“Oh but you don’t look like a Pakistani!”
“You look totally Indian, you’ll gel right in!”
Ever since I moved to India two years ago, I’ve heard many a people make such statements the moment they find out that I am from Pakistan. However, recently, when someone made the same comment on finding out that I am a Pakistani, a friend sitting beside me made a confused faced and asked, “Um, what is a Pakistani supposed to look like?” In that moment, all of us turned quiet and an awkward silence ensued.
It’s been a couple weeks since this happened but such an innocent yet provocative question stayed with me. Hence, I felt it was necessary to explore questions like “what is a Pakistani woman of my age supposed to look like?” and “what is it like to live in India looking more like an “Indian” than a “Pakistani”?
I am going to admit that initially, statements like these used to make me feel validated and gave me a false sense of belonging here. I felt like if I looked more like an “Indian” and less like a “Pakistani”, I would be accepted as one of “them” more quickly. Unconsciously, I even started dressing up like my Indian friends, in attempts to look more “Indian”. When I was leaving Pakistan, my mother, like all protective mothers told me not to stand out in a country which is known to be hostile to people where I come from. Of course, in people to people interaction, that is not true at all; but perhaps my subconscious started to play it safe, nonetheless.
When I met my husband (who is Indian) in Karachi, one of the things that attracted him to me was my “Indian-ness”. In his own words, “Typical Pakistani females tend to wear a lot of makeup. Thank God you’re not one of them!” Again, I felt special for not being like typical Pakistani women who paint their faces with makeup; but on occasion when I did start doing the same, my husband would laugh and say, “Uff so much make up! But of course, you’re Pakistani!” It’s then that I started to realise that my identity as a Pakistani was being shaped by the amount of makeup I was choosing to wear and it didn’t feel right. After all, what has my choice of wearing makeup got to do with my nationality?
Interestingly enough, when I would go back to Pakistan after spending some time in India, my Pakistani peers would label me “the Indian girl” on not one but many occasions. I still wonder what is it that qualifies me to be called as such in my own country as well as across the border. Is it my dusky complexion? Is it my accent? Is it the way I dress?
Speaking of the way one dresses, some Pakistani family friends who visit India regularly often complain, “When we go to India, everyone automatically thinks we are from Pakistan, even though we wear skirts and Indian looking clothes.” So, it couldn’t be the way I dress that makes me look more “Indian”, right? I didn’t think so either!
So far, makeup seems to be the only explanation to the first question I set out to explore which was, “what is a Pakistani woman of my age supposed to look like?” If I put on lots of makeup, I appear more Pakistani than otherwise. However, the fact that it’s only my husband’s bias and that nobody else has pointed out the same to me tells me that it couldn’t be the only answer! It seems, though, it will be the only one I will have to settle for, at the moment.
Moving on to the next question I found worth investigating was, “what is it like to live in India looking more like an “Indian” than a “Pakistani”?” It’s certainly much more comforting when you look the part, not just for you but for others around you as well. The fact that my appearance looked more Indian than Pakistani to many of the Indians made it easier for them to overlook my Pakistani identity and declare me fit to blend in with the others. I wonder if I didn’t look too “Indian” and more like a “Pakistani”, would I have had problems making friends in India.
For now, I am still not sure what a Pakistani girl of my age is supposed to look like and why people think I look more “Indian” than “Pakistani”. Let me know if you have a clue!