Compartmentalization of genders gets extremely stringent in a society like Pakistan that is increasingly laden with erroneous and narrow interpretations of religious and moral codes. Gender politics, like all the other control apparatuses of society, is becoming increasingly hermetic and overwhelming. Discourse, dissent and deviation meets with strong opposition, more often than not verging onto violent and zealous responses. Society may be failing on many accounts but the conventional shared culture and prevalent societal structure is still held dearer than life. We are at this moment miles away from public homosexual marriages or widely accessible medical procedures for sex-transformation – in fact, it would take an overhaul of society to achieve these things. Right now, we still work hard to ensure that our boys are robust and bullish and our girls submissive and meek.
An unconventional phenomenon like a cross-dressing anchor hosting a talk show gets confused reactions. I was recently talking to Ali Saleem a.k.a. Begum Nawazish Ali, who happens to be a friend from childhood, about the kind of reactions that he gets when meeting people in his everyday life. Ali is in his late twenties, usually sports a two-day- old stubble and a wardrobe of very conventional male clothes. He has a second avatar, though: hosting this popular show at a local TV channel [this show no longer airs – eds.] as Begum Nawazish Ali clad in a glittering, revealing sari is an enormous departure from his off-screen personality. “I travel a lot,” he says, “and mostly meet people at airports or when I am checking into a hotel. While I have noticed that society is generally accepting of me due to my star status, they get very uncomfortable if their young son or daughter requests for a photograph with me or shows too much interest into what I do. This reaction is not only because of the presumed sexual-preference that an act such as cross-dressing suggests but also because what I symbolize is a challenge to the accepted gender behaviour.”
Similarly for girls, a departure from the recognized stereotype of a full-time homemaker into a career-pursuing individual is in itself challenging; anything beyond that such as a conscience decision to stay single at a marriageable age is incomprehensible for society. Society polices and enforces “normal.” Any alternative trend, bet it something as simple as a colour choice or something as crucial as a career path, is curbed with full vigour.