Private Portraits: Agents of Change

Private Portraits: Agents of Change

Rafia Zakaria: Private Portraits – Agents of Change

This is the fourth post in Rafia Zakaria’s series at Dissent, “Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary.? Click here for the previous post.

February 11, 2012

You had to go through three metal detectors to get into the Karachi Literature Festival. They were necessary. Inside there was to be a dance performance featuring female dancers and talks by artists, writers, and officials from the American Embassy (which was sponsoring the event). One mid-morning panel was entitled ?Women Writing Women,? featuring a selection of Pakistani and Pakistani-American authors. The moderator was Dr. Marilyn Wyatt, the wife of Cameron Munter, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. After the authors had read their work?poignant selections of prose on life and love and relationships in Pakistan?she posed to them the question on the minds of many Americans: ?Do you see room for optimism in the future facing Pakistani women??

The question was well intentioned but misplaced. The women seated on the raised dais of the oceanfront hotel in Karachi, rising and established writers worthy of respect, were almost all from a tiny sliver of Pakistan?s elite, one that by virtue of class remains relatively untouched by the constrictions of culture. As most Pakistanis would be able to tell you, their presence on the stage that day is not a new chapter in the gender dynamics in Pakistan but an aged paradigm that has recently been endangered by the rapid encroachments of religious fundamentalism.

Raised in a middle-class Karachi family, self-conscious about respectability and reputation, I would as a young girl never have been allowed to attend the Karachi Literature Festival. There would have been too many questions about the nature of the event and the mixed-gender venue. With the logistics (the faraway hotel on the ocean) added to the mix, my attendance would have been impossible. As I sat there listening to the speakers in the marble-tiled meeting room of the hotel, I wondered if they had thought about the present-day versions of myself, the girls who loved to read and to write and who had not been allowed to attend.

At the same time I realize that questions about women?s empowerment, about change and optimism, are tricky ones for any Pakistani or Muslim woman to tackle. As the speakers pointed out, a torrent of stereotypes immediately goes to work the moment the words are uttered: the Pakistani woman as an oppressed, veiled apparition languishing in a backward culture, mistreated by an inegalitarian religion, her hapless condition an excuse for military interventions and all the rest. In the face of all this, some defensiveness is inevitable and forgivable.

There are agents of change among Pakistani women but they are neither the rich women insulated from misogyny by wealth nor middle-class women struggling to balance respectability and participation in the public sphere. They are instead Pakistan?s poor women, who, in harnessing urbanization and the resulting higher possible incomes, are slowly transforming their families and their culture. Take for instance a woman I met at a neighbor?s house. Samina hails from a small cotton-growing village in Punjab, which was until the recent proliferation of mobile phones and satellite dishes, in her own words, ?a boring, disconnected place.? As is the custom in the village, she was married off a few years after she reached puberty. The marriage followed an arrangement common in the area, where one brother and sister pair are married to another. The result is a form of social insurance that deters divorce and abuse by allowing either family to repeat the actions of the other. In Samina?s case, she confided, her brother ?liked? the girl he was marrying; unfortunately, the husband who Samina was saddled with liked someone else. The dark-eyed Samina described the scene at the wedding (captured on videotape) in which the girl her husband wanted to marry and who had wanted to marry him wept when asked to pose for a picture with the bride and groom.

The marriage did not work out. Samina did not produce the brood that may have solidified the relationship. A disinterested husband and the absence of children created a giant circle of despair. Samina?s husband returned her to her parents, forcing her brother to return his wife, now a mother of four, back to hers. This is where the story stood until Samina?s brother found employment in the city and asked his sister to come to Karachi to keep house for him. Away from the pokes and prods of meddlesome relatives, Samina lost no time in taking on two jobs, soon earning more as a domestic than her brother did as a groundskeeper at an office. When I spoke to her, she said she had no desire to return to her husband and endure more abuse and rejection. Her brother, fast calculating the benefits of a woman who earned her keep, told her he had no problems dumping his wife if she would watch his children.

Samina?s story is worth telling because it demonstrates the hodgepodge of feudal customs and urban opportunity that is transforming women?s lives in the space of a single generation. According to research on rural to urban migration in Pakistan, droves of villagers who are fed up with the vagaries of feudal landlords and impressed with the largesse of migrant relatives earning in the city are moving to urban centers like Karachi and Lahore. Here, the women, suddenly unfettered and exposed to the possibility of jobs as domestics, scoff at strictures as they move from being property to owning property. Two-income households can send their children to school, afford electricity and an extra room, and live a shorter distance from the communal lavatory. It?s a different life from the village?a better life, and everyone wants it.

It is not that the lives of poor women are devoid of difficulty. Samina, who wears a full burqa and niqab when she walks in the street, also told me story after story about harassment and attempted almost-abductions, where men tried to lure her into empty houses with promises of free groceries and clothes. ?There are many challenges to being a working woman in Karachi,? she said, ?but a working woman is a powerful one, with or without a husband.? In her words, in her reality lies the future of Pakistani women.

Read the fifth post: A Pakistani Valentine