Of post colonial angst

The West’s mystique is shattered everyday through the media, especially after Trump’s election. Yet the same generation Xers and millennials are fairly Western in their cultural outlook

The pre-independence generation in Pakistan is intellectually profoundly impressed by the West and its scientific modernity. Yet culturally my parents’ generation is completely Pakistani/South Asian in its habits and outlook. Most people in this generation are fans of Aloo-Gosht (meat curry), local mannerisms, and would be loath to eat out unless they are traveling. For most contemporary urban university educated Pakistanis, there is nothing remarkable about the West or the Westerners.

The West’s mystique is shattered everyday through electronic and social media, especially after Trump’s election as US president. Yet the same generation Xers and millennials are fairly Western in their cultural outlook, food habits, musical tastes and so on. This characterisation is particularly true of the so called ‘Burger’ crowd. The non-burger crowd has its own particularities, which can be a topic of another article. For now, I want to speak of what the treatment of the Westerners says about the middle class post-colonial experience in Pakistan.

The highest proportion of normal Westerners living or working in Pakistan will most likely be in the development sector, and possibly academia. Here a few stories I have witnessed, bear repeating. Two of my Western female colleagues when residing with Pakistani middle class host families, suffered significant passive aggressive behaviour, rudeness, corrosive gossip and in both cases even denial of food in the house. The hosts knew perfectly well that their ability to walk out in the street and get food for themselves was somewhat limited. In another instant, another female colleague when working with an NGO in Lahore became subject to such intense sexual harassment, by practically the entire staff of the NGO, that she had to cut short her research project and leave the country.

There are good and bad people everywhere, as are good and bad experiences. My point in narrating the above is not to stigmatise Pakistanis but to draw attention to a broader attitude towards Westerners, especially women that I have witnessed much more widely, and the above three cases illustrate. Many middle class, educated urban Pakistanis in a professional environment, assume that Westerners are idiots, who can be manipulated for their appearances and international legitimacy. And when they discover that many of them don’t take too kindly to that manipulation, they see blood. Year after year I have seen young Western researchers being patronised and almost insulted in NGOs in Pakistan as well as in broader South Asia.

As for female Westerners, they are assumed to be not only stupid, but also loose and hence legitimate subjects for sexual advances and even harassment. The broader patriarchal ethos of our society allow men to objectify all women. But that objectification is tempered by the equally patriarchal constraint of the local women having male relatives and family to supposedly protect them. Western women are often perceived to not have that protection and hence, it is open season. I am not suggesting that it is wrong for adults to express their amorous intentions towards the opposite sex. I am talking about harassment when a ‘no’ is perceived to be yes, and hence the persistence of advances. I know many Pakistani and Western couples who met in Pakistan and had, or continue to have, loving fulfilling relationships.

Yes, there are vast swathes of European and North American societies that continue to be racist and xenophobic. But every gora or gori does not necessarily subscribe to those attitudes, nor are they responsible or answerable, for those attitudes

The point of the above illustrative stories is to invite the reader to contemplate the post-colonial angst and cultural perversities that allow such behavior to happen. For the working class, curiosity coupled with cultural ethos of hospitality and politeness dictate that all courtesy and cooperation be extended to guests, and foreigners including Westerners. But for the middle class, cultural insecurities about status, and social efficacy, translate into rudeness being the currency of establishing distinction and privilege. This rudeness in case of foreigners takes on particularly insidious racist overtones.

Race was the main legitimising ideology of Western colonialism in the global South, including South Asia. To recoil from that legacy and to undermine its continued persistence in Western society, or in the minds of individual Westerners, through deed and action is absolutely legitimate. But the West has moved on too. Yes, there are vast swathes of the European and North American societies that continue to be racist and xenophobic. But every gora or gori does not necessarily subscribe to those attitudes, nor is responsible or answerable, for those attitudes. There are many in the West, who are as appalled by racism as us. Yet, by imitating the worst of Western racism in our attitudes towards Westerners, we legitimise racism. Race is biological nonsense. But judging someone by their skin colour we are as guilty of it, as any colonial racist. Race is about power, and we have power over Westerners in Pakistan. It is time for middle class Pakistanis to realise that the demon of racism is not just out there, but in themselves.


The writer is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror

Published in Daily Times, November 14th 2017.