By Rafia Zakaria
Women’s progress in South Asia cannot be measured by the few popular narratives of success alone. We must also hear the countless tales from the lives of unknown, ordinary, and unsung women
On a March afternoon in Delhi not very long ago, Radha Devi bundled up her children, all three of them daughters, aged three, seven and eight months, and set out for a clearing not far from where she lived. When she reached the spot, newspapers reported, she killed each of her daughters, then laid them out on the ground in a row. She then tore her sari and tried to strangle herself with it to complete the task of obliteration that she had begun. In this, she failed. The burden of three daughters, neighbours speculated, had driven the woman to murder and suicide.
Across the border in Islamabad, a month before Radha Devi set out to deliver death to her daughters, another woman took the same decision but chose surer means. Living in G-6 sector, the woman took a 35 bore pistol and shot each of her three daughters, aged five, three and two. Then she shot her husband and herself. Her son, aged 10, survived. His parents had fought the night before, his father threatening to divorce his mother. As she shot his sisters, the little boy reported, his mother said she had nothing to live for.
Not green on either side
There are scores of similar stories across the subcontinent, of women who kill themselves and sometimes their daughters, driven to extreme desperation by society and circumstances, both unforgiving and unrelenting in their demands on the women. Depression, fragile mental health, extreme poverty, and the lack of choices push them to take such steps. To add to these grim tales are also the tales of the women who survive rapes and honour killings, self-immolations and acid attacks. Indeed, the story of the subcontinental woman has very few high moments and hardly any humorous interludes.
In both Pakistan and India, there are committed activists, brown feminists, who speak out, collect numbers, make reports and write newspaper articles. They try not to forget these women and attempt to underscore the importance of remembering those who did not survive. In the mad scramble for resources that is the reality on both sides, they campaign for mental health services, maternal health, safety on the streets, and accountability for rape. Theirs is a courageous battle, but as both Pakistan and India come close to their 68th birthday, the two nations’ achievements seem paltry against the misogyny that has endured and that promises to persist in the homes and hovels of Islamabad, Delhi and other places.
The yokes that bind the progress of brown feminism are not just local ones. The isolation and alienation of women cannot be abated without the exposition of their lives, without making public what occurs within private realms and in intimate encounters. Yet this very act of telling the stories is fraught with complication. The Indian or Pakistani activist, the brown feminist, who chooses to speak against misogyny can count on a global audience to listen to her, but at the same time it is this international glare that is her burden and her obstacle. For if exposition and the sharing of the story can end the isolation of women like Radha Devi and countless others, it also entrenches the position of brown women, Pakistani and Indian alike, as the objects of the world’s collective pity. If there is collusive silencing at the local level, in the male gaze, the public rape, the bureaucratic apathy, and the collective blame of the female, there is also collusive silencing at the global level. If the one nearby threatens the woman with shame and taint, the other looks down at her with condescension. Both are obstacles to progress and both pose dangers.
A costly alienation
In writing my recent memoir, The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, I confronted both these burdens. The mores of family and filial respect dictate the maintenance of a boundary that never permits the public into the private, where stories of what happens within homes and relationships remain forever secret. On both sides of our borders, women learn never to transgress this other border, and hence continue to remain good women, good wives, isolated women. It is a costly alienation; in its worst and most grotesque form, it appears in the murderous reality of women killing the daughters they have borne, imagining death as the only reprieve. In its lesser forms, it appears as it did in my own family and in every family — the divorced woman, the childless woman, the outspoken woman, the rebellious woman, the single woman— all sidelined and bearing their sentence of being sidelined.
Then there is the global burden, the desperate desire to evade a stereotype, and this creates its own false path — the pressure to illuminate only the exception, the permission to highlight just the wildly successful, the inordinately cheerful. We must tell the “good” stories about India and Pakistan, it dictates, for should we women not love the lands that have borne us? Let’s gather up the mountain climbers and the fighter pilots, the teenage prodigies, the glamorous movie stars, and the prime ministers; it is only these tales that must be told to declare our dual loyalties to feminism and nationalism, so that the weight of the one can be tempered by the absolution of the other.
Instead of singing a paean to either nationalism or feminist solidarity, local constraints or global disparagement, I set out, instead, on a project to reclaim all women’s stories. To avenge the deaths of women who have been burnt by acid and thrown in wells, condemned by tribal councils and raped by superiors. I felt the story of Pakistan must be told through this collective chorus. Women must be excavated from the dregs of family lore and the yellowed pages of newspaper archives — forgotten women, famous women, ordinary women and brave women. In such a reclamation of history and national narrative lies the brown feminist’s hope for the future, her fortress against the incursions of erasure.
It is the excluded voices that have the greatest truths to tell about any place. And our places, Pakistan and India, so crudely divided by borders, can be united only by the women, whose lives may be separate but whose truths are so similar.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan