December Issue 2009

By | People | Profile | Published 10 years ago

“We want to talk about the politics of sex and sexuality”

– Kyla Pasha and Sara Suhail

Two young girls from Lahore, Kyla Pasha and Sara Suhail, have taken a very bold step in the ultra-conservative Pakistani society to erase the shame surrounding sex and sexuality in Pakistan, which they find “simply unacceptable.”

They founded an online magazine, Chay, a publication about sex in Pakistani society, in the latter half of 2008. The magazine’s mission statement reads: “We, at Chay Magazineendeavour to bring to the Pakistani reading public a place to converse about those things we are most shy of. Having observed in Pakistani society a disturbing tendency towards fear and shame around issues of sex and sexuality — that is to say, around a normal human interaction — the founders of Chay Magazine feel that sex and sexuality should enter the public discourse.”

Writes Kyla, in her inaugural editorial, “The taboo and silence around sex and sexuality are oppressive on all of us, irrespective of gender, and lead, at the very least, to unhappiness in our daily lives and, more often, to violence, shame, depression, ill health and general social malaise.”

Just like Eve Ensler’s hit broadway play, The Vagina Monologues, that was staged in all three of Pakistan’s largest cities in 2004, and which tried to reclaim words describing the female sexual anatomy such as ‘vagina’ and ‘cunt,’ Kyla and Sara do the same with their magazine’s name.

Says Kyla in an interview with a foreign magazine, In the Fray, “We’ve had negative responses on the title of the magazine. The letter ‘chay’ in Urdu stands for a curse word, chootia, which means something close to ‘dumb ass,’ but by calling it ‘cunt.’ Chay is used as a euphemism among polite folk who don’t want to say the whole word, but mean it. We’re reclaiming chay to mean all the things that we’re supposedly not allowed to say. The negative feedback in one particular case was that we’re not reclaiming it successfully and are being derogatory towards women.”

Both girls realise that the magazine will probably be pigeonholed as “something sinful.” But both aim to help break down the taboo surrounding sex. “It’s an uphill battle at best, and we’re aware of the unpopularity of the idea — we have been made aware by folks writing in and by conversations on other sites discussing Chay. Asked if it’s difficult for people to see a magazine about sex as informative rather than titillating, Kyla says, “I think it might be. It’s definitely a danger. But I’m confident that we’ll clear the bar with room to spare. Again, if someone looks at it, sees that we’re talking about sexual rights and marginalisation, education, and the law, and still feels we’re here to titillate, then we’re not sitting at the same table.”

Is it permissible or even productive to talk about sex in a public forum, ask Chay’s editors? In an Internet survey conducted from August 2008 onwards, and with 148 responses, 83 respondents said yes.

Says Kyla, “We [Sara and I] realised when the Shamail and Shahzina case happened [the transgender man and his wife who were imprisoned] that Pakistanis don’t have a way in which to talk about sex that is not derogatory, abusive, or silencing. Far from sex education in school or even the home, straight, young people aren’t even comfortable talking about being in relationships. The perils of that kind of silence are great. We’re hoping that Chay will provide a platform from which people can talk about their experiences and concerns, and listen in to what others are saying.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with these attempts to reclaim the right to talk about sex so openly and without a moral or religious framework, the fact of the matter is that the biggest issue surrounding women’s rights today is not how to guard their purity, but how to empower them to take charge of their destinies. Without arming women with information regarding their own bodies, and without providing any educational, legislative or social systems they can turn to if they are abused, the plight of Pakistani women will continue to be miserable. It is imperative that they be allowed to rise up against the shackles that bind them. The first step towards that is to help them know who they are and what their basic sexual and human rights are.

“Now is as good a time as any to talk about things we think are important,” says Kyla. “We want to start a conversation that we have heard snippets of in living rooms and grocery stores, on TV talk shows and in long teleplays or serials, in the domestic difficulties of people we know and the shocking scandalous travails of people we don’t know, except through the rumour mill. We want to talk about sex and sexuality. Particularly, its politics and the power it has over us — the power to keep us quiet about violences that happen in our homes, the power to kill us with diseases we are not educated about or cannot prevent; how it is used for coercion and how it is meant to be an expression of pleasure, love and respect. We want to talk about sexual rights and sexual health, sexual orientation and gender roles, sexual violence and sexual abuse, sexual empowerment and sexual happiness. We want to talk about family and relationships, love and marriage, homosexuality and heterosexuality, and perceived deviance, religious sanction and religious condemnation, freedom of choice and autonomy over one’s own body. In short, we want to talk about what people living their everyday lives deal with every day but are not allowed to talk about because we, as Pakistanis, have not allowed sex and sexuality to enter the conversation.”

This article appears as part of a bigger story: Sex and the Pakistani Woman