Before She Sleeps shortlisted for Getz Fiction Prize

I was delighted to find out that Before She Sleeps is shortlisted for the Getz Fiction Prize being awarded at the inaugural Adab Festival on February 1, along with Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, and Zarrar Said’s Pureland. That’s some illustrious competition!

It made me think about Pakistani writing in English, which I think now has been around long enough to be characterized in this way:

Pakistani writing doesn’t always have the technical excellence or the meticulous attention to craft that you will find in British or American novels. But what it does have is an exuberance and energy that isn’t always contained in the novel form. That’s why our books seem to burst at the seams with irrepressible characters, beyond-belief plots, and big bold vision. There’s always a laugh hiding behind the pathos, and tears close to the surface behind the slapstick. Our writing captures Pakistani life and Pakistani attitude in all its messy glory and ugly truth.



The Courage of Saudi Women

I have been watching the nail-biting case of Rahaf Al-Qunun as it has played out over social media and the international news. The case has rightly brought the guardianship system of Saudi Arabia to the forefront: this is a system that decrees all women, of any age, must have a male guardian from among their family. This guardian is in a position to allow or veto work, travel, marriage, and other activities for the woman. It is an antiquated system that arose out of a centuries-old patriarchy that sought to protect women from the dangers of a tribal society; it has morphed into an anachronism.

In the best-case scenario, most Saudis treat it as only a formality, and the Saudi women I know have blanket permission to live their lives normally. However, in many cases, it becomes a way of entrapping women in abusive situations and of controlling her life. Here in conservative Pakistan, where I live, a woman’s male relatives do exercise a great deal of authority over her, but there is no legal imperative for her to present a signed piece of paper from a man when she wants to travel, study, have surgery, or get married.

Pakistani women have been fortunate to have had a robust women’s rights movement over the decades that Pakistan has been in existence, as well as Muslim Family Laws promulgated in the 1960s that protected many of women’s rights. Pakistani women have fought very hard against the anti-women laws of the 1980s, most notably the Hudood Ordinances, which are now defunct. Still, we are in a dire situation as far as women’s safety and security is in question, but that is because the laws are weakly implemented, not because they do not exist. In Saudi Arabia, not only do progressive, pro-women laws not exist, but conservative influentials in the Kingdom – the clerics, the men of influence, some of the Royal Family – do not see any reason to change. 

When I was writing my dystopian novel Before She Sleeps, about an unnamed city in the Middle East, I was portraying exactly this kind of society: one in which women have no choices. Some readers could not understand why the women in my novel could not do anything about the situation they found themselves: as survivors of war and an epidemic that has killed most of their numbers off, they are only bodies to have babies as quickly as possible, with no way to leave the city in which they were trapped. But now with the case of Rahaf Al Qunun brought to light, where her only choice was to leave or die, perhaps they’ll understand that such societies not only can exist, they already do. 

It is important to say here, though, that Saudi Arabia is undergoing a process of change, directed by women themselves, working to bring greater rights and empowerment to their sisters. One of the most significant ones is Al-Nahda Philanthropic Organization, which works to bring Saudi women towards a greater participation in society. Its board of directors includes two princesses from the Royal Family; its management team includes Saudi women who graduated from Wellesley, Harvard, and Columbia. This incredible organization operates in four major areas: Career Education, Capacity Development, Financial and Social Support and a Center for Research and Studies. They have disbursed 108 million riyals in aid over the last ten years, and they have undertaken 37 projects for women’s empowerment.

The photographs and stories on the page of Al-Nahda portray women doing things that have never been done before: participating in seminars and conferences, both in Saudi Arabia and overseas, overcoming illiteracy, participating in personal development courses. Don’t be distracted by the fact that the women are in burqas and niqabs, that the success stories only use first names or pseudonyms. Empowerment in Saudi Arabia is tricky, delicate work. Financial independence and education are only part of the story; the women themselves have to be taught to have confidence in themselves as fully capable adults. Sometimes, in countries as harsh on women as ours, it is women’s work behind the scenes, the persistence in the face of daunting opposition, that is the real revolution. 

But as I’ve said many times before, feminism looks very different in our countries than it does in yours. We women in these countries are boxed in by many constraints, by men who think of feminism as Western toxicity and by women who have internalized misogyny to the point that they think it is better for women to be constrained than to be free. In countries like this, we have to sometimes submit to the system, then work to change it from within. When the law and society is not on our side, we have to subvert the system, persuade the men around us to be allies, take it inch by inch. For every step forward one can and should expect a backlash.

Rahaf has rejected that slow process wide open with her breathtaking odyssey: it is not easy to defy an entire system and hold fast to one’s freedom, especially for someone as young as her. With the threats to her life coming from her own family members, she did what she had to do to survive. This will have a knock-on effect for many Saudi women who will now harbor hope that they can also gain their freedom by claiming asylum – should they be able to leave the country as Rahaf did. As Bessma Romani, a professor at Waterloo University, wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Even though Saudi women are increasingly highly educated, well-travelled, and hyper-connected to the world, they are stuck in a society that gives them the same rights as children.”

At any rate, I do not envy Saudi women their choice, or lack of it. Like many in the world, I have been amazed by Rahaf’s courage and heartened by Canada’s warm welcome in granting her refugee status. But I also have a great deal of admiration for the women who live under the Saudi guardianship system and do their best to enact change from within. As heart-breaking as it is to be forced to leave just so you can breathe, it is also difficult to stay on and try to find breathing space where hardly any exists. The women of Saudi Arabia, and their male allies, are doing the best they can within the system that still governs them, and for that, they have my solidarity. 


Essential Pakistani Women on Twitter

This list came out of a thread that was started by Nighat Dad (@nighatdad) who asked people to tag the Twitter accounts of Pakistani women that they found compelling enough to follow.

There was a valid question in the thread raised by Oil_is_Opium (Karachi Feminist) about whether lists like these are exclusionary and perpetuate the power structure that women’s Twitter seeks to subvert. But there is a strong need to highlight women who speak up in a public way on social media and to highlight the conversations that are taking place about and between women, so I’ve compiled all the names that were listed in the thread.

Note: This is an open list and can be added to at any time (just leave the Twitter handle in the comments). I haven’t included any descriptions of the women because they can be easily found by clicking on their names. I haven’t edited the list in any way or added or removed accounts – this is a crowdsourced list, not one that belongs to me or anyone exclusively.

January 10: This list is now being maintained on this public document here. 


Political scientist
Blogger Dawn
Editor Friday Times
Academic LUMS
Awesome woman
Academic UCL
Journalist Hum News
Police Punjab Police
Awesome woman
Journalist Dunya TV
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Author & translator Global Voices
TV Reporter ARY News
Anti-VAW Activist
Policy analyst TechJuicePK
Journalist, Bureau Chief VOA Afghanistan & Pakistan
Editor Dawn
Awesome woman
Lawyer, writer
Bookstore owner The Last Word
CEO Mushawar UK Ltd
Awesome woman
Journalist Newsweek Pakistan
Editor Bloomsbury UK
Project manager
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Writer & Mentor Ananke Mag
Writer, reporter
Awesome woman
Lawyer, mental health advocate Asia Foundation, ColourBlue
Social psychologist
Environmentalist Pak2W2
Country Manager Pakistan Australia Awards
Technology WomeninTechPK
Awesome woman
Activist, editor Pakistan Alliance for Girls Foundation
Journalist BoloBhi
Energy analyst Goats For Water
Engineer, journalist TechJuicePK
Awesome woman
Former politician
Women’s Rights Activist Punjab Commission for the Status of Women
Journalist BBC World Service
Awesome woman
Urban planner
Awesome woman
Activists Girls at Dhabas
Human rights activist Aware Girls
Writer, sociologist
Awesome woman
Writer, Editor Dawn
Human rights defender
Academic CSIS International Security Program
Development, human rights
Doctor, political activist
Broadcast journalist Express News PK
Political Scientist
Journalist Express News
Political worker Awami Workers
Journalist TRT Urdu
Technology goddess The Nest I/O, PASHA
CEO Invest2Innovate
Owner, Editor Soul Sisters Pakistan
Journalist, blogger
Awesome woman
Lawyer, activist
Writer, editor Austenistan
Pakistani Ambassador to the UN United Nations
Girls’ empowerment Lyari
Journalist SAMA TV
Researcher, journalist
Writer, Journalist
Girls education activist Oxford University
Parliamentary secy for law and justice National Assembly
Media Asma Jehangir Legal Aid Cell
Technology, activist
Architect, conservationist Marvi Mazhar & Associates
Development, activist
Technology, entrepreneurship Impact Dynamics
Activist Auratnaak, Girls at Dhabas
Awesome woman
Child rights activist PAHCHAAN
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Technology, development Women4PeaceTech
Researcher The Wilson Center
Awesome woman
Journalist Associated Reporters Abroad
Energy Punjab Government
Writer, Teacher
Journalist Global voices
Social entrepreneur
Journalist Pashto VOA
Professor urban planning Karachi Urban Lab IBA
Researcher, activist Info Learn PK, Women in Law initiative
Academic UNSW
Activist Digital Rights Foundation
Awesome woman
Lawyer SOAS
Journalist, director Media Matters For Democracy
Producer Patriot Act
Islamic finance Simply Shariah UK
Awesome woman
Feminist activist
Academic, activist
Researcher Agahi Foundation
  • @qrratugai
Awesome woman
Researcher Amnesty
Broadcast journalist ARY News
Television Host GEO TV
Academic Habib University
Journalist Dawn
Legal adviser ICJ Asia
Solar engineer ReOne Energy
Law & politics
RJ, Blogger Tarkaashi
Environmental journalist
Microfinance Kashif Foundation
Activist Aurat Raaj
Entrepreneur Popinjay
Writer, editor, comedian Arab News PK


