IF you ask 100 women in Pakistan whether they work, 78 of them will respond that they do not – our female labour force participation rate is 22pc. If probed further on how they spend their time, they might mumble: “I cook, clean, send children to school, buy groceries, and take care of infants, toddlers and the elderly …” The list would go on.
Hope is the thing with feathers — perches in the soul — and sings the tune … and never stops. — Emily Dickinson
THE women of Pakistan keep on struggling on sheer grit and eternal hope but if you glance at the global data you would laugh at their tenacity and this ‘thing with feathers’ called ‘hope’: we live at the bottom of the pit when it comes to the gender gap.
Published in Dawn’s Books and Authors in November 2015
“I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing,” the Italian writer with the pen name Elena Ferrante said in one of her rare interviews conducted via written correspondence. No wonder that Ferrante’s writing is a phenomenon that has taken the world of literati and readers alike by storm. Termed as modern classics, her novels have attracted a huge readership. Originally written in Italian, the series has been translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Her much-awaited The Story of the Lost Child, the last book of the Neapolitan series, came out recently.
I call myself a feminist? You know why? It’s simple: ‘feminist’ is a sweet-sounding word. And I love it. It doesn’t bother me if the word makes many angry in my society where people put strange appendages to this beautiful word. Like militant, radical, phony, pseudo, blah, blah. To hell with adjectives! And don’t tell me ‘feminist’ is an adjective. Feminist is a person, a human being, a noun.
Two weeks back when I read about the Council of Islamic Ideology’s questionnaire on women’s status I couldn’t but utter ‘Oh God, these people! They speak a dead language and they live in a cocoon.’
And 1 thought: In their fanaticism they have become blind as a bat. But no. Not as a bat. Bats have a remarkable facility of echo location. And these people seem to locate neither objects nor concepts. Least of all, the change, the reality. They sound so oblivious of it all.
Thus CII states in the questionnaire it has sent to elicit people’s opinions: “To satisfy their own lust, westernised individuals in Pakistan want to bring women out of their homes and make them the centre of attraction in society in negation of Islamic instructions. They wish to thrust on the woman, economic responsibilities in addition to her family responsibilities. In your opinion, what weaknesses will result in an Islamic society because of this unnatural approach?”
We have been reciting the Quran without knowing its meaning since our childhood. I don’t remember anybody ever encouraging me to read its Urdu translation. Whenever I said, “Mother, I am reading its translation,” she said “O.K. That’s fine. But read it in Arabic too,” with an implication that reading in Arabic is far more desirable (though you can’t understand a word) than reading the Tarjuma. As a growing child I found it a double task to read it both in Arabic and Urdu. Thus most of the time I ended up just reciting it in Arabic.
When I grew up I was told that reading the Urdu translation is useless unless you read it along with Tafseer. I don’t disagree with this observation. You can’t take the Divine book lightly. If you really want to understand it you’ve got to study it thoroughly, seriously. And it requires an immense effort as well as a genuine desire.
Sometimes Iwonder why most of the suffering humans I come across happen to be women. Perhaps Ilook at the world with a tinted glass, with a feminist hue. Which makes women substantial, of flesh and blood, anchored in the centre of my visual span. While men, papery, ghost-like, float at the periphery.
Is my perception selective? Might be. But I don’t understand this process of selectivity. It is in my genes which make me perceive, make me feel so intensely about my own kind? Or is it in the environ — the women’s condition — which etch them on my mind?
I try hard. Yes, I do remember a few men whom I know closely. Who had suffered in life. Or are suffering. Of poverty, or disease, or circumstances. But their miseries I always ascribe either to fate or to their own failure. That’s not the case with women. Somehow I always find a man behind a suffering woman.
It was for the first time in my life, as far as I remember, that I reacted to a murder in that peculiar way: awe and delight. My instant reaction was ‘Bravo!’ when I read the news, ‘She shot her lover dead.’
Slightly disturbed at this brutal reaction to a gruesome act, I tried to make amends by reasoning with myself: ‘But she destroyed herself too. Didn’t she? She might be hanged.’
But damn the gallows.
The fact remains that I was fascinated and still can’t make myself believe she did a wrong. And I am not alone. I talked to a few friends of mine, all women, about this episode that took place in Lahore and was reported two weeks back. And they all reacted the same way.
Memories of my childhood are pleasant. Unlike the tough times I had as a teenager. There are soothing associations. Like trees and butterflies and romping in open space and wild bushes.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t born in any valley full of pine trees and flowing streams. But very much here. The hot, humid city with no mountains and only the sea which was far away; it wasn’t a forest. But Karachi was no concrete jungle either when I was a kid. Some twenty years ago.
The houses were few and far apart. There were wild creepers, thorny bushes, cacti, jasmine and guava trees. The kids were numerous. It was a joint family.
My cousin sister and I loved to catch butterflies with bare hands, watch with fascination their dazzling patterns and hold them till our fingers were tainted with the colours of their wings. And then we would set them free.
Women are strange beings. Suffering silently. Taking in whatever comes. You wonder if they are black holes — sucking inside the cruelty, the injustice. Without a whimper. With bruised souls, they continue to exist. Hidden from the ‘all-knowing’ male eye.
But at times your black hole metaphor collapses. Something happens. A rare event. They refuse to rake in any more. They explode. And the rebels are born.
They simply stand up and walk down the streets, picketing!
A rare phenomenon indeed, in the female population deprived of education. Pinned down by the hard issues of survival, they appear immovable. And their privileged few sisters rack their brains in vain to change their lot.