With three acclaimed novels behind her, writer Uzma Aslam Khan undoes formulaic assumptions of her homeland.
“The clamor and protests should happen on America’s streets so peace and quiet can at last be felt in rooms of our own.”
by Uzma Aslam Khan
I was fifteen years old when my older sister handed me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It was as if she were offering an illicit creed. A woman is entitled to her own uninterrupted space, protected and nourished by her own money? No one had ever told me that.
Later in life, whenever I watched movies in which forbidden words were traded—prison letters in Northern Ireland, Bibles in North Korea—I always remembered the day Woolf fell into my hands. On that sweltering afternoon in Karachi in 1984, during the month of Ramzan, I held the tattered blue book with the cigarette stains (we smoked in secret in the bathroom, already outlaws) unaware that forbidden ideas were exchanged every day in our own city.
1984 was the fifth year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and of Pakistan’s brutal, US-backed military dictator, General Zia. At school, no one talked much about the billions of CIA dollars poured into Zia’s pockets to fund the Holy War next door, nor about the result: a once-peaceful Karachi suddenly torn by drugs and arms, strikes and violence, new laws and new codes of conduct. As the generation being shaped by all this, we were to be the result. We were the process, the scroll being unrolled. Those who live inside their own collapse want to escape it, not understand it.
About the time Woolf described Shakespeare’s sublime state of mind – “if ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded …” – I put the book down and called up the Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation to demand that the electricity return to our house. Otherwise, I promised the operator, God would punish him for denying my fasting parents even the respite of a ceiling fan. Then I went back to imagining Ms. Woolf in a long lilac dress, a thick belt around her slim waist and a lacy floppy hat to protect her delicate complexion. England was really happening; Pakistan wasn’t.
What was happening in Pakistan, aside from daily power cuts and mean telephone operators, I learned later. An ethnic war between the indigenous people of Sindh, where Karachi is located, and the Urdu-speaking migrants who’d settled in Karachi after Partition. Civil war, fueled and armed by the war between Empires, because by some accident of geography, the theater of their rivalry was Afghanistan, of which Pakistan had become an extension.
The quiet streets of my parents’ childhood were lost. My mother told me of the days when she bicycled to college without anyone harassing her. To me this seemed as quaint as Ms. Woolf in a long lilac dress in a clean green place called Oxbridge. In my Karachi, girls were even discouraged from walking in public, let alone bicycling. When we walked, as an aunt once observed, we kept our heads down, arms across our breasts, as if ashamed. We felt suffocated by the nervousness about our appearing in public, but also by the cruel irony that some of the nervousness was justified. Night cops ran a lucrative business pulling over cars with boys and girls alone. Failure to produce a marriage license meant, at best, having to bribe your way to salvation.
This is what the Holy War for Freedom had brought us. General Zia introduced Shariya, including the infamous Hudood Laws, the worst aspect of which was—still is—defining rape and adultery as the same, and making both punishable as “unlawful intercourse.” He also introduced a draconian version of the Blasphemy Law. He banned the teaching of evolution. History books were rewritten. Pakistan’s founding was revised from 1947 to the 8th Century and the arrival of the Arabs. At school, I learned about the Muslim rulers—Arabs, Afghans, Turks—and of course the British. Our non-Anglican, pre-Islamic legacy was buried. Instead of helping us remember, our history was telling us to forget. Arabization went hand and hand with Anglicization the same way the US-backed Jihad went hand in hand with Islamization.[paging] When in the 1920s Woolf sat on the banks of a river reflecting on the subject of women and fiction, at least the women she saluted were of her world. She belonged to that world in a way that the colonized millions upon whom it was thrust did not. Her female literary forbearers – George Eliot, Jane Austen – were celebrated at my school. Mine – Amrita Pritam, Qurratul Ain Hyder – were not. The women she mourned and honored were British, Christian, white. Their rooms were enormous, compared to those of women who were not. Her history became mine; mine, had I been capable of stepping back in time, would never have become hers.
Alice Walker, in her poignant essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, describes the fate of an African-American slave of the 1800s with a gift for fiction: “Had she been white [she] would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day.” For women from lands colonized by successive Empires – first the British, now the American—the struggle for self-ownership, self-representation, and intellectual recognition is as pertinent as ever. In the nineteenth century, the moral justification of slavery and imperialism was “civilizing” the native; nowadays the justification is “liberating” the native. Freeing Muslim women in particular is a choice excuse.
Regarding her emancipation, capitalists, communists, and conservative Muslims always agree: Muslim women are the sign posts of their separate camps. In Pakistan, this ongoing battle involves her sexuality, marriage, mobility, work, dress—so much about which is heard, rarely from herself. Local religious zealots control her in the name of Islam; the West controls her in the name of freedom. She is never consulted: why should she be, when she has no intellect, no artistry? She does not belong to herself but to others, white, brown, and black. In his speech on March 27, 2009, US President Obama justified his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan thus: “For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people—especially women and girls (my italics).” T
he President failed to mention the conditions under which “especially women and girls” have lived since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Human rights and women’s organizations, including the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, have warned that conditions for Afghan women have worsened, not improved. I quote RAWA’s web site: “They (the US and its Allies) misleadingly claim of bringing peace and democracy and liberating Afghan women from the bleeding fetters of the Taliban.
But in reality Afghan women are still burning voraciously in the inferno of fundamentalism. Women are exchanged with dogs, girls are gang-raped, men in the Jehadi-dominated society kill their wives viciously and violently, burn them by throwing hot water, cut off their noses and toes, innocent women are stoned to death …” The President’s solution: escalate the war. War is liberation as long as it is not the women of his family who are being exchanged with dogs, gang-raped, stoned to death, burned with hot water or acid, or disfigured. In the same speech, the President claimed he had “great respect for the Pakistani people.” Oh? Is that why he pledges to continue the weekly drone attacks against Pakistan? Or why he threatens to bomb the city of Quetta?
That there are terrorist hideouts in Balochistan and FATA may or may not be true. What is undeniably true is that the attacks are killing and injuring men and women, and neither find this terribly liberating. Anti-American feelings are of course intensifying, and the backlash in Pakistan is more suicide attacks, kidnappings, and public beheadings. The backlash has also lead to increased popularity for Islamic political leaders, and the takeover by the Taliban of the Swat Valley, where girls’ schools have been banned. Let there be no mistake: More US attacks equals more Taliban equals less freedom for men and women. As a former Pakistani Air Marshall warns, “Instead of tactical gains or strategic advantage, the heavy collateral damage of civilian lives, homes and property will leave long-lasting scars, which will never heal.” We didn’t even have the chance to heal from the last war.
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.