fit in with the paradigm the dominant system purports.
For me, such resistance is a communal effort, a chance to bring about an actual change in the reality of our lives, and in our community. It puts the power to create and explore authentic ways of living that resist prevailing assumptions about women, men, and others and how they relate to one another right where it belongs— in our collective hands.
Starhawk. Truth or Dare, Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers. 1987