Pakistan: Women and Fiction Today
When in the 1920s Woolf sat on the banks of a river reflecting on the subject of women and fiction, at least the women she saluted were of her world. She belonged to that world in a way that the colonized millions upon whom it was thrust did not. Her female literary forbearers – George Eliot, Jane Austen – were celebrated at my school. Mine – Amrita Pritam, Qurratul Ain Hyder – were not. The women she mourned and honored were British, Christian, white. Their rooms were enormous, compared to those of women who were not. Her history became mine; mine, had I been capable of stepping back in time, would never have become hers.
Alice Walker, in her poignant essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, describes the fate of an African-American slave of the 1800s with a gift for fiction: “Had she been white [she] would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day.” For women from lands colonized by successive Empires – first the British, now the American—the struggle for self-ownership, self-representation, and intellectual recognition is as pertinent as ever. In the nineteenth century, the moral justification of slavery and imperialism was “civilizing” the native; nowadays the justification is “liberating” the native. Freeing Muslim women in particular is a choice excuse. Regarding her emancipation, capitalists, communists, and conservative Muslims always agree: Muslim women are the sign posts of their separate camps.
In Pakistan, this ongoing battle involves her sexuality, marriage, mobility, work, dress—so much about which is heard, rarely from herself. Local religious zealots control her in the name of Islam; the West controls her in the name of freedom. She is never consulted: why should she be, when she has no intellect, no artistry? She does not belong to herself but to others, white, brown, and black.
In his speech on March 27, 2009, US President Obama justified his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan thus: “For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people—especially women and girls (my italics).” The President failed to mention the conditions under which “especially women and girls” have lived since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Human rights and women’s organizations, including the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, have warned that conditions for Afghan women have worsened, not improved. I quote RAWA’s web site:
“They (the US and its Allies) misleadingly claim of bringing peace and democracy and liberating Afghan women from the bleeding fetters of the Taliban. But in reality Afghan women are still burning voraciously in the inferno of fundamentalism. Women are exchanged with dogs, girls are gang-raped, men in the Jehadi-dominated society kill their wives viciously and violently, burn them by throwing hot water, cut off their noses and toes, innocent women are stoned to death …”
The President’s solution: escalate the war. War is liberation as long as it is not the women of his family who are being exchanged with dogs, gang-raped, stoned to death, burned with hot water or acid, or disfigured.
In the same speech, the President claimed he had “great respect for the Pakistani people.” Oh? Is that why he pledges to continue the weekly drone attacks against Pakistan? Or why he threatens to bomb the city of Quetta? That there are terrorist hideouts in Balochistan and FATA may or may not be true. What is undeniably true is that the attacks are killing and injuring men and women, and neither find this terribly liberating. Anti-American feelings are of course intensifying, and the backlash in Pakistan is more suicide attacks, kidnappings, and public beheadings. The backlash has also lead to increased popularity for Islamic political leaders, and the takeover by the Taliban of the Swat Valley, where girls’ schools have been banned.
Let there be no mistake: More US attacks equals more Taliban equals less freedom for men and women. As a former Pakistani Air Marshall warns, “Instead of tactical gains or strategic advantage, the heavy collateral damage of civilian lives, homes and property will leave long-lasting scars, which will never heal.” We didn’t even have the chance to heal from the last war. . . .