Being a woman in Pakistan

Published on 19th Sep, 2010 on The Express Tribune Blog

Original Link

A painting by Cynthia Angeles titled Grief

Society, especially Pakistani society, thrives on gossip and slander. While urban socialites love talking of women’s emancipation and rights in general, they often fail to see the rigid mindsets within their own circle. Back biting and slander are not viewed as vices or sins in our society where every other person likes to preach. In fact, people feel they have a right to comment, criticize and judge especially if an issue or circumstance pertains to a woman.

Try to make it work

As long as a woman continues to be the sufferering victim (bechari) in any situation, people are satisfied. They may sympathize with her and pity her for being so unfortunate. However, if she takes charge of her life and makes decisions to alleviate her suffering, then she is perceived as a negative person. For instance, if a woman decides to take a divorce from her abusive husband, then people start speculating if it is wise of her to go to court – supposedly where few decent people are seen. How will this decision affect the future of her daughters? Will they face problems in getting marriage proposals or not? Without any in-depth knowledge or understanding of the situation, relatives and acquaintances give their verdict:

She should try harder to make her marriage work.

They are unaware of the negative psychological and emotional impact the dysfunctional family life has on the woman and her children. If the woman does not choose to share all the private, painful details of her marital problems then their verdict is final.

Taboos and remarriage

When a divorced woman decides to get married again, the situation almost always gets worse – especially if she is marrying by choice. People blame her for the first unhappy marriage. They raise questions about her character

How can she have found someone so quickly? Was she having an affair during her first marriage? How must her poor kids feel?

She is seen and projected as selfish and clever, perhaps even wicked. On the other hand, a second marriage is seen as the most natural thing for a man in a similar situation.

Single modern woman

Even single women who choose to ignore the demands of our society and do as they please with their lives – work where they want to, marry when they want to, date etc. – are described as rebellious, too modern, incapable of having a family life and so on.

No matter what the situation, some people do not merely discuss what a woman is doing – they judge it. Despite being wholly unconnected, they offer their ill-informed advice and opinions in order to discourage the woman from making a decision that will help her be free and happy.

Unfortunately it is women who are the biggest critics of women – those who believe they know how to make their relationships or other things work better; those who are unhappy and restricted themselves but not strong enough to take a stand; bored housewives; those who resent the happiness of others and those who merely love to gossip.

And the World Changed

And the World Changed – Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women

Book Review published in SouthAsia (June 2007)

And the world has changed! Not only in Sabyn Javeri-Jillani’s post-partition Karachi or in Humera Afridi’s post 9/11 New York City, but also for creative writing by Pakistani women.

There is no vast Pakistani English literature by women, to comment on. Republished in Pakistan in 2006, after its launch by Women Unlimited (New Delhi) in 2005, this anthology exhibits the kind of work that Pakistani women are doing in South Asian literature.

Nonconformity and an unconventional style seem to be the current trend. Though there is still a long way to go in terms of meeting the literary standards of world classics, the stories of this collection do represent myriad perspectives on a number of issues, especially those concerning women.

There is no single theme that the book follows. You cannot label it as ‘feminist’ prose, despite the fact that all texts are by women.

Twenty-four women, belonging to different literary backgrounds, have contributed. These include known names such as Fahmida Riaz (a political and human rights activist), Bapsi Sidhwa (whose novels revolve around the Zoroastrian community in Pakistan) and Kamila Shamsie (of Salt and Saffron fame). Some of the stories are excerpts from novels.

One is bound to notice a few similarities between the authors. All of them have lived in Pakistan as well as in the west, or still do. They write about the Pakistani people and multiculturalism is sometimes an underlying theme:

“Santa Maria, the Black Madonna, Holy Mother of Christ, Jesus, Jesus, Ya Ali! Ya Ali! Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain…” (Bloody Monday by Fawzia Afzal Khan.

Stories focus on problems as serious as rape of the mentally challenged (The Daughters of Aai by Fahmida Riaz), forced marriages (The Optimist by Bina Shah) or on lighter subjects such as the initial experiences of city life ( Look, But With Love by Uzma Aslam Khan) and The Arsonist (an excerpt from Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters). They provide us with a taste of present-day reality and capture the ethos of our society – such as Shahrukh Husain’s Rubies for a Dog, which comments on gender discrimination:

“Isn’t it ironic that I have to dress like a man in order to discover my potential?”

Meeting your future in-laws in a pair of jeans can be calamitous even if you are living in the west, “under the sway of western fashion and, by extension, its moral values” (A Pair of Jeans by Qaisra Shahraz).

Even young and amateur writers show sensitivity towards some social issues (that are often ignored) and provide us with some very original stories, such as Clay Fissures by Nayyara Rahman:

“It was 1953 and patriotism was still a young, strong spirit in Pakistan. People were proud of being Pakistanis. They were proud of being Muslim. They were proud of their own brown skin, which reflected wheat – the lifeblood of Pakistan. And here was I: Pradeep Sehgal, the adopted albino son of a Hindu merchant and a Eurasian seamstress.”

Muneeza Shamsie (the editor and short story writer), has previously edited A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English and Leaving Home: A Collection of English Prose by Pakistani Writers. She also contributes to local newspapers and magazines. In this book, she has provided us with a brief but absorbing introduction on the history of creative writing by Pakistani women (or the lack of it). She has eulogized the efforts of those women who have contributed to this form of writing (despite the lack of monetary benefits and inspiring examples), acquainted us with each contributor and has also thrown light on the impact that political upheaval in the country has had on this medium of expression.

It is interesting to note the kind of diversity that exists in our writing as well as our society. We see a close affinity with contemporary writing by Indian women (Shobha De` etc.).

These writers also lead us to new avenues (sometimes ‘experimental’)and provide ideas that can form the basis of future work in fiction. Social critique still largely seems to be the ultimate aim of writing, as mentioned in the introduction: ‘the prescriptive dictum that their work must have an extra-literary purpose, namely to “serve society”.’

– By Ayesha Hoda