At a party in Lahore recently, while commiserating about the political affairs in the U.S, a Pakistani friend recounted a not so surprising experience. While visiting the U.S. through a cultural exchange program, a white woman whose house he was invited to for dinner to showcase American hospitality refused to take a photo with him because she was afraid he might give the photo to the Taliban. Other participants in the program were taking photos with her, but she specifically told my friend that she would not take a photo with him. We both laughed at the ridiculousness of this woman’s assumption. Did she really think that all Pakistanis have interactions with the Taliban?
A better assumption might be for my friend to assume his host’s sympathy to Trump’s intolerant ideology, since 53 percent of white women voters in the U.S. backed Trump. But this captures the terrible consequences of America’s mainstream political and media entities conflating Pakistan with terrorism and only understanding Muslim majority countries within the context of war. Never mind that Pakistanis continue to pay the biggest price for terrorism and are at the forefront of the fight against it. The news this year that Pakistani troops, operating on intelligence provided by the United States, rescued an American woman, her Canadian husband and their three children being held for years by militants suspected of ties to the Taliban was not surprising
This, certainly and unfortunately, is nothing new. In the early ’90s, I had just immigrated with my family to the U.S., and at my high school in the Chicago suburbs, my teacher asked me to show my fellow classmates where Pakistan is on the map. But he first asked me to show Kuwait. This was right after the first Gulf War. I was so confused about why I had to show Kuwait, a country I had no relationship to. I now understand that people in the U.S. only know about the Muslim world through war and extremely dehumanizing stereotypes that leave no room for people like my Pakistani friend to be understood as feminist, queer and just like the majority of Pakistanis, opposed to the ideology of the Taliban.
But what gets covered in the mainstream media about Pakistan is so often only about terrorism. Even human interest stories usually begin with a phrase like “despite terrorism...” After the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, I was asked by a writer for the New Yorker if they kill gay people in my country. My response that I go back every year came as a surprise to the writer; it is to Pakistan that I return for my annual pilgrimage to find my humanity and connect with so many friends who are part of the LGBT community.
Pakistan does struggle with increasing extremism and a shrinking definition of what it means to be Muslim, which leaves so many out of the fold and susceptible to attacks; and there is also the perilous plight of religious minorities. However, to only understand Pakistan in this context is similar to only understanding the socio-cultural context of the United States as a country riddled with gun violence.
How can a country of more than 190 million with thriving cosmopolitan cities, artists of global acclaim, designers who exhibit in fashion weeks in Pakistan and around the world, feminist collectives, LGBT organizing, and most importantly, warm and loving people, be reduced to being connected to terrorism?
I do know that this makes it easier to wage war and impose harsh demands on Pakistan as Trump did during the State of the Union address. Seeing Pakistan only in the context of harboring extremists makes it easier to imagine victims of the ongoing drone attacks as terrorists and not grandmothers who happen to be out in the yard. It makes all of us Pakistanis complicit in the U.S’s imagination as terrorists as though our lives don’t hold any other meaning.
And this also makes it easier to continue to fuel anti-Muslim hate in the U.S. It is so often now that I am told that women in Pakistan get killed for going to school by those who know of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai’s, nearly killed for encouraging girls to learn. In her much shared TED Talk of 2009, Chimamanda Adichie warns us about the danger of a single story. Malala is a powerful and brave young woman but she cannot be the only representation of women in my country; her story cannot be the only story about the women of Pakistan.
On the contrary, women in Pakistan have a long history of fiercely participating in all walks of life, including holding the highest political office in the land, an accomplishment that United States has yet to match. To Americans I would say: Don’t make victims of us to assuage your own conscience.
No country should have to prove that it is multi-faceted and complicated, that the people living there have dreams, too, and that if they are lucky enough to go through all the checks you need to pass to get a visa to visit the U.S., they are not coming as part of a sinister Taliban plot.
Is that too much to ask?
Urooj Arshad is a member of the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the Director of international youth health and rights Programs at Advocates for Youth, and a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project.