Journalist, author
Journalist The News on Sunday
Microfinance Circle Women
Energy economist Punjab energy department
Entrepreneur IIUI BIC
Medical doctor, researcher, feminist
  • @Sairaishtiaq
Climate, entrepreneurship
Womens rights activist Punjab Status for the Commission of Women
Social entrepreneur Epiphany PK
Political scientist LUMS
  • @sanasaleem
Activist, writer BoloBhi
Journalist Gulf News
Awesome woman
Awesome woman GNN
Activist Justice Project Pakistan
Human rights Education For All
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Technology director Ops Code for Pakistan
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Social entrepreneur ABKT
Awesome woman
Founder, COO Genetech Solutions
Parliamentary Secy Commerce National Assembly
Awesome woman
Politician National Assembly
Awesome woman
Politician Senate
Minister Human Rights Government of Pakistan
Awesome woman
Awesome woman
Journalist CNN
Awesome woman
Business reporter ePakistanToday
Doctor, activist, MPA KPK Provincial Assembly
Writer, academic
Communication, Marketing
Politician Sindh Assembly
Awesome woman
Gender activist
Gender academics Women Democratic Front
Education activist
Editor Zau Magazine
Writer, editor The News on Sunday
Activist ADFE-FdM
Journalist, author The Rise News
Political activist
Journalist Asia 21
Sports Journalist
Human rights law
Editor The News International
Director N Shields Solutions
Loud-mouthed feminist
Software Engineer
Academic War Studies, Kings College
Gender Activist, media News One PK


Pakistan: No Country for Women?

This morning I woke up to the news that Pakistan ranks among the worst performers on gender equality.  This is not news to me; we’ve been consistently ranking at the bottom of these and similar scales for a while now. But for the first time the WEF noted that we’re actually going backwards in several areas.

This report looked at “disparities between the genders in 149 countries across four areas: education, health, economic opportunity and political empowerment.” It noted that the proportion of women in the workplace is stagnating and that women’s representation in politics is actually on the decline. (Here’s my op-ed on women’s visibility in this government).

We’re actually doing worse in gender equality than all the other South Asian countries, and our companions in the bottom ranking are Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt. I felt depressed when I read this; we’re doing even worse than Afghanistan. I didn’t expect gender equality to get better very quickly, but I certainly didn’t expect it to actually get worse in my lifetime.

Someone tweeted in response that men’s “ghairat” (honor) is what holds women back in Pakistan. I don’t really think this is the case. What holds women back in our country is our concept of manhood and masculinity in Pakistan; in this country, men feel that the most vital part of being a man is that women are submissive and inferior to them.

I have heard time and again – from men – that if they don’t beat their wives, and keep them submissive, they are mocked by others, including women, for not being “man enough.”

“You can’t control your wife, what kind of man are you?”

By hitting at this particular insecurity – questioning a man’s “manhood” – we make sure that as a society, the physical, emotional and sexual control of women is linked to masculinity. We make sure that boys grow up to learn that they can’t be men unless they intimidate, restrict, and hurt women.

Just as we define our Pakistaniyat by being “not-Indian”, we define our masculinity as being “not a woman.” This is why our politicians taunt each other by offering to send them bangles, tell them to wear women’s clothes and dupattas, and calling politicians “effeminate” and question their sexuality. There could be nothing more insulting in our books. We actually make it an insult to be a woman, a fate worse than death.

We can talk about feminism or gender equality until we’re blue in the face, but until Pakistani men question what it means to be a man, and de-link manhood with violence against women and girls, sexual and otherwise, nothing will change vis-a-vis gender equality in our country. We’re a far cry from addressing all the issues – but it’s the mindset that needs to change first.

We need to teach men what being a man really means. Until then this will be no country for women.



