To Love Freely – A Dream by Syeda Iqraa Bukhari

Art work By Jawaria Noodle soup

Bio: The writer is currently working at PRIF (Peace Research Institute Frankfurt) as an Erasmus+ Recent Graduate Trainee and is conducting research on topics relating to politics, (counter) radicalisation, intelligence and security, with a special focus on South Asia. She recently finished her Master’s degree in International Security from the University of Warwick, with the PAIS MA scholarship.


Murad’s journey in Gully Boy was set beautifully against the backdrop of the life that he had been born into: crude and crushing. He was a living embodiment of what it means to struggle and aspire to be a self-made artist in an unfairly strata-ridden world. However, my favourite character was the one who breathed fire and left a mark (literally, sometimes) everywhere she went: Safeena. She lived the dual life that many women and girls from our part of the world are familiar with because we live it too. Every single day.


When her duality got exposed unexpectedly, her father asked her: “Tum ne hum se jhoot bola? Yahi sikhaya hai tujhe?” (You lied to us? Is this what we have taught you?)


In her truthful and almost desperate somberness, she replied: “Agar mein sach kahoon gi toh aap log kabhi mujhko bahar nahi jaanay doh ge.”

(If I tell you the truth, you will never let me leave the house.)


In what became, in my opinion, a watershed moment of absolute relatability in Indian cinema for myriads of females of all backgrounds, Safeena said exactly what we have kept silent about for decades:

Baahar jana ha. Doston ke saath party kerna hai, mujhe picture dekhna hai, concert dekhna hai, lipstick lagana hai. Larkon se baat kerna hai. Chup chup ke nahi, aap logon ke saamne. Unko ghar bulana hai, jaisay normal log kertay hain… Aap log kero ge aisa mujh ko allow? Agar haan toh mein kabhi jhoot nahi bolon gi.”

(I want to go out. Party with my friends, watch movies, go to concerts, wear lipstick. Talk to boys. Not secretly but in your presence. I want to invite them home like people do normally…Would you allow me to do these things? If you agree, I’ll never lie again.)


She got slapped by her mother right away.


I can safely say that the slap on the big screen must have painfully resonated across South Asian’s viewership and brought back traumatic memories for those (men and women) who may have once found themselves being interrogated or humiliated by their families in a manner resembling that of India and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies when they catechise spies or rogue elements, for doing something far more dangerous than a supposed enemy of the state could do: to dream to love freely.


Be it in the dungeons of Lahore Fort, Papa II in Srinagar or one’s own house, one has to go to extreme lengths to be able to maintain romantic relationships in secret whilst escaping moral policing that steers far from civility in our society. The said lack of respect is evident in the University of Lahore’s recent decision to expel a couple for candidly expressing (minimalistic) affection after getting engaged in a public proposal that was initiated by the female involved – a move that should have been revered for her sense of empowerment and confidence to take the first step and ask the man she loved to marry her. Instead, their moment of unadulterated endearment was thrown under the ‘fahashi’ grouping; with or without a Nikkah-namah, as a society, we somehow always manage to end up there. In a country where married couples refrain from indulging in healthy gestures of romance in front of others and where unwelcome sexual advancements towards women are a daily occurrence, this proposal brought with it not just a breeze of freedom but also a reminder of the fact that we love the people we love all the time, not just when we are hiding away from the world in secret dating spots.


Being able to express one’s affection publicly – knowing that the move would be shunned by the self-righteous, self-proclaimed, sole stakeholders of heaven in the after-life – is an act of courage in our society. I have tremendous respect for those who dare to do it, especially the couple from UoL. Seeing their precious video, I thought to myself, perhaps lovers is what heaven is made up of.


But I may be wrong in that, as it is Pakistan – the land of folklore, myths and stories that have passed down generations – that is home to (some pre-Partition) legends of hopeless, romantic lovers who gave their lives for each other. Heer Ranjha, Mirza Sahiban, Sassi Punnu, Momal Rano, Umar Marvi and Lila Chanesar are just a few examples of ‘lovers’ whose public display of affection and subsequent tragedy we celebrate and remember today in the fast-paced world of dating.


What we need to understand is that back then, lovers met in secret and eloped. Today, they call each other over for a casual meal or date night. The world has evolved. When will we?


Pakistan’s annual display of discomfort with Valentine’s Day is symptomatic of a ‘romantic’ culture that has been lost or possibly never existed beyond fables. Every year when February 14th comes around, the traditionalists in our society feel threatened. Sabeen Mahmud’s words – “Pyaar Hone Dain” – still ring true today. I wonder what she would have said about UoL’s monstrous folly whereby the couple is not even permitted to enter campus premises as if they are criminals. Meanwhile, absconders of all parameters of decency, especially including sitting members of the Pakistani Parliament, one of whom managed to get away with marrying a 14-year-old – can escape all measures of accountability. Only if Pakistani universities adopted the same attitude towards harassers at university campuses who have the grades – and thereby the futures – of students at their beck and call.


But, guess what? Enough is enough. Here is the truth about modern-day dating: Us ‘youngsters’ and the ones who came before us, and the ones who came before them, are not the first to do it and neither is it a consequence of a foreign conspiracy to destroy Pakistan. It has been happening for centuries in various versions and forms, all around the world.


What we young people want is this: We want to invite our partners over and introduce them to our parents and family. We may or may not want to engage in physical display of affection but after the age of 18, it is our choice. Just like you, youngsters also want to have sex but unlike you, some may not wait until marriage to do it. Your duty is to remind us to rely upon protection, not piety, as everyone is capable of making their own decision; one can also have a sound character if they ‘do it’ before marriage. We may not get married right after we meet someone who we may like or get attracted to. We will do that when the time is right and most importantly, when the person is right. And yes, this may mean that we may go on for years and years of meeting and dating new people but we will not, in any case, get married to the wrong person at the wrong time, for your face-saving. We will celebrate our special moments with a big heart, some in public and some in private. Your only job is to say ‘Mubarak ho’.


We sometimes want to hold hands and hug our partners in public but are scared of being shamed for the rest of our lives. We sometimes want to dress nice for a date night but are scared of having others give us the look of suspicion about where we may be going and with who. So we sneak out. We want to go to cafes, parks, theatres and parties for overtly acceptable dates but are scared of being caught by doppelgangers of Maya Khan. We hate it when we are forced to go down a restricted path of not doing all that because you are not okay with it.


Until loving freely in our country is no longer a dream, we will continue living dual lives. But we will not stop loving. Because to not love would be the death of us and all that we stand and sacrifice for.




I wish the couple well in their life ahead and hope that the rest of us will have the bravery to follow their free-spiritedness to not be embarrassed, silenced or scared anymore.


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