Updated: Jun 17
Stories are a crucial form of representing a population or a place. The narrative style that stories hold has a descriptive nature which convinces the readers and listeners of the content portrayed in words. This particular style develops the interest and engages the audience that aims to learn about a place or its people. However, who tells the story and what story is told speaks volumes about the domain of representation.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a famous Nigerian writer, aptly asserts in her TEDtalk on single stories that “Stories matter, but complete stories, not single stories or a side of the story that suits the storyteller as that leads to stereotypes and inaccurate representation.” Stories have a deep link with the power dynamic as those in power create the stories to overrule people. They repeat the story to an extent that it becomes a reality and a way to control people and their mindsets, as done by governments in the history of mankind.
It has been 73 years since the British colonization of South Asia, but the stories that we have bought into and believed are the only stories we know. British media circulated a form of art through novels, movies, textbooks, and news that adjusted our minds according to that culture. For instance, I, along with many of my friends, grew up reading the Harry Potter series and looked up to the lifestyle those characters had. I would associate myself with the likes and dislikes of those characters, their British accent, haircuts, favorite drinks, etc. As the time passed and I critically thought about it, I realized that I never owned my own culture or read any Urdu literature with passion and interest, as much as I always read English books. I could never feel authentic to my own culture as Western outfits appealed to me more than my local dresses of “Shalwar Kameez”. Even if I acknowledge that bias today, there is a certain level of discomfort I experience if I consider myself a Pakistani Muslim.
When I look at the story of Muslims that is shared across countries through the image that “Muslims are backward and terrorists”, it blows me away. Every time I hear this statement in the media, I feel the urge to change the narrative as there is much more to Muslims who are open-minded, progressive, hospitable, respectful, and peacemakers. One can only clear the picture from their heads by meeting a diverse range of Muslims, instead of generalizing their one-time experience to the whole community. There are similar and popular notions about Pakistan which is an “unsafe” country to live in and crimes are common. But I, a Pakistani citizen, can confidently negate that it is not the complete story about my country or my people. There are strangers on the road who also ensure your safety, and genuinely care for you so that you may reach home safely. We have beautiful places to visit that come under top tourist destinations in the world. My people are spending a handsome amount on quality education for children so that we develop empathy and compassion to serve the community.
As I contemplate why I feel so distant and uncomfortable with owning my identity as a Pakistani Muslim, it becomes imperative for me to think that there is a two-way power dynamic in play. The way I perceive my culture, looking downward at it, is an image created by colonizers that is engrossed in me. I was conditioned into believing that studying “English novels” is important in order to progress and reach the epitome of success. The constant story that I was told that “we are not good enough” chained me into believing that this was true.
Ironically, when I look at the image that others have about Pakistanis, the sympathy, pity, and fear that I see in their eyes further reiterates for me that something is problematic with my identity or the place where I come from. Because those in power who manipulated the image of my own culture and people in my eyes through “their stories”, have also shown the worse side of my population or my identity in the stories across the globe. How I’ve been conditioned to see myself, and how others have been conditioned to see me is what causes tension whenever I try to own my identity.
I am not the first person to experience this dilemma. Many colonized populations have encountered this conflict in themselves and I am only one among millions. How we are represented is controlled by the people who create the stories. It is high time that we question the stories we hear and read on a daily basis and look into the ramifications of it. It is absolutely critical to scrutinize whether the story is coming from a local, or a foreigner who studied that local from “their” perspective. Stories matter because they can change and impact the mindsets of people. However, it is tragic that we only know half of the stories we come across and accept them as true without knowing the full side of them. You and I are a story too in someone else’s book or screen. Who is the storyteller and what story he/she is telling about us, becomes eminent in the form of hatred, enmity, and negatively ingrained beliefs that are now prevalent around us. But how we react to it makes all the difference.
Amna Sheikh is an in-house writer at Perspective.