The Good Wife

Not much of my fiction is translated into Urdu, so here is a short story I wrote a while ago (translated into German, never published in English, as far as I can remember) that Safia Kausar has translated into Urdu. Thank you to Yasir Habib, who moderates the Facebook group “Almi Adab key Urdu Tarajum” for bringing it to my attention, and of course thank you to Safia Kausar for doing this.


فرماں برداربیوی
تحریر: :بینا شاہ (کراچی، پاکستان)
ترجمہ: صفیہ کوثر (راولپنڈی، پاکستان)

اُس دن شریف دین نے اپنے گھٹنے میں عجیب سا درد محسوس کیا تو سوچنے لگا کہ اب اُس پر بھی بڑھاپا آ گیا ہے۔ اس نے پاس ہی کھانا پکانے میں مصروف اپنی بیوی سےمخاطب ہو کر کہا :
“لگتاہے اب میں پہلے جتنا جوان نہیں رہا۔”
اس کی یہ بات سُن کر بھی اس کی بیوی حسبِ سابق خاموش ہی رہی اور چولہے پر جھک کر پرانی جلی ہوئی ڈوئی کوپوری توجہ سے ابلتے ہوئے سالن میں چلانے لگی۔
اپنی بیوی کی مستقل خاموشی سے گھبرا کر شریف دین نے اپنے دل میں سوچا کہ گزشتہ چالیس برس کی ازدواجی زندگی میں اس اس عورت نے کوئی مکمل جملہ کم ہی بولا ہو گا۔ اتنے سالوں میں اس کے اندر تو الفاظ کا بڑا ذخیرہ محفوظ ہو چکا ہو گا، جیسے کسی بند کے پیچھے پانی محفوظ کرتے ہیں،جب پانی کی مقدار بڑھتی جاتی ہے تو ایک دن اچانک بند ٹوٹ جاتا ہے اور سیلاب سے سب کچھ برباد ہو جاتا ہے،ایسے ہی اچانک کسی دن اس کی بیوی کےالفاظ اور ان میں گھٹے ہوئے جذبات اور چھپے ہوئے خیالات بھی اپنا بند توڑ ڈالیں گےاور اس کے تیز بہاؤ میں وہ ڈوب کر مر جائے گا۔ اس خیال سے وہ جھرجھری سی لے کر رہ گیا۔
شریف دین ایک دیہاتی کسان تھااور اس کی بھی ساری زندگی کھیتوں میں کام کرتے ہوئے گزرگئی تھی۔ اب جب کہ وہ ساٹھ برس کا ہو چکا تھاتو اس کے سامنے چار چار جوان اور ہٹے کٹے بیٹے موجود تھے جو اس کے بعد زمینوں کا سارا کام سنبھالتے۔ یوں بھی اب اس کے آرام کے دن تھے وہ بیٹھ کر کھا سکتا تھا اور کام کاج کی ذمہ داری بیٹے اٹھا سکتے تھے۔ شریف دین کے خاندان کا شمار خوش حال خاندانوں میں ہوتاتھا۔ وہ خود کو اس لحاظ سے بھی خوش قسمت سمجھتا تھا کہ دوسرے لوگوں کی طرح اس کو کسی بیٹی کو بیاہنے کی مصیبت نہیں سہنی پڑی ۔ بیٹیوں کی شادی کرنا کسی اور سے ہار ماننے کے ہی مترادف تھا اور پھر کوئی زمین سے حصہ مانگ لے تو گویا قیامت ہے۔
