Private Portraits: A Woman Named Honor

Private Portraits: A Woman Named Honor

Rafia Zakaria: Private Portraits – A Woman Named Honor

This is the eighth and final post in Rafia Zakaria?s series at Dissent, ?Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary.? Read the previous post here.

I never met my mother?s aunt, but the memory of her lingered around the margins of my childhood. Perhaps it was inevitable that a person whose name meant ?Honor? would invoke a child?s fascination and wonder, just as if she were named ?Truth? or ?Fortune.? But perhaps ?Honor? in particular meant more to me because I was a girl. The burden of upholding honor, the trickiness of maintaining it, and the strictures of respecting it increasingly defined my life as I got older.

My mother?s aunt died before I was born, not long after my mother (one of four sisters) was married in the late seventies. She, her mother, and her sisters grew up on the suburban edges of Karachi, before those edges of the city were as populous or as accessible as they are now. In a modern bungalow in the sandy, almost-hilly recess of North Nazimabad, my mother and aunts learned life?s lessons through the lives of the women around them. The story of Aunt Honor, unfolding before them, was a cautionary tale. She was all wrong for the new country made just for the subcontinent?s Muslims: too friendly, too flirtatious, too eager for frivolity. She had come from Bombay, a city with a cosmopolitan culture where she lived among an urbane set of Iranian émigrés and Zoroastrian socialites who saw theater in the evenings and opera on the weekends.

Karachi was different?a city anxious and uncertain about what it meant to be Muslim and democratic and cosmopolitan and, of course, female and honorable. This was true even in the sixties and seventies; I had trouble imagining the theater matinees and dance recitals of that era in the post-Islamization Karachi of the late eighties and nineties. In this Karachi, Aunt Honor, with her Persian ancestry and her elegant Bombay society mien, stood out. From my mother?s telling, it is difficult to extricate the lessons from the life. Her two sisters, including my grandmother, were better at reading and following the dictates of respectability in the new country, better at compromise, better at being female.

Aunt Honor, like her sisters, was married, but her union was shadowed with doubt from the start. With her characteristic impetuosity, she insisted on marrying on a day on the Iranian calendar that my superstitious great-grandmother believed was inauspicious. She gathered her similarly rebellious friends, the eggers-on of the ill-fated, and married a man from a Sindhi family. He enjoyed a prominent post in the inland city of Hyderabad, so the bride and groom set off for a new life deep inside Pakistan. Aunt Honor would be wife and host, and it seemed all would be well.

But when Aunt Honor?s expectations did not meet reality, she refused to follow the hushed tradition of saying nothing when nothing good can be said. It is said that her husband was abusive, that she returned again and again from the isolation of Hyderabad beaten and bruised, emotionally if not visibly. She rebelled against her husband and her marriage at the same time that my mother passed through adolescence. In her sister?s home, full of teenage girls brimming with aspirations and hope, Aunt Honor cast the bitterness of her own failure, her realization of the violence and antagonism that relationships can be reduced to. Aunt Honor?s disappointments came fast and furious and always at times that were supposed to be joyous?the two Eids, birthdays, weddings. She told stories of manipulation and exploitation, of accusations of infidelity, of beatings. With each one of them, she was diminished more and more, from a bubbly, charming beauty to a washed out, morose, and hostile shadow. Her face hardened and lost its bloom. To kill the pain she began to take pills; to free herself from the pills, she took some more.

And then one day the fights were over forever. Aunt Honor left her husband and told my grandmother that she would not return again to the cruel man she had married. But there was no room to weep for her tragedy; my mother and her sisters were to be married, and Aunt Honor?s act jeopardized all of their futures. It was yet another episode of selfishness whose price would be paid by others. Aunt Honor?s decline continued. She became mentally ill, attempted suicide, and was institutionalized, her life?a life that did not fit in the spaces available?gone awry. The family found Aunt Honor a room, rented from a respectable family, where she could live alone, hidden from the scrutiny of suitors awaiting another generation of women. In her seclusion, Aunt Honor rode the tides of paranoia and ostracism that were now her life. She never forgave her mother and sisters, whose concerns about respectability she laughed at in her lunacy.

My mother does not remember her Aunt Honor fondly. The acrimony of her end was too large and pressing, her transgressions impressed too deeply on the girls that watched them unfold. There is an Aunt Honor in the life of every Pakistani woman, indeed perhaps in the life of every woman. I tell her story?the story of this ancestor who was transformed from a woman to a lesson?to underscore a paradox that women everywhere are led to believe: that there are no good women without bad ones, enlightened women without ignorant ones, empowered women without weak ones, and free women without enslaved ones.

The moral hues of Aunt Honor?s life were marked by the women who told it to me. But her story echoes with a question both they and I continue to wrestle with decades after her death: Is the enlightened woman the one who stomachs easily the silences and manipulations that enable survival in a world made for men, or one like Aunt Honor who rebels and is left to endure the bleak punishments that come with that choice? I cannot answer for us all, but my words here, from a future that has finally arrived, come out of remembrance and respect and love for a woman so castigated in her present.

The story of Aunt Honor, a newly Pakistani woman who lived and died in the remote recesses of a foreign land, is not only a story of a woman wronged by circumstances, of the vagaries of female existence in a patriarchal society. It is a story about the disastrous dance of opposites that divides and conquers and silences women, besetting them with hatreds and capturing them in boxes so they become schooled in blaming only each other, while remaining convinced that the women who fall and fail will never, ever be them.