By Meghna Mehra
M: Tell us about yourself
Sana : I am Sana Kardar, the founder of Pakistani Asexuals. I am a 28 years old feminist, originally from Pakistan but currently based in the UK. By profession, I am a Biomedical Scientist. I am also the founder of The EndoMentalist which advocates the rights of women’s reproductive and menstrual health especially women battling with conditions like “endometriosis,” which is very common as it affects 1 in 10 women but with very limited research in the area. I aim to bring awareness around that condition by breaking the stigma revolving around women’s health as it is still considered taboo to talk openly about reproduction and menstrual health conditions.
I had played squash professionally in Pakistan and have represented my school and province in national tournaments. I have also carried the flag of Pakistan as a peace ambassador for Seeds of Peace, which is an American Organisation that brings people from the conflicted areas to spend a summer together and then follow-up with regional programs and conferences. The moto of Seeds of Peace is to “empower the leaders of the next generation,” by polishing the participants’ leadership skills, providing them the confidence to speak publicly on sensitive issues, and accepting people from different schools of faith, beliefs, and conflicts so you can co-relate and co-exist in a society.
I belong to a rather liberal family and was privileged that I was brought up in a household that empowered women. Although the society differentiated between my brother and I but our parents never made me feel any lesser than my brother because of my gender. I was given the liberty to explore my faith, my beliefs and my values without any pressure. I was encouraged to question everything and not follow the norms blindly without being fully convinced. I was exposed to different cultures and religions as a child as my father ensured I understood and respected everyone around me by introducing me to services in churches, Hindu and Sikh temples, I also visited Jewish and Parsi services to understand religious practices of these schools of faith. I have a great interest in world history and love visiting heritage sites.
Growing up, I was a sensitive child and strongly felt the wrongdoings in the society such as certain people being marginalised or others shunned from the community for being from a minority group. My passion for making a difference by doing my part drove me to find the organisations I run now.
1. what inspired you to start Pakistani asexual community?
Sana: Initially, I was very afraid to come out due to the fear of being ridiculed or judged by my friends and family. I had subtly mentioned about my asexuality to some close friends or people who showed interest in me romantically, the response was not always kind.
Some woke people from the close and safe spaces in the Pakistani network knew about my asexuality from the posts or rants I had made in those groups. As people did not know many asexuals, I was the first name that clicked for them when asexuality was mentioned in Pakistani circle. Earlier this year, someone I know socially got in touch with me asking if I would be comfortable to talk to one of their friends who might be confused about being asexual. I was happy to be connected and later realised that I was actually friends with them already but because we have never spoken about it publicly, we were both unaware of each other’s asexuality. Soon after that, another friend recommended a mutual friend to reach out to me to get their questions answered regarding asexuality that came up during a discussion on different sexual orientations.
These two incidents made me realise that there is no support or a platform available for people who are struggling to identify as asexuals. Until earlier this year, they could find information online but recently websites like “asexuality.org,” had been banned in Pakistan and if you are not a tech savvy, you cannot access that information. While there are other platforms to access information and support groups for an international audience, there were no support group for asexuals in Pakistan. I joined a few groups in the UK but as a person of colour from a rather conservative country, my experiences and struggles are different from the people in the West so I cannot expect them to understand certain things like pressure from family to get married or have kids. When I couldn’t find any groups, I decided to start with a support group, I shared the information about the group in the safe spaces on social media platforms and people began to join either by coming across those posts or word of mouth.
As I was quite unwell due to my endometriosis, I could not start the page straight away and initially I wanted to see the response of people in a closed community before going public. I realised that a lot of people wanted to join the group for educational purpose as well but as the group was meant to be a safe space for Aces only who could fall anywhere on the spectrum or people who had confusion about sexuality, I decided to create the Facebook and Instagram pages to create awareness for a wider audience by sharing information, personal stories of Aces and answer any questions of non-aces so asexuals in Pakistan can get recognition.
2. According to you, how are asexuals treated in Pakistan?
Sana: From my personal experience, asexuals are actually laughed upon mostly in Pakistan. People believe it is a myth, it is something that is not real and because Pakistan is a Muslim majority country with Sharia law and Islamic teachings, we are indoctrinated not to have sexual relationships before getting married as it is one of gravest sins in Islam, punishable by death. This leads to sexual frustration in people which leads to them believing that everyone must be desperate to have sex and if you don’t have the sex you are not enjoying your life.
I have had people from the “woke” circle who identify as feminists state that they were asexuals until they got married so once I get married, I will be cured too and will begin to enjoy sex or on another occasion, another person referred to their “dry period” as their “asexual phase,” which is extremely insensitive. It is hard for people who are used to the idea of sex to understand that people can live happily without the need or urge of having sex. There are women who are from religious or conservative families desperate to get married to have legitimate sexual relationships with their husbands, so not wanting to have sex seems like an alien concept.
