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.