Pakistan: Women and Fiction Today
"The clamor and protests should happen on America’s streets so peace and quiet can at last be felt in rooms of our own."
With three acclaimed novels behind her, writer Uzma Aslam Khan undoes formulaic assumptions of her homeland.
"Regarding her emancipation, capitalists, communists, and conservative Muslims always agree: Muslim women are the sign posts of their separate camps. "
I was fifteen years old when my older sister handed me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It was as if she were offering an illicit creed.
A woman is entitled to her own uninterrupted space, protected and nourished by her own money? No one had ever told me that. Later in life, whenever I watched movies in which forbidden words were traded—prison letters in Northern Ireland, Bibles in North Korea—I always remembered the day Woolf fell into my hands.
On that sweltering afternoon in Karachi in 1984, during the month of Ramzan, I held the tattered blue book with the cigarette stains (we smoked in secret in the bathroom, already outlaws) unaware that forbidden ideas were exchanged every day in our own city. 1984 was the fifth year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and of Pakistan’s brutal, US-backed military dictator, General Zia. At school, no one talked much about the billions of CIA dollars poured into Zia’s pockets to fund the Holy War next door, nor about the result: a once-peaceful Karachi suddenly torn by drugs and arms, strikes and violence, new laws and new codes of conduct. As the generation being shaped by all this, we were to be the result. We were the process, the scroll being unrolled. Those who live inside their own collapse want to escape it, not understand it.
About the time Woolf described Shakespeare’s sublime state of mind – “if ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded …” – I put the book down and called up the Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation to demand that the electricity return to our house. Otherwise, I promised the operator, God would punish him for denying my fasting parents even the respite of a ceiling fan. Then I went back to imagining Ms. Woolf in a long lilac dress, a thick belt around her slim waist and a lacy floppy hat to protect her delicate complexion. England was really happening; Pakistan wasn’t.
What was happening in Pakistan, aside from daily power cuts and mean telephone operators, I learned later. An ethnic war between the indigenous people of Sindh, where Karachi is located, and the Urdu-speaking migrants who’d settled in Karachi after Partition. Civil war, fueled and armed by the war between Empires, because by some accident of geography, the theater of their rivalry was Afghanistan, of which Pakistan had become an extension.
The quiet streets of my parents’ childhood were lost. My mother told me of the days when she bicycled to college without anyone harassing her. To me this seemed as quaint as Ms. Woolf in a long lilac dress in a clean green place called Oxbridge.
In my Karachi, girls were even discouraged from walking in public, let alone bicycling. When we walked, as an aunt once observed, we kept our heads down, arms across our breasts, as if ashamed. We felt suffocated by the nervousness about our appearing in public, but also by the cruel irony that some of the nervousness was justified. Night cops ran a lucrative business pulling over cars with boys and girls alone. Failure to produce a marriage license meant, at best, having to bribe your way to salvation. This is what the Holy War for Freedom had brought us.
General Zia introduced Shariya, including the infamous Hudood Laws, the worst aspect of which was—still is—defining rape and adultery as the same, and making both punishable as “unlawful intercourse.” He also introduced a draconian version of the Blasphemy Law. He banned the teaching of evolution. History books were rewritten. Pakistan’s founding was revised from 1947 to the 8th Century and the arrival of the Arabs. At school, I learned about the Muslim rulers—Arabs, Afghans, Turks—and of course the British. Our non-Anglican, pre-Islamic legacy was buried. Instead of helping us remember, our history was telling us to forget.
Arabization went hand and hand with Anglicization the same way the US-backed Jihad went hand in hand with Islamization. . . .