Most of the time, it is blamed on someone’s mental health conditions like depression or anxiety which could be totally unrelated. Asexuality is also considered a disorder or disability where you are recommended to see a sex therapist, doctor or a shaman in religious cases. It is easier for Aces to stay in the closet than to come out.
Pakistan is a country which is still struggling to differentiate between intersex and transgender people, or who still cannot fathom visible sexual orientations like homo or bisexuals, so it is very hard for them to come to terms with the fact that there is a sexuality which is due to lack or no interest in sex, and as human nature dictates to reject anything its brain cannot process, similarly asexuals are marginalised or mocked.
Aces do not belong to the hetero community but in some instances, the LGBTQ+ community had not been inclusive as well. There is a lot of sex-shaming and a-phobia in Pakistani society and that is due to a lack of exposure and awareness around this topic. In the past, when such information was not available, people had ended up living a life that society thinks is normal like getting married, having kids but later on in their lives, these people realize that they are different but then it’s too late because they have families and they can’t just pack their bags and leave for good. Aces have and are still continuing to live in the closet due to the fear of being shamed, humiliated, or forced with the idea of having sex. It is easier for them to live a lie than to face the reality.
3. From which sources you got your knowledge about asexuality?
Sana: I am a researcher by profession so it is instilled in me to dig until I find my answers. Before I found the term “asexual,” to define my sexual orientation, I used to think I am the only odd one out who doesn’t feel the urge to have sexual relationships with any gender while my friends in high school were drooling over men. I thought it could be due to me being a tomboy in my pre-teen years, but when I felt no attraction towards the same gender, I did think there was something wrong with me so I started my research.
I found out officially that LGBT+ is a community at the age of 13 or 14 but I read about them in more detail in my high school and asexuality hit close to home for me. I further read about it from sources like asexuality.org; even Wikipedia in the early days. Then I moved on to more primary research material like books and journals or research papers. There is a lot of literature online that helped me to understand my asexuality. It took me a while to understand the spectrum and different categories falling under the umbrella of asexuality. I joined groups on Facebook that supported asexuality and queer people to see if I really belong to this sexual orientation as I could ask questions from fellow Aces and learn from their experiences as not everything is available in formal literature which also became the basis of me creating the support group for Pakistani Asexuals.
4. What are the problems that you think are all asexuals facing in Pakistan and rest of the Asia alike?
Sana: Most of South Asia shares very similar cultural ties with strong family bonds and societal pressures. I believe that in all South Asian families, parents would look after their children until they are married and would continue to support or live with them in joint family systems that were possible for the longest period. Things are changing now with kids moving out of the homes earlier, or the nuclear family concept that is giving space to both the parents and children once they form their own families. However, getting married is the biggest milestone that South Asian communities have set for their children followed by having their own off-springs within a year of getting married as the biggest achievement or it would be assumed that there is something wrong with you.
The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, is the concept of getting married and to top it all off, if it is arranged marriage especially in Pakistan where arranged marriages are more prevalent than love marriages. For women, especially, there is a certain age to get married, once the women cross that age, it is hard to find good proposals for them and it is a race against the time as their “biological clocks” are ticking away. It is extremely difficult for asexuals to escape that emotional torture they have to face at the hands of their family for not getting married at the right age. Even if they find the spouse to have a marriage of convenience, they would be further tortured into popping babies out within a year of marriage. I am not sure, how it is in other cultures but in Pakistan, under Islamic laws, a woman cannot deny her husband in bed and if she does, she can be subjected to the wrath of the husband.
Marriage and producing kids being the major issue in South Asian community, other problems that asexuals might face include, terribly small dating pool. Not every asexual is sex repulsive, some like to have romantic relationships too, so there is not big dating group available to choose from as we form less than 1% of the entire population. Also, there is no way to tell if someone is an asexual without asking which is creepy.
Thirdly, there are high chances of marital rape, corrective or date rape, if an ace decides to form a relationship with a non-ace. In marriages, marital rape is very common especially in Pakistan as aforementioned a woman cannot deny the husband. Sometimes, the non-ace partners may not believe in the legitimacy of someone being an ace and force themselves upon the ace partner, or the ace partner might just agree to be in a sexual relationship from the fear of sexual violence and abuse or only to stay in that relationship. There is also this scenario to which I have been subjected to is where people have told me that I am asexual because either I have not had good sex, or I haven’t been with the right man, or I should try with a woman or my sex censors need to be fixed as they are rusted and finally, I should have sex with the person proposing so they can cure me. Usually, this falls under the “date rape” category which is not a crime in many countries but in my case, I was not even on dates with any of the people who made these comments while there are people who are actually victims of date rapes.
