Faiza Farid (seen in the photo above) lives in Lahore, and loves reading Faiz. Aaisha Salman is a teacher and a liberal arts graduate living in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in Parentheses Literary Journal, and in the anthology I'll Find My Way, Oxford University Press, 2014.
Digital Nomads: Women, Freedoms, Pakistan
Two young Pakistani writers weave an essay-within-an-essay exploring identity, gender, and space.
Faiza remembers reading Mohsin Hamid’s essay, a long time ago, in which he talks about how a person, regardless of living in the same surroundings, may go through certain changes that make him/her a stranger in their own environment. He goes on to say that to be a mongrel it is not necessary for a person to travel or make long and extensive voyages, but the changes that take place within a person, in a sense transform him/her into a distant traveller. Traveller and mongrel are the truly hyped words that social media users constantly put in their captions while taking pictures when travelling or vacationing. But how can one truly define a nomad in this hotchpotch of Westernisation.
It’s true that technology has shrunken distances and merged boundaries but maybe there always will remain a side that won’t have too much, and one that would have too much. Technology, particularly developments in the digital world, result in a bombardment of ideas. We become nomads in the midst of these digital platforms that carry us from place to place via a swipe on our phone, or a click on our laptops. Women are perhaps the most common digital nomads, considering the impossibilities of their mobility, as pointed out by Aaisha Salman, a 22-year-old woman from Karachi.
‘A lot of the women I know have never been allowed to step outside the house alone and face restrictions about where we can work and study. We cannot go outside for leisure or just to hang out with friends, and most days we suffocate in the little space that we are allowed to wander in. The essay I want to write, however, is not about this suffocation. The essay I want to write is how I, and many other women I know, have found refuge in digital mobility, wandering across digital landscapes through our smart phones and social media accounts. As a young Pakistani woman, I can only acquire the subjectivity of the wanderer and the nomad in a digital landscape. For me, this wandering has become a radical act; it is powerful in a way that it provides me the opportunity to think about my experiences and articulate them, imagine a different future than has been imagined for me, and explore contours of the impossible
I want to explore how the transnational flow of digital language and stories can allow the development of a vocabulary through which women can articulate themselves, in the absence of physical mobility. I have never been able to attend seminars, or art exhibitions, or theatre shows, or reading groups – in the absence of this access, however, I have been on Twitter, watched and listened to feminist activists, people, and poets. Many other girls I know who do not have access to feminist discourse or scholarship, often share on my Facebook newsfeed a meme, post or article about the contesting norms of womanhood. It is my contention, then, that digital mobility becomes crucial in organising for, and sharing a language of pain and desire, in the absence of physical experiences or interactions.
I want to explore the development of such a language of digital mobility by examining three shows that I have watched online: “Aakhri Station”, “Aangan”, both Pakistani dramas that have more than 1 million views on YouTube, and “Lust Stories” on Netflix, a series of short films about women experiencing desire in Delhi, India.
“Aakhri Station” details the journey of seven women, who travel to Karachi to make something of their lives after having escaped difficult circumstances. The train compartment – a signifier of flux and change – holds them together as they share their stories with each other and the audience; their pain is firmly grounded in gendered and sexualised experiences, and by drawing the symbol of a train around these experiences, the narrative articulates the familial, patriarchal structures that connect and explain these stories. On the other hand, “Aangan” is a story of a joint family, and the turbulences and joys of everyday life. In “Aangan”, the camera moves from room to room, door to door, and each bhabhi, nand, phuppo, grandparent, and damad is a complex character with a different story. In de-centralising the narrative, and weaving a multifaceted story around all characters in the house, there are many moments in the narrative in which we come close to understanding why the women in the house think and act the way they do, the sacrifices they make, and the complex emotions they experience within a domestic space. “Lust Stories” on Netflix features the story of four women and scrutinises how desire is placed socio-culturally and criticises how the experience of desire is gendered. Each of these narratives provides a framework through which my experience as a desi woman becomes connected with these women on-screen; in consuming, sharing, and narrating, we are able to name and speak about womanhood through different lenses.
By virtue of my digital mobility, how can I put these different narratives in contact and dialogue with each other? These narratives counter each other; while women who do not get to escape their domestic circumstances in “Aangan”, “Aakhri Station” provides a language of leaving-behind, as opposed to the virtue of “staying” that “Aangan” reinforces. Similarly, while “Aakhri Station” features stories of physical violence and abuse, “Lust Stories” focusses on lack of physical pleasure for women, and adds them to our conceptualisation of ‘violence’. As such, in becoming mobile around each other in a digital landscape, these narratives provide counter-points and differing perspectives.
However, digital mobility is not a gateway to utopic agency for women. It matters who can consume what, on what terms; “Lust Stories”, for instance, is a Netflix show, which means class and social capital is involved in determining what kind of audience the show gets. In “Aakhri Station”, we notice that it is the upper-class, Urdu-speaking woman who is centered in the narrative, and who is granted the most agency in the resolution of the series. “Aangan” provides a complex portrait of the middle-class, desi woman, but in many moments it sanctions and protects the patriarchal norms and spaces that structure the lives of those women. Hence, in exploring the concept of digital mobility in relation to womanhood, I also want to think about how this mobility is structured in relation to class, ethnicity, and social capital. Even as we become digitally mobile and develop our languages, our physical circumstances can remain unchanged; womanhood remains a narrative of consumption.’
Though the original, true Nomadic soul is the one that yearns to travel, take on the road as something essential to a restless body and soul, someone who can’t stay at one place for a long time. We have seen that there are more types of Nomads apart from these physical wanderers. As romantic and pure the word nomad seems – the word itself is a distant voyage, one that is now divided and camouflaged in the words and letters of “global citizen”. Since the use of Internet is not such a new thing, the bringing together of boundaries, and the mingling of cultures creating one homogenised world is a much balanced and Western approach. The misuse of the word nomad is itself a distinctive category. The millennials have condensed the word into some sort of frivolity that idealises and romanticises the existence of the word and a person who bears such qualities, but it still is difficult to have these attributes in oneself.
The present day phrase has gained popularity that is similar to the term global citizen. Someone who wants to frequently travel, meet new people or just sit out in the open. The term nomad is itself a complete galaxy that encapsulates the nature of restlessness and the claustrophobia that comes with it too. The need to go some place, maybe the same place, and the constant wandering that is somewhat close to the search of a home that doesn’t exist. Much like the Welsh word “hiraeth” that loosely means the homesickness one feels for a home, a place that once was or never was there; the need and yearning to return there. Perhaps, being a nomad can be described as the making of a place home or not feeling at home in a place thus fleeing from it.