How did Pakistan become the land of bombs and burqas?

by Marziyeh Khaleeli

I remember how excited I was that US hit television show, Homeland was actually being filmed in Pakistan, and not somewhere else. Then I saw the poster and was obviously less elated.

HOMELAND (Season 4)

The image, shows a crowd of women wearing the burqa, revealing from the off that this series will only serve to leverage the West’s post-9/11 narrative of what Pakistan looks like. The image also creates the impression that wearing the Hijab/Burqa in Pakistan is a mandatory requirement by law, (since Agent Carrie is also in a headscarf) shocker alert; it isn’t.

The issue isn’t that the burqa is featured on the cover. Had it appeared with other points of context then I may have been writing a different article entirely, after all some women in Pakistan do wear it. However, the truth is that producers have lazily chosen this to be the sole motif with which to paint a picture of the show’s setting as shorthand for homogenising Pakistan and its peoples into an ‘extreme’ and militant Islamist nation.

My people are not a monolith – they are as diverse as the culturally rich heritage of different provinces, from Rohtas Fort and the Badshahi Mosque to the city of shrines in Sindh noted for Sufism, or the rugged tucked away beauty of the northern areas. The stereotype projected snatches away that uniqueness and paints it in brushstrokes that are wide and gloomy: footnote; Pakistan is the country of bombs and burqas.

As someone who chooses to wear hijab, and therefore my religion on my sleeve, I have been victim to Islamophobic abuse in the form of ‘Al Qaida’ taunts. It’s painful, especially as a Pakistani because I’ve lost so many of my people to their horrific crimes and don’t in any way associate with their terrorist activities or sympathise with them. It matters not that my ideology and theirs are completely at odds, because externally we are all one. And the black and white narratives painted by media such as Homeland are to blame.

This constant bombardment of the terrorist stereotype works. It successfully creates “the other” who must be feared. It affects people, my very own cousin, who last year visited Pakistan from India for my wedding; was terrified and kept asking me when we were out for ice-cream who the Taliban were, what they wore, and if all the men in shalwar kameez could possibly be dangerous. Her questions didn’t stop after the first day. She was terrified that the officials at the US airport where she was subsequently headed, would interrogate her for visiting Pakistan. She took (I kid you not) paper napkins from restaurants to prove she had merely attended social gatherings and not some radical seminary.

Thirteen years after 9/11 much has altered. My heart goes out to all those families who still have to struggle with the loss of their loved ones. It’s not a grief that passes with time.

However, my thoughts and prayers also go out to the millions of Muslims, or even ‘Muslim-looking’ people who have been affected since that awful day.

Axis_of_Evil_map.svg

Bush’s “axis of evil” included Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (red

Suddenly the world become one in which one was either “with [the US] or against [the US]”. 9/11 gave birth to a world in which David Frum coined the phrase “axis of evil” to describe any place that didn’t fall into his definition of ‘good’. The words may have fallen out of favour but the narrative has only grown stronger.

This homogenising and bleak picture of Pakistan misses out all of the vibrancy of this young country, where people are working to change their nation and subvert the world’s views of them and their home.

The bombs and burqas picture of Pakistan erases the good work of gems like Abdul Sattar Edhi, founder of the country’s largest social welfare programme, which provides 24 hours emergency assistance across the country. Legendary satirist Moin Akhtar and brilliant playwright Anwar Maqsood are drowned out.

Never mind Samina Baig, who became the first Pakistani female mountaineer to scale Mount Everest. Never mind that she and her brother achieved this incredible feat alongside two Indian friends.

Inconvenient facts do get in the way of stereotypes.

Never mind Jibran Nasir, a lawyer and anchor who works in his spare time on multiple issues (look him up on twitter to see his views about marital rape).

Never mind Fauzia Minallah, a talented artist and beautiful soul who works in her spare time with Al Maktoum; a blind children’s school.

Never mind Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and documentary film-maker who works tirelessly for women’s rights.

The narrative that conflates militant Islamism with the entirety of the people of Pakistan may persist, it may even strengthen. But behind the curtain of the West’s ignorance we will continue, as ever, as the many-hued, steadfast and generous people that we are.

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Marziyeh Khaleeli is a lawyer. She is passionate about literature and writing and using it as a medium to engage in debate and build a constructive dialogue.  Find her on Twitter @misiyeh 

This piece was edited by Henna Butt

1 reply

  1. In addition to the excellent points made by Marziyeh, it seems no accident that the colour of Clare Danes’s headscarf is red, drawing a clear visual parallel to the story of ‘Liitle Red Riding Hood’ – the innocent white female being hunted by a murderous and evil presence.

    Liked by 1 person

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