February 1, 2013


I first encountered the term in an ethnographic-research class (or some such) where the topic of discussion focused around the benefits (or not) of research conducted by people who are members of the population they are studying. To sum up a rather long (and somewhat obvious) academic discussion, the jury is torn between the merits of enhanced understanding (borne of belonging) and the dangers of biased analysis. How can people who have never really experienced the nuances of cultural tradition be qualified to comment upon it, argues one perspective, while another talks (at length) about the importance of objectivity for critical analysis.

For me, the insider-outsider perspective is more than just a choice. It has become a way of life.

I decided to study anthropology for two reasons, one, I have an insatiable curiosity about people, and what makes them 'tick', and second because ever since I can remember I've always been the fly-on-the-wall who always wants to know the 'why' before she can accept things that others accept as what-just-is. That was, I believe, the first thing that marked me as different. The truth is, while I have a deep understanding of all things cultural, I don't believe in - or subscribe to - any of the labels that would be ordinarily ascribed to me.

I am, for the sake of definition, a Muslim (of the Dawoodi-Bohra Sub-Sect), Pakistani, Woman, with an Elite lifestyle.

Now, let's deconstruct:

The first thing I ever began to question was the first thing that was 'taught' in my house as an absolute. The version of religion that my people believe in. I studied about the same amount that all children do, attended religious school, memorized what I was meant to but never really understood (or attempted to) any of it until I began dating someone who was not from the same Islamic sub-sect. Because it mattered to the world (he's a Sunni, you're a Shia, this is going to be a problem) I began to question the distinctions that divided the Islamic monolith, and finding no satisfactory answers in the heresay I began to read. The more I delved into history and theology, the less satisfied I was with the demarcations that most accepted as fact. Also, the less inclined I was to take them seriously. While I understood (oh-so-well), what each side said,  and followed (to the letter) each convoluted argument, I chose not to subscribe to the rhetoric on either side. Something in my head said, it matters not (and organized religion seems not to be my cup of tea) and I refuse to discriminate against someone based upon what they believe in.

And there you have it, an a-religious person in the Islamic Republic. Insider-Outsider Role No 1.

One of my biggest achievements since my return from Amreeka has been mastering the ability to deliver public speeches in the Urdu language. Surprised? As the national language of my country, one could say that I should have been born comfortable with Urdu. Instead, I am told that when I went to National Montessori I was sent home from school on Day 1 with a note to my parents informing them that I could not communicate with any of the teachers, and - in fact - the only person who had been able to talk to me was the Hindu cleaning lady. As it happened she was the only person who I had encountered who knew how to speak Gujrati. As the first child born into my parent's household (in this generation) it never occurred to them that I needed to consciously be taught a language that I had never encountered at home: Urdu. Even when faced with this language-quandary, my father (who had received his schooling in Bangladesh (Pre-1971) and spoke fluent Bangla) and my mother (Indian born and bred and fluent in Hindi and Marathi) decided to opt for the easier route and teach me English. As it happened, National Montessori was one of those institutes that takes pride in their ability to groom the child in the English language and two weeks later when I returned to the school with advanced communication skills (for a two-year old) I was welcomed with open arms. Later, at Karachi Grammar School, I was happy to take - and pass - 'Urdu B', an incredibly simple Urdu-as-a-second-language curriculum and then say a happy farewell to the language. Up until when I encountered Pakistan beyond the elitist confines of educational institutes, and realized how difficult it was to communicate. I went back to the books, studied Urdu newspapers, tried to get a handle on the literature and eventually - after much difficulty - improved my vocabulary to a point where I no longer feel terrified of addressing an audience who cannot speak English.

And there is the story of Insider-Outsider Role No 2 - the Pakistani whose heritage lies beyond the boundaries.

Growing up as a woman in a country that carefully 'nurtures' you to accept a pre-determined role, challenging the norm (actually, pretty much refusing to live up to any gender-based expectation to date) has been an interesting journey. Much of my life has been spent asking those around me 'why-the-hell-not'? Why should I have to hide my face (or my head) behind diaphanous veils? Why can't I wear western clothes (jeans et al)? Why can't I go away from Karachi and live alone at University? Why can't I study? And then study some more? Why can't I date? Why should I get married to someone I don't like? Why should I get married at all until it 'feels' right? Why can't I focus exclusively on my career at this point in my life? Why can't I move out of my family's house? Why can't I live alone in Islamabad? Why can't I travel as and when I feel like? Why should I have to ask anyone's permission for what I do?

And so on. Up until I assumed Insider-Outsider Role No 3 - the unmarried woman with a career who lives independent of her family.

And finally, this whole elite-business. I live a remarkably comfortable lifestyle. I rarely use public transport, hardly ever walk (anywhere) and I do almost no housework that I don't want to do courtesy a battalion of servants. I have never paid my own bills (the office takes care of it), but I know that I live an extravagant lifestyle. I buy exclusive designer clothes (mostly on a whim) and I have enough shoes to open a small shop. I have a three bed-room apartment which is stuffed with things I pick up whenever I travel, and I'm running out of space. Point is, I live a better life than 90% of the people in my country. That said, if I chose to think of myself as one of the 'elite', I would be deluding myself. I might talk-the-talk but the truth is I am a member of a strange demographic that has suddenly mushroomed in Pakistan's disparate social landscape. While I may be invited to the same parties (on occasion) I come from an obscure family that no one really knows as opposed to being the offspring of generations of wealth. Whatever I own I bought with money I earned myself. I have no trust fund, no mansion and only one - rather small - car, as opposed to a fleet of branded vehicles. I have only the one - Pakistani - passport, and my education was paid for mostly by scholarships as opposed to purchased by my parents' money. And the truth is, as S and I often worry, that if (and when) this country really does fall victim to the fury of the masses it is not the elite (with their guards, and private planes and foreign passports and ready escape routes) which will fall victim to their wrath - instead, it is people like me.

Insider Outsider Role No 4 - the Elite, who really isn't.


M said...

woah. girl you nailed it well.

double life? nah just insider-outsider roles we happen to play, like you put it. Elite, who really isn't describes the niche which either 'sides' are unwilling to accept, and will be quite snobbish about - not that acceptance is craved. Its just i dunno what to call the genuine issues faced by this lot - oh they (the other sides) have a phrase for it - poor-lil-rich girl's probs.

bah. You put head up, and walk. irked inwardly.

writespacetime said...

i understand why you picked up this particular post to share. you speak to all of us with our multiple, inside-out worlds.