Sex has its own benefits but an asexual cannot really benefit from it and hence shamed by comments such as “have sex, it will do you good as you need the serotonin boost,” or things like “you have never had sex, how do you know you don’t like it?” or if an ace has had sexual experience or enjoy watching porn they are labelled as hypocrites or fake aces.
Another problem is feeling excluded, we are not straight and there are aces who fall in different areas of the ace umbrella but a lot of LGBT+ community fail to recognise that and hence we are left feeling lonely and less people to relate to. It is hard when you form a very small part of the community and then to find people in that small pool.
5. What is goal of your group?
Sana: The goals of the group are to create a safe space for Asexuals in Pakistan as the country is very conservative in terms of dealing with anyone who does not identify as a hetero-cis person. It is not a massive group at the moment but with time, it will grow as more and more people are becoming aware of asexuality and reaching out to me with questions or concerns. I want aces in the group to feel comfortable to speak their hearts out, rant, find support, friendships, and a platform where they can be themselves without the fear of being judged or mocked for being an ace, struggling to understand asexuality, or confused about their place on the spectrum. My group has a mixture of members ranging from aromantic to panromantics, from demi to trans people from hetero-romantic to sex and touch repulsed. We all may not share the same experiences but we understand each other’s struggles and challenges and can empathize which each other.
On the other hand, I have started public pages on Instagram and Facebook which are more about creating awareness for people who have questions, or are too afraid to join the group at this point and for non-aces so they can understand asexuality and come to a realisation that asexuals exist.
6. Tell a bit about your struggle, how you realised that you are an asexual?
Sana: As I grew up in Pakistan in the 90s and early 2000s, society expected me to be friends with women only but for me, gender really did not matter and I believe I had an equal number of male and female friends. As I was an athlete, a squash player, I was tomboyish but when I retired from squash due to an injury, I started to grow my hair and became more feminine. Like any Bollywood movie, I started to get male attention especially from my male friends, however, I never felt anything romantic/sexual towards them which I initially attributed to the fact that I did not want to mix up friendships with intimate relationships. When I first got asked out by someone who was not a friend, I still could not bring myself to feel attracted to them in any way. I started to think there was something wrong with me as even for my celebrity crush, I did not want to romance him but just sit and have a conversation with him. I am touch repulsive and I freeze when someone touches me without me realizing so it was quite scary for me that I was unable to form a “normal” relationship with anyone.
While reading an article about LGBT+, I read about asexuality and decided to further look into it. When I first came across the term “asexual,” my first thoughts were, “I am a flower or a plant,” because before that I had only read about asexuality in my botany lessons. Upon reading further, I realised I was actually an asexual hetero-romantic but sex and touch-repulsive, that clarified a lot of things about me romantically inclined towards someone but when they try to take it to the next level, I chicken out.
My struggle really began after my father’s untimely demise in 2014, as before that I had the freedom to live my life on my own terms without any pressure from anyone. As soon as he passed away, the entire extended family wanted me to get married as I am the oldest among my siblings. I was still studying at that time, so my mother put her foot down and ensured my degree was completed but the pressure from the extended family never came to a stop. Once my sister who is a year younger than me got married, the pressure increased to a point that somebody arranged for a proposal for arranged marriage and the guy’s family landed in my house without my family or my consent which led to an extremely heated argument with my mum and in turn she disowned me. I have had strenuous relationship with my family ever since and people from my extended family are still concerned about getting me married or other concerns are if I have already gotten married to someone in the UK, as that would mean bringing shame to the family’s name.
These were the pressures from my family but trust me there were people in my closed circle who did not let go off a single opportunity to coerce me into sleeping with them. From things like, “What can I do if I feel attracted to you,” “I can’t control myself as I really want to kiss you,” “You are going to die anyway, so may be help a poor person (read: them) by sleeping with them,” “why are you so hot then?” “you should be f*****g everything possible at this age?” “I can give you serotonin boost which you require very much,” “you should have sex and enjoy your life,” “you are so boring and not adventurous at all,” “let’s have a threesome, that would also give you an opportunity to see if you are interested in women,” “how come you had a sudden transition?” “is it because of mental or physical disorder or depression?”
One day while I was ranting to a friend, they told me that maybe because I tell people upfront that I am asexual so men start thinking that is their cue to talk about sex so I stopped telling people I was asexual but that did not stop men. There was a 72 years old man who thought I would be interested in sleeping with him just because we connected on music and I spoke to him about my ancestors who he has worked with. I feel dumb in situations like this where I cannot pick up or understand that a man is saying certain things or wants to meet me to have sex and not for a conversation over coffee. This guy told me he would come and see me in London and I thought like anyone who would visit London would hit me up, it would be a similar thing but he had different intentions. He made some inappropriate comments which I did not realise it until later when he asked me if I “desired and wanted” him, when I said no, he went on to shame me and that included insults such as “you have mental disorder too,” and I was left with no choice but to block him. In another incident, a 55 to 60 years old bloke forced himself upon me to kiss me in broad daylight in London just because he wanted to see “how it tasted,” I am sure this would sound disgusting to any sexually active person too.