شریف دین نے فرصت سے لطف لیتے ہوئے پان کا ایک بیڑہ کلّے میں دبا لیا اور اس کو چبانے میں مصروف ہو گیا،ساتھ ساتھ اپنی بیوی کو بھی دیکھ رہا تھاجو کھانا پکانے میں مگن تھی۔اب اس کی سوچ کے دھارے نے اپنا رُخ موڑا اور اس کو خیال آیا کہ اس کی بیوی کو کھانا پکانے کا ہُنر خوب آتا ہے، وہ عام سی چیزوں سے خوب مزے مزے کے کھانے پکا لیتی تھی۔ جہاں گاؤں کے عام لوگ دال روٹی پر گزارا کرتے تھےوہاں شریف دین کے گھرمیں دن میں دو دو بار کھانا پکتا تھا اور سبزی کے علاوہ گوشت کے بھی کئی کھانے پکائے جاتے تھے، گرمی کے موسم میں کھانے کے ساتھ سلاد کی جگہ آم ہوتے اور لسّی تو ضرور ہُوا کرتی۔ شریف دین کے دوست اکثراِس بات پر اُس کی قسمت پر رشک کرتے تھے اور اُس سے اصرار کر کرکے اس کے گھرمیں دعوت کا اہتمام کرواتے تھے ، ان کی یہ فرمائش شریف دین کسی مغل بادشاہ کی سی سخاوت سے قبول کر لیا کرتا جو اپنے درباریوں کو کبھی کبھی شاہی دسترخوان میں شریک کر لیتا ہو۔
شریف دین جانتا تھا کہ اس کی بیوی بہت زیادہ حسین عورت نہیں ہے اور اس بات سے اس کو کوئی خاص مسئلہ نہیں تھا کیوں کہ اس کو معلوم تھا کہ ہمارے یہاں خوب صورت عورت کے ساتھ کیا کیا ہو سکتا ہے۔ اس کو اپنے کزن امان دین کا واقعہ یاد آ گیاجس کی بو ی خدیجہ انتہائی خوب صورت عورت تھی ، پورے محلّے کی نگاہیں اس کو تاڑتی تھیں خاص طور پر اللہ بخش جو ہر وقت اس تاک میں رہتا تھا کہ کب امان دین کھیتوں میں جائے اور کب اس کو خدیجہ سے ملنے کا موقع ملے۔ ایک دن امان دین کام سےواپس آ رہا تھا تو اس نے دیکھا کہ خدیجہ دریا کے کنارے بیٹھی کپڑے دھو رہی ہے ا وراس دوران ہنس ہنس کر اللہ بخش سے باتیں بھی کر رہی ہے۔غصّہ تو اس کو اللہ بخش پر آیا جو خدیجہ کے لال لال ہونٹوں کے درمیان چمکتے ہوئے سفید دانتوں کو گھور گھور کر دیکھ رہا تھا۔ یہ منظر دیکھ کراس کی غیرت جاگ اٹھی اورخون کھولنے لگا۔اس نے ہاتھ میں پکڑی کلہاڑی سے وار کیا تو خدیجہ ایک ہی وار میں اپنی جان سے گئی البتہ اللہ بخش نے دریا میں چھلانگ لگا کر اپنی جان بچالی۔ امان دین کو تیرنا تو آتا نہ تھا کہ وہ اس کا پیچھا کرتا ۔ پھر اس نے خدیجہ کوایک بے نام و نشان قبر میں دفن کر دیا۔اُس دن جو امان دین نےاس قبر سے پیٹھ پھیری پھر عمر بھر وہاں کا رُخ نہ کیااور جاتے ہوئےوہ اس تازہ ابھری ہوئی زمین پر تھوکنا نہیں بھولا تھا۔یہی ہے ایک اصل مرد کا کردار۔
لیکن شریف دین کی بیوی نے کبھی کوئی ایسی حرکت نہیں کی جس سےاس کو شرمندگی اٹھانا پڑی ہو۔ وہ اس کا اور اس کے چار بیٹوں کا خیال رکھتی تھی، ان کےکپڑے دھوتی تھی، ان کے بڑے سے گھر کی صفائی کرتی تھی اوران کے لیےمحنت سے کھانے پکاتی تھی۔ وہ کبھی حرف شکایت زبان پر نہ لاتی تھی۔ اس نے ایک بار بس ریڈیو منگوایا تھا اس کے علاوہ اس نے کبھی کوئی فرمائش تک نہ کی تھی۔ گاؤں کی دوسری لڑکیاں تو بہت ضدی تھیں، اب انھوں نے اسکول جانے کی بھی ضدشروع کر دی تھی، کیا ہی احمقانہ حرکت ہے،اس نے اپنے دل میں سوچا۔ اس کو یہ بات بہت انوکھی لگتی تھی کہ لڑکیاں غیروں کے سامنے باہر نکلیں،اس طرح تو ان کے ساتھ کوئی بھی حادثہ پیش آ سکتا ہے۔ یوں بھی جب عورتیں اپنے مردوں سے دُور جائیں گی تو خطرہ تو ہو گا ناں۔پڑھ لکھ کے آخر وہ کیا کریں گی ،اس کے بعد ان کے قدم اور آگے بڑھیں گے کیا اب وہ گاڑی بھی چلائیں گی ؟ اس خیال نے اس کو حیران کردیا، اس نے خود کلامی کرتے ہوئے اپنے منہ ہی منہ میں بُڑبُڑا کے کہا:”آدمی کو اچھی طرح اپنی عورت کو قابو میں رکھنے کا گُر آنا چاہیے، یہاں تو بھئی زندگی گزارنے کا یہی اصول ہے۔”
شریف دین کی بیوی نے چولہے کے پاس اکڑوں بیٹھے بیٹھے ایک نظر اپنے شوہر پر ڈالی جو اب اپنی چارپائی پر سیدھا ہو کر لیٹ گیا تھا اور اپنے دونوں ہاتھوں کو ملا کر اپنے سر کو ٹیک دے کر دُور دُور تک پھیلے ہوئے نیلے آسمان کو دیکھ رہا تھا۔ شریف دین اچھا آدمی تھا،کبھی کبھارکی مار پیٹ کے علاوہ اپنی بیوی کا خیال رکھا کرتا تھا۔
کھیتوں میں کام کرنے کی مشکلات اٹھاتے ہوئے، بچوں کی پیدائش کی تکلیفیں سہتے ہوئے، چار شریر لڑکوں کو پالتے ہوئے وہ بھی اچھی طرح سمجھ گئی تھی کہ ان مَردوں کے ساتھ سکون سے جینے کا کیا طریقہ ہے ۔ جی ہاں! خاموش رہنا، نظریں جھکائے رکھنا ، اپنی آواز کو یوں دبا لینا کہ کسی کے کانوں تک پہنچ ہی نہ پائے ،جب وقت بے وقت کوئی فرمائش کرے تو اس سے بھی انکار نہ کرنا، چاہے کوئی کچھ بھی کہہ دے اس کو کوئی جواب نہ دینا ،کسی بھی کام سے کسی بھی وقت “نہ” نہ کرنا ۔۔۔ بس یہی راز ہے۔
ایک اور راز بھی ہے جو اُس نےآج تک کبھی کسی پر ظاہر نہیں کیا وہ یہ کہ اس نے خود ایک قسم کا عطر اور عرق ِگلاب تیار کیا تھا جووہ کھانا پکاتے ہوئے ہر کھانے میں روزانہ ڈالا کرتی تھی ۔اس کا اعتقاد تھا کہ اس سے میاں بیوی میں محبت بڑھتی ہے، محبت نہ سہی کم از کم ان میں ایسا لگاؤ ضرور پیدا ہو جاتا ہے جو جوانی اور حسن کا محتاج نہیں۔
باورچی خانے میں جہاں وہ کھانا پکاتی اورسارے مصالےا سنبھالتی تھی،یہاں وہ کبھی کبھی کچھ ریز گاری بھی رکھتی تھی اوروہیں اس کی آٹھ سال کی عمر میں فوت ہو جانے والی بیٹی کی ننھی سی تصویر بھی ٹکی ہوئی تھی ،یہیں کہیں اس نے چھوٹی سی گٹھڑی کی صورت میں زہریلا “تاج الملوک” بھی چھپا رکھا تھا۔ اس کو یہ بھی معلوم تھا کہ جس دن شریف دین برداشت سے باہرہو جائے گا اس نے کیا کرنا ہے ،کام آسان سا ہے وہ ہانڈی پکاتے ہوئےعرق ِگلاب کی جگہ زہریلے تاج الملوک کی تھوڑی سی مقدار ڈال دے گی۔ پھر جب اس کے بیٹے اور گاؤں والے شریف دین کی لاش پائیں گے تو وہ اپنے کندھے اچکائے گی اور کہے گی کہ “اب وہ پہلے جتنا جوان بھی تونہیں رہا تھا۔” پھر سب لوگ اُس کی اِس بات سے اتفاق کرتے ہوئے سر ہلائیں گے کہ ہاں واقعی زندگی تو بڑی ہی سفاک چیز ہے۔

