A 22-year-old Pakistani woman who now lives in Canada has become the center of a heated online debate about sex culture in her home country.
In a Vice article published last month, Zahra Haider described the deep sexual repression she experienced as a young woman living in Pakistan. While many women are punished for having sex before marriage, she said men "generally aren't judged for it," adding that she believes Shariah law can be blamed for many gender discriminatory policies in Muslim societies.
Haider pointed to statistics indicating the country has the highest porn-watching population in the world, and described Pakistanis as "horny and desperate for sex" -- even though, she argued, sex is a "taboo topic" in the country and premarital sexual encounters must be done discretely.
In a candid overview of her own sex life, Haider recounted sneaking around to sleep with almost a dozen people in Pakistan before her 19th birthday, which was around the time she moved to Toronto for school. Once she arrived there, she experienced "sexual culture shock."
"Eventually, I was introduced to a completely different environment, surrounded by different people with different cultures, values, and mindsets, which made me realize there is no reason I should be ashamed of being who I want to be, but that's what happens when you've been living in a highly judgmental bubble of society," she wrote.
Haider's article sparked thousands of responses on social media, as well as a largely unprecedented conversation about sex culture in Pakistan. While some people applauded her bravery for shedding light on the topic, others criticized her promiscuity and said she should be ashamed for defaming Pakistanis.
Haider spoke to The WorldPost about the response to her article.
What kind of response were you expecting to your article? Were you surprised by some of the personal attacks?
One of the things I was hoping to be was relatable. I wanted to be a voice for those who’ve been victims to guilt and shame due to the harsh judgements and restrictive nature of our society. I was prepared for backlash and criticism but I definitely did not expect the piece to go viral or blow up as much as it has.
I wasn’t surprised as much as I was disappointed -- the vile, obscene types of abuse people can throw at someone they don’t know personally was the only surprising factor. One of the primary reasons I wrote the piece was to combat judgement and hypocrisy, which the responses seemed to prove there is a lot of in our society.
Have your friends and family back in Pakistan read your article? How did they react?
Yes, they have. Some are supportive, others provided me with constructive criticism. Some of my family has disowned me, because they claim I’ve brought shame upon our family and its name -- another issue I was hoping to combat. Why should a woman’s sexuality and sex life be such an issue her family disowns her for “shaming their honor”? Many did, however, applaud my bravery and warned me of the potential consequences, which I was already aware of.
How do you respond to people who suggest that you have made "cultural judgments” about Pakistanis?
I shed a light on an ugly side of our culture and society, but that’s not to say we don’t have beautiful things about our culture as well. I may have passed cultural judgments, but I did so dependent on my personal experiences and opinions formed whilst living within the society and being affected by the intolerant side of our culture on a day-to-day basis.
I don’t expect everyone to be able to relate to my opinions and experiences: To think that I can represent an entire country and its people is, frankly speaking, illogical. But there have been people who have told me I’m “spot on” and that they are glad someone “finally spoke about the topic.” That is enough for me. I can’t control other people’s reactions.
Why was it important to you to encourage a discussion about such a "taboo topic”?
Sex is a basic human function, whether for reproductive purposes, for pleasure or just for the sake of having sex. It’s something we’ve engaged in since the beginning of time. I wanted to encourage a dialogue around sex because something so inherently natural cannot be labelled as something so inherently wrong.
To me, that is injustice, and frankly speaking, inhumane, to attempt to prevent people from embracing their sexuality: an integral part of their being.
What is the best response you've received to your piece?
I’ve received many great responses to my piece. I’ve had Pakistani-Canadians thank me for lessening the gap between our culture and the culture here, and I’ve had Pakistan-raised Pakistanis thank me for being relatable and speaking honestly against the hypocritical spectrum of our culture.
I suppose one that sticks out the most to me is regarding a man who lost his brother to AIDS this year. His brother who had no idea what was happening to his body and died due to the lack of education and acknowledgment around the topic. He sent me a message thanking me for raising awareness and advocating for sex education.
Nothing is more gratifying than that -- providing solace and hope for someone who may have believed there was none.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.