In all my experiences, I have come to realise that hetero-cis men make it a mission to convert you, to cure you and to ensure you start loving sex while they might not even be able to satisfy you. I have had to deal with women too who have made inappropriate comments. This entire thing got so taxing that I finally decided to come out openly, share about asexuality thinking it would put a stop to all this but that was wishful thinking. It drove me into the deepest pits of depression, caused social anxiety, trust issues and I locked myself in my house refusing to go anywhere other than work and supermarket for the essentials for months on end. It made me suicidal with episodes of self-harm and ending up in hospital several times. I finally decided to ask a question from anyone who would force me into trying to sleep or be intimate with them. My question was, “As sexually active hetero-cis man, you will end up enjoying the sex with me, but what about me? I would not enjoy the sex so what is in it for me? What do I get out of it?” While some of the men had the guts to say that I will enjoy the experience with them, others had the audacity to label me a prostitute who was asking for money to sleep with them. How ungrateful of me to refuse the services of such men!
I don’t have many friends because all my female friends are married and their conversations revolve around husbands, in-laws, sex and popping babies out while I am also childfree so I cannot relate to them and men because they cannot be friends without being sexual towards everything. I never believed that a boy and a girl cannot be friends but I guess there is some truth to it when it comes to hetero-cis men, I can’t speak for the other genders though. All these experiences have led me to have extreme trust issues and I believe I am not ready to open up to anyone at this point, the idea scares me as I had been left hurt, in tears and on the verge of ending my life many times. I have come a long way since then and now I am unapologetically me, an openly asexual being.
7. Since you do not live in Pakistan permanently, do you think that the situation of Pakistani asexuals residing in Pakistan is different than those who are living elsewhere?
Sana: Yes, I strongly believe the situation is different for asexuals in Pakistan as compared to the ones in the West. Here, while there might be different matters unlike Pakistan there is no pressure of getting married which is a massive issue. In the West, normally people would move out of their parents’ house by the age of 16 to 18 which makes them independent with an opportunity to explore their sexuality and orientation without fear of getting prosecuted. In case, they don’t get support from family, there is support available from the government in terms of housing, social benefits, and counseling.
In Pakistan, all these things are out of question, firstly, it is very uncommon for people to move out of their parental homes without getting married. Secondly, the LGBT+ community is always at a target of the religious groups and often subjected to violence including sexual assaults. Although, Pakistan has organised events like Aurat March (Women’s March), in which different members of LGBTQ+ community has representation yet there is a lot of stigma involved and talking about sex is a taboo.
There is no concept of sexual education in Pakistan, people get their first lesson of sex education from friends in school or through porn which sets unrealistic expectations and with not much opportunities available for having sex, men end up having panted up sexual frustrations. In recent months, there had been cases of animals being sexually abused. There are young kids who are being raped and murdered on regular basis, some even dig up graves to have rape the dead bodies and it is all due to lack of sexual education. A formally educated woman who holds a PhD in Science thought sex education would be the reason for more sex in the society because she believed sex education teaches you about the positions during sex. She proved my point that why is sex education so important but we don’t talk about it because it’s a shameful subject to be discussed. Therefore, people are unaware of basic concepts like consent or their rights.
While in other developed countries, the situation is different, people are more aware. Asexuality may still be a very alien subject to the people in other countries but I think in the UK, they are more willing to accept it as compared to Pakistan where you cannot even come out to your family. This year, I have seen a lot of representation of Aces during the awareness week in work places or local communities in the UK.
8. Any message for Asexuals across the globe that you want to share?
Sana: I know it is not easy and the struggle is real when you have to fight the family values and the people you have loved all your lives, it hurts when your own family refuses to believe you or your friends decide to abandon you, but don’t give up and look for support. There are activists working in different countries trying to raise awareness, to make asexuality more acceptable, reach out to someone in the Ace community and I am certain you will get the required aid. It’s easier said than done but if your family doesn’t support you, or you live in a toxic environment, then try to move out because your friends or other people in similar situations would understand and help more. Finally, do not let anyone force you or guilt-trip you into sleeping with them. Until you give your full and informed consent, please do not let anyone sexually exploit you. You may not realize it then but when you will, it will come to haunt you. Even if you want to experiment and explore, make sure it is about you and not them, do it with someone you trust, who would stop when you tell them to stop without any sexual or physical violence.
Finally, it is a long journey towards awareness and acceptance for asexuality but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step! I have taken mine and hopefully, I will be able to make a difference.