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Pakistan: Women and Fiction Today

In an atmosphere like this, what can I say about women and fiction?

First, consider what is written about “us.” Since 9/11, a cornucopia of “true stories” from the Islamic world have been consumed, all packaged in identical covers: women behind burqas. The stories universally feature forced marriages, beatings, rape. Clearly, we’re supposed to be wretched. Oppression is turned into spectacle, as in Married by Force by “Leila” or My Forbidden Face by “Latifa.” This type of narrative is double-edged: suffering is sold to help justify war; war is peddled as the cure to suffering, not the cause.

In order to compete, fiction by Muslim women must offer similar storylines: silent, submissive protagonists, preferably liberated by the West. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is an obvious example. If the narrative falls outside the box—if a female character is not freed by the West but by her own determined spirit on her own land—then how can war on her land be justified? If she doesn’t need liberating, why read her?
Sadly, she is unlikely to be heard, nourished and credited even in her own land, given the political and social turmoil around her.

Which raises a final point: the conditions a woman needs to write fiction. A fiction writer’s impulse is that of a child: to explore the world, to move beyond doors that are closed, regardless of who closes them. Her goal is to arrive at an artistic form that is true, for her. To do this in a country where to walk her own streets is a trespass is no small feat. She will have grown up learning that to preserve her honor, her family’s, and her country’s, is the priority. Inquiry and creativity are not. My women students in Pakistan frequently complained that their desire to write was thwarted by their home environment. It takes a very strong will to create a space where there are no interruptions, and no social pressures – no food to cook or guests to entertain or relatives to nurse or reputation to guard. A space where inquiry and creativity are the priority.

Add to this the fact that the streets on which she is already dissuaded from appearing are increasingly plagued by suicide bombings and kidnappings, and her initiative to throw open doors through sheer will might well be tempered.

Add to this the fact that the Empire which has controlled hers her entire life has started attacking it as reward, and I vouch that her nervousness will increase further. Every time a bomb is dropped it fractures a hundred minds in the process of arriving at a purer form of Art.

What can I offer as a way forward?

Perhaps only this: instead of accepting that Afghanistan is the “good”, necessary war, speak of America’s role in creating the Taliban, and in multiplying them these eight long years. Leave the fiction to us: you do the confessing.

It is time to switch places in some vital way. The clamor and protests should happen on America’s streets so peace and quiet can at last be felt in rooms of our own.

About Uzma Aslam Khan

Uzma Aslam Khan was born in Lahore and grew up in Karachi. She is the author of The Story of Noble Rot; Trespassing, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize 2003 and translated into 13 languages; and The Geometry of God. Khan has contributed articles to various newspapers and journals around the world such as to Drawbridge UK, Counterpunch USA, and Dawn Pakistan. She has taught at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Pakistan, and in the fall of 2008, she was the distinguished visiting writer at The University of Hawai’i in Honolulu. Visit the author at


Kizzie's picture

Uzma, You are such a


You are such a wonderful writer! I was able to relate to you on so many levels. Sudan is different, but so similar in many ways. Maybe we are somewhere between Pakistan and Iran as far as our laws are concerned. I have to say I feel very lucky to be able to watch foreign channels and not worry about covering my hair now.
Like you, I dislike this new kind of "oppressed Muslim woman" narrative. It's not representative of Muslim women and it does little other than reaffirm stereotypes. Are you familiar with Lila Abu-Lughod's amazing paper " Do Muslim women need liberating"? She highlights the use of the oppressed women logic in the war on Afghanistan.
I'm happy there are other Muslim women writers who do not fit the stereotype of "silent and submissive victim". I love the fiction of Leila Aboulela and Ahdaf Souief to name a few.

Good job.

uzma khan's picture

Hello Kizzie, My apologies

Hello Kizzie,

My apologies that it's taken so long to reply. I hope you revisit this page! Thanks very much for your kind words. I have heard much about Lili Abu-Lughod's paper, but, shamefully, never actually read it. I will -- soon. And yes, it is encouraging that there are other women challenging these stereotypes, though I have to say I wish there were many more. Still,

Peace to you, and I wish you many more discoveries.


aziz's picture

Dear Kizzie

I would like to tell you the current situation our people are the same, same problems in the community, you will understand what i am saying, lets to start from a very small pint. Because the big actions were started at small points. i would like to tell you in our society the women are getting better, because there minds is getting open.
i wish to read your commends always

Best Regard
Azizullah Royesh Ahmadyar
Afghanistan, Herat Tax administration reform project
National Consultand

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