By Mehr Tarar
09 September, 2014
Tall, dark and handsome. He walks in, with his head held high, clothes crisply starched, eyes impenetrable, not a hair of moustache out of place, and back more straight than the line of servants standing with their heads bowed to him. As he sits imperiously, his brooding eyes sweep across the expansive room adorned with portraits of his almost identical looking ancestors, and memorabilia of stag hunts, things are the way they should be: there is not a slight indication of any feminine presence in his world. The feudal lord's world. In Pakistan. Since...God knows who.
Slow forward to the 1970s. Not much had changed along with the number of squares of land, and the posse of men surrounding the feudal lord. After the implementation of the Land Reforms Ordinance 1977 by a feudal lord — ah, the irony of that — the President, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, not much altered despite the façade of agricultural socialism aimed to mitigate the sense of injustice the serfs had lived with since God knows when. The holdings decreased on the surface but the illusion of "lordship" remained. Deluding none, the pretence of owning not more than 300 acres of land resulted in the drama of handing over the ownership to, no, not the impoverished Hari and Kissan, but the women of the family. The women, most of whom remained within the four walls of double standards, high-ceilinged rooms, and stifling morality, became the just-in-name owners of land, which they had no use for, and which their husbands, brothers and sons, invariably, lorded over. The giant households were run impeccably by the ladies of the families, who smiled their husband adios every few days when they left on their sojourns to Parliament, hunting parties with friends, Mujra-nights with more friends, unexplained trips to Europe, or just to spend time with their mistresses. The clothes were heavily embellished, jewellery Khandani gold, long hair braided/coiffed primly, eyes perfectly Kajol-lined, and the unshed tears adding to the sparkle, while the smiles became plastic and frozen. There was no anticipation of responses to questions that remained unasked and even un-thought, and the lives were as blank as the drab country nights, and the pages of their passports.
Children of the feudal lords grew up in two worlds, with the rules etched in centuries of patriarchal dynamic, that of the boys-are-superior and girls-just-obey. While there were some feudal families where the females were treated with as much or even more importance than the bratty boys, the majority followed the simple maxim: girls don't matter in the world of lands, politics and narratives that decide how the girls don't matter. There was the rare Benazir Bhutto who rose to great heights because her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, lived as he preached when it came to raising his children: your daughter is just your child, like your son, not a specimen of weakness on whom you practise your age-old rules of discrimination and boys-will-be-boys. The schools/colleges chosen for the girls were fancy; the libraries at home were stacked high with English classics, Urdu literature, and dusty tomes about brave knights and damsels-who-needed-the-knights-to-save-them-from-their-villanious-families. The option after college — after getting a degree in English Literature and Philosophy — was singular: marry the feudal lord your feudal lord father has betrothed you to, and live your life raising more feudal lords. And life went on, one hazy, male-dominated day blurring into another.
Slow forward to 2014. And much has changed. Women from feudal backgrounds have come into their own, proud and glorious. Gone are the days when they were hidden behind heavy veils, high walls, rules that divided and husbands who ruled. Since I am from a Punjabi feudal family myself, my primary focus is on the women I see around me, in various districts of Punjab, who are not just daughters, sisters, wives and daughters-in-laws, but also agriculturists, writers, doctors, businesswomen and politicians. Their heads held high, not a wisp of blow-dried hairdos out of place, their wardrobe designer, English impeccable, and bank accounts in their own names, they walk side by side their husbands, who take as much pride in their wives' achievements as their ancestors did in their Bentleys and the lands they were awarded by the British.
Yes, there are many women who entered politics when their fathers/husbands did not have the required degree (ouch), like the dynamic Hina Rabbani Khar, but once they were in, they took to this so-called boys' club like a newborn breathing on its own — naturally and instinctively. They campaign in their constituencies, yes, with their heads covered but faces aglow with the knowledge that they matter; they always have mattered, even when it went unrecognised. The Dera-meetings in the villages still do not have women's presence, but their voices can be heard everywhere now. They speak to rooms full of men who do as they say — whether it's a cabinet meeting or a boardroom. The feudal lady is here to stay, and the lords (in name) have no choice but to accept it, albeit grudgingly, in the case of many.
But as the wise say that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, some things remain as painfully constant as ever. While it is certainly not true of all, but, it, sort of, is for many from feudal backgrounds. The feudal male, in more ways than one, is still the quintessential patriarchal entity that he always was, and the feudal female, in ways more than many, is still the archetypal "second-class" being that she always was. The exterior may have undergone a transformation but the underpinnings remain unaltered. She may be accompanying him on his trips abroad, but she is still quiet when he has those "boys-only" nights that are R-Rated.
She may be the proud mother of his Oxbridge-going children, but she is also the suffering wife who shares her husband with an open mistress or a secret wife. She may be the head of a company, but there is not much she can do when her husband cuts her off from his inheritance. She may be the proud hostess of legendary dinners, but she still spends many a night alone in her gilded room while her husband leaves without notice. She may be speaking to packed auditoriums, but her pain goes unnoticed by her spouse who thinks keeping her in her place at home is still his prerogative. She may have earned the right to lead men in a multinational, but her husband is still allowed to distance himself from her as and when he sees fit, or thinks his happiness lies with another woman. She may have accumulated many trifles from Graff and Tiffany, but there is still stigma attached to her taking off her huge solitaire if she decides to leave her husband. She speaks for women's rights, but she still walks around with a scarlet letter if after her divorce she decides to remarry. In this male-dominated, patriarchal, misogynist society not much has changed when it comes to the core values that shape the narratives on which the fates or marriages of women are decided.
But me, the eternal optimist, I dedicate this to that dynamic, accomplished, focused, fabulous, desirable, vivacious female who is a source of pride to herself, her fellow females, her family, those who look to her for inspiration, and for that feudal male who is lucky to call himself her partner. In thoughts. In love. In marriage. In life.
Mehr Tarar is a well-known Pakistani columnist