BBC World Service – The Cultural Frontline, Writing Dystopia Now

This week I got to speak to the BBC World Service’s Tina Daheley on The Cultural Frontline in a show about dystopias. We discussed feminism, patriarchy, Pakistan, and this new wave of feminist dystopias; Sophie Mackintosh was my co-panelist (She’s written a brilliant book called The Water Cure). I was talking, of course, about my novel Before She Sleeps (which is on sale in a very sweet deal on Amazon Kindle right now)bbcradio

Afterwards the program speaks to writers in Japan, Nigeria and America on the same subject. It’s very cool; you can listen to it by going to the link below:

BBC World Service – The Cultural Frontline, Writing Dystopia Now

Representing Pakistan – Who gets to tell our stories?

So I’ve been watching this giant Twitter argument between a foreigner married to a Pakistani, raising Pakistani daughters, who wants to express his opinion about the state of Pakistani women, versus actual Pakistani women (with Pakistani men lining up on both sides of the debate).

This has tied in to a previous argument about whether or not another foreigner, who has been allegedly hired to promote Pakistan on social media by highlighting the positive aspects of the country, has the right to make comments on Twitter about Pakistan’s internal affairs.

The argument seems to center on how authentic their voices are. Can they really speak for/about Pakistan, being foreigners? Does their whiteness lend them extra credibility, or are they colonizers because of their skin color?

I think the real sensitivity is about who should be telling our stories. When Pakistanis tell our own stories, we reclaim our narrative. Something that former colonizers denied us. This is also related to the wider debate around cultural appropriation.

Can a white American woman who has been extended all sorts of security and protocol present a true picture of Pakistan, or is it the instagram filter version of Pakistan – colors turned up, flaws smoothed away, a sort of artificial positivity that belies the real picture?

Can a white European man truly know what it’s like to be a Pakistani woman? Can he make assertions about the state of Pakistani women’s liberation? Is it his place, as a man with great privilege, to explain Pakistani feminism to Pakistani women? And to dismiss them as “liberals”?

I don’t think that an outsider’s viewpoint is necessarily invalid just by virtue of them being an outsider. Sometimes outsiders observe what insiders miss because of their own blind spots. There is no reason to blindly accept their viewpoint as gospel, nor to dismiss it out of hand as the work of the devil. Their opinion is just that – an opinion. You as a Pakistani are free to accept or reject it – hopefully with a modicum of politeness and a minimum of F-words.

Their being gora or white or foreign or whatever does not lend that opinion extra weight. It just means their perspective is different. Think of it as looking at a painting from two different positions, closer and further, or to the left or right of center.

For those of you defending the foreigners, remember that as Pakistanis, we cannot outsource our representation. It’s our own actions and our own representations that are critical and vital to how we are perceived in the world. No amount of white approval can change that. For those of you cursing the foreigners, it’s tempting to remind them of their place – as outsiders, no matter how many years they live here. Why bother? No need to give them so much importance. Thank them for their service and move on.

Just remember, they’re looking at the painting from a different perspective. It’s we who actually painted the painting. They can tell us what Pakistan looks like to them. But we made Pakistan and continue to make it. Their opinions don’t need to make us feel secure or insecure. What matters most is what we think about ourselves.

And as for those men who dismiss Pakistani women speaking out as “liberals” or “lazy” or part of an elite that can only speak in English: You do not get to tell us how to speak, what to say, in what language to say it. We are Pakistani feminists. We will raise our voices in all the languages our tongues can speak. We have reclaimed the language of our colonizers and WILL use it to disrupt the patriarchy. By dismissing us as “liberals” you reveal exactly on which side of the status quo you stand.  Let us get on with the business of living, working, and agitating against men just like you.

Now, for a great example of Pakistanis telling their own stories, here’s a lovely piece by feminist sociologist Nida Kirmani about how girls and women having fun in Lyari – on bikes, boxing, hanging out – is a defiantly feminist act.

Izzat vs. Insaaniyat: “What Will People Say”

Last night I watched “What Will People Say” (Hva Vil Folk Si) on Netflix, Norway’s official Oscar contender this year. This film is a powerful drama about a Pakistani family in Norway and their young daughter’s struggle with her parents’ values. It is based on filmmaker Iram Haq’s own story of being similarly caught between Pakistani parents and Norwegian culture.

In the movie, sixteen year old Nisha, played movingly by Maria Mozhdah, wants to be like her friends, typical Norwegian teenagers. But her strict Pakistani family demand obedience to the values they brought from home, and Nisha plays a double life in order to please both them and herself. Things go wrong when she makes a fatal mistake and is caught by her father and taken away forcefully to live with extended family in a virtual prison-like situation in Pakistan. The movie concludes with two fateful decisions by both Nisha and her father, and no easy resolutions.

(Spoiler alert – stop reading now!)

A very hard scene to watch is when Nisha is speaking to two Child Services officers. She assures them that everything is fine, her trip to Pakistan was voluntary, and the desperate Facebook message she sent her friend about being kidnapped and beaten was an exaggeration. You know Nisha is lying, and the women probably know it too, but nobody can do anything, even though Nisha has been threatened by her family if she says anything is wrong. These are frustrating situations for those who work to protect children from such circumstances, and I found myself wishing that Child Services had Pakistani-Norwegians working with them to help in such cases,

Too many girls growing up in Western countries, wanting to assimilate and being made to feel like they’re committing a crime in doing so have borne the brunt of their family’s wrath. Many end up exiled to their parents’ home countries, forced into arranged marriages, or even dead. So “What Will People Say” portrays a very sad reality; “Binnaz: A Love Story” is another story about a Kurdish girl in London honor-killed by her family for many of the same reasons that Nisha is put through her ordeal.

