Photo: Peter Rivera

In the Pakistan I returned to, control was focused on preventing the unmarried from gaining sexual knowledge or having pre-marital sex. Because sex outside wedlock is illegal in Islam, Pakistanis—Muslims everywhere—form entire morality enforcement industries to make sure the genders are kept separate in order to avoid temptation. Thus the “concerned citizens” telling me to wear long-sleeved apparel only and cover my chest with a dupatta. Everything is everyone’s business, and those of us girls who were curious about sex were suspect because good girls from good Muslim or Pakistani families do not even think about sex. And they certainly do not write about sex.

One day in the late 1990s after I’d married and moved to the U.S., I was reading a short story in a literary journal when I came upon the word “vagina.” I slammed the journal down. My stomach churned, my cheeks flushed, I was dizzy. My reaction perplexed me. After all, a vagina is simply a female body part, so why was I mortified? Iqbal’s genie, who I’d thought long excised, seemed to have only been buried and now leapt to life. I decided I was going to write through my discomfort and shame and battle both the genie’s censorship as well as my self-censorship by writing a story with “vagina” in the very first sentence. And so was birthed Papa’s Girl, a story set in the brothels of Bangkok, where a young boy is witness to his father’s dallying with a child prostitute and is consequently traumatized for life. It eventually appeared in the anthology A Letter from India.

– Soniah Kamal dared to read—and then write—literature considered explicit by conservative Muslim society. The backlash was intense. Read more from “Girls From Good Families” at The Butter.

Read the story