In case you think this is being exaggerated, let me assure you that it isn’t. In the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad airports the British High Commission has signs advertising for a helpline British girls can call if they’ve been forced into coming to Pakistan against their will, and there’s a Forced Marriages Unit that helps British girls that find themselves imprisoned in this way. They are, needless to say, very active here in Pakistan.

It was difficult to watch the young Nisha go through her struggles with not a word of sympathy or understanding from her family, or even her elder brother. I found myself hating her parents, especially her mother, as they chastise her and punish her rather than treating her with compassion or trying to communicate with her. The mother kept screaming on and on about how “izzat” (honor) was the most important thing in the world to them, and how Nisha’s actions, misguided as they were, had destroyed the family. This film  made me wish that we would in fact replace “izzat” with “insaaniyat” (humanity) as our core value in Pakistan instead; maybe less of our daughters would die if we did.


Nothing compares 2 U, Allah

sineadI’ll admit to being somewhat astonished when I heard that Sinead O’Connor has converted to Islam. She declared this yesterday: she has changed her name to Shuhada Davitt and is now covering her hair. This video of her on YouTube shows her singing the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer in her own inimitable style, clad in camouflage sweater and green beanie cap, swaying back and forth as she sings, lifting her hand in a triumphant witnessing of the one-ness of God. It’s almost too intense to look at, like the sun in full strength.

Already on social media the comments are flying thick and fast: that this is another exacerbation of her mental illness, that it’s a publicity stunt, that she’s seeking relevance. Muslims are of course delighted, welcoming her to the fold and calling her Sister. I wonder if the same things were said about Cat Stevens when he converted to Islam, but his interviews about the subject talk about something entirely different: a personal decision in the wake of a near-drowning. Religion is always a personal choice, but politics and critique always dog anyone who makes a choice toward Islam. This could be a bad thing for O’Connor’s mental health, but nobody expects the Internet to be sensitive or kind.

Sinead’s personal torment has always been public. I’m old enough to remember watching her on SNL, ripping up that photo of the Pope and shouting about child abuse in the Catholic Church. She was demonized for that, but years later, has proven to be right. Often when someone uncovers abuse, the first thing questioned is their mental health. Unfortunately child abuse does affect mental health, as we can see in so many people suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD and more severe mental illnesses. Sinead’s suffering has never been hidden — in fact she is open about it to the point of pain — but far more people suffer in silence. Child abuse is no less an issue in Muslim countries, either, with #MosqueMeToo emerging in the wake of the global #MeToo movement.

A tormented soul looks for comfort in any way and anywhere: through religion, sex, drugs, exercise, alcohol – any number of things. Perhaps Sinead’s conversion to Islam is another two fingers up at the Catholic Church, but I’m guessing it is a genuine cry from her soul for relief from her pain. And I’m a firm believer that God draws all of us closer to him in different ways. What I do hope is that she doesn’t leave her mental health treatment in the wrong assumption that God is the answer, and all else is unnecessary.

In this case the popular Islamic saying “trust in God but tie your camel” is very apt. Mental health is no more such a stigma in developed nations, but in Muslim countries, due to a lack of education and mental health professionals, it is still much of a taboo subject. Most people in poor Muslim countries think that signs of mental illness or epilepsy are actually signs of possession by jinns. Mental health professionals work hard in countries like mine to raise awareness of illnesses; war and terrorism have exacerbated these issues in vulnerable populations, like refugees and victims of attacks. Even the Prophet Muhammed is said to have questioned his own sanity when he first received the revelations that would become the Koran.

People will no doubt point out what they see as troubling aspects of Islam to her: their belief that Islam treats women poorly, or that child abuse is condoned in Islam because the Prophet (peace be upon him) married a six year old girl (At this point, this is somewhat of a moot point: evidence points to Aisha being older than six, or maybe nine, or even eighteen, but it boils down to what you want to believe about this event). Personally I know many Western women who have converted to Islam and don’t give these arguments much credence. There’s a lot to be debated and discussed about how Muslim societies safeguard the rights of women and girls: Muslim feminists have been organizing, spreading activism and education among their contemporaries for decades now.

But none of this will probably make much difference to a new convert, filled with love and bliss. What’s evident is that Sinead, now Shuhada’s, journey is far from over. Her pain is still evident, even in the video of her reciting the Shahada, but her mental illness should not be held against her in the making of this very personal choice. So I welcome her to the sisterhood of Islam, as a fellow Muslim woman, but I hope she continues to seek professional treatment for her mental health. She could be a great role model to many Muslims who need mental health treatment and have been too frightened to seek it. 

As for me, I loved her as Sinead and I’ll love her as Shuhada, and I truly hope she finds peace wherever she turns.