Rafia Zakaria: fighting the erasure of women from Pakistan

Pakistani author Rafia Zakaria laments troubled state of her native country

Rafka Zakaria

Rafia Zakaria

Since the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, acts of sectarian violence between India and Pakistan have escalated. Pakistan, embracing the strictures of Islam, has fed jihadist violence, and parts of the country have fallen into lawlessness. Its economy is in tatters. Human rights activist and lawyer Rafia Zakaria, who divides her time between the United States and her native Pakistan, discusses these issues in her new book, The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan. Our conversation has been edited for length.

Your book is called The Upstairs Wife after your Aunt Amina, who moved into the upstairs flat of her home after her husband took a second wife. Why this an appropriate metaphor for Pakistan?

I wanted to tell the story of Pakistan from the perspective of a character who was one of the most excluded, who was pushed to the sidelines of the family. Then I began to think about the country. Globally, Pakistan is defined by the violence it is experiencing. The literal interpretation of the Koran suggests all significant rights are given to Muslim men. I wanted to talk about the emotional toll this takes on people.

As long as the British controlled the Indian subcontinent, the Hindus, Muslims and Zoroastrians were all united by a political spirit that was anti-British. When the British left, that fell apart; there was no common enemy to unite them. Partition seemed like a great idea initially: let us divide up this country. It’s like polygamy — I’ll put one wife upstairs and the other downstairs. But the reality became different. Both sides hate each other, just like my Aunt Amina distrusted the wife downstairs. That is exactly like the relationship between Pakistan and India.

In your prologue you focus on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the first woman prime minister of Pakistan. Why was this an important event for you?

I grew up watching Benazir Bhutto making a claim to power in a country that didn’t treat women very well and didn’t think women should run things. When she was killed, it forced me to ask whether this was the end for Pakistani women and their efforts to gain a more egalitarian society.

That is the fear and frustration that motivates my book. The women I talk about are being erased from Pakistani history, whether it is my own family or Pakistani history in general. I wanted to capture these stories and make them permanent as only writing can do.

Orphaned Pakistani boys were trained to be jihadist terrorists by the Afghan mujahedeen in the late 1980s. You note that “destitute boys were raised on piety and produced for war.” This has continued today and is one of the elements that has aggravated the chaos in the country and thwarted attempts towards democracy. The Taliban-occupied area of Pakistan includes 2.5 million people, about one third of Karachi.

This country is full of orphan children, but you can’t adopt one of them, even though you may want children. If the child wasn’t born of your body, he or she isn’t legitimate; they can’t inherit anything. These kids are rounded up and put into these madrassas because they have nowhere else to go. Some of them become petty criminals and some become cannon fodder for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They are kids, 14 or 15, and they have keys around their necks and are told these are the keys to paradise, and they believe if they commit violence and are killed they will go to heaven.

You have a country that has gone through decades of conflict. You have two generations that have grown up in this conflict. There is a huge population that has no place to go. The despair of my aunt not having children and the despair of these children outside on the street and the fact that these cannot be brought together because of social and political restraint is a huge tragedy.

In the West, many see Pakistan as a failed state. Democracy lasted only for a blink and there was martial law and one military dictator after another.

It is the elite who are keeping Pakistan in its condition as a failed state, because ordinary people are overwhelmed just trying to navigate life. If I asked my family, a regular middle-class family, they would agree. The infrastructure in Karachi is crumbling. Ordinary people in Pakistan realize that. It is the rich who benefit. They are taking money from other countries on the pretext of fighting terrorism because they don’t want life to change.

My family thought coming to Pakistan (in 1962) would allow them to live in a Muslim country with a sense of belonging. They believed they would live the lifestyle they had in India. That didn’t happen. They are living in a strict Islamic country, abiding by strict Islamic rules. People thought Pakistan was going to be the answer to every dream. Loving the reality of Pakistan is a much bigger challenge than loving the idea of Pakistan.

Muslim law and the Enforcement of the Shariat Act of 1991 made life for women in Pakistan impossible.

After Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took power and passed these new laws, all the women on TV, all the women who worked in government jobs, all the women on billboards, suddenly had to have their heads covered. It is a very powerful political message. Pakistan moved from a country where women wore jeans and miniskirts, and suddenly it was completely illegal to do that. Even if you were showing a television show or a soap opera, a woman sitting in bed had to be completely covered. It was drastic.

The sexual freedom of women became a political issue. An ordinance was passed that said any sex out of marriage is illegal and you can be lashed, or if you commit adultery you can be stoned. If you were in a car with a man the police could stop you and ask for your marriage documents. If you didn’t have them they could arrest you.

These laws continue to be on the books. Now, if a woman is raped and she lodges a complaint, she needs to produce four witnesses. The complainant is considered to have committed fornication or adultery if she can’t come up with the four witnesses.

When Benazir came into power she never touched this law. She granted amnesty to women in prison but she never tried to take that law off the books. That was another huge disappointment. As long as she was alive there was some hope that someone would take this to task. Public discourse in Pakistan is dominated by men.

You spend part of your life in the United States and part in Pakistan. Will this continue?

I definitely hope to continue to go back and forth. I am very outspoken, and in contemporary Pakistan that is a problem, but you have to say what needs to be said. My parents still live there, so I do want to return.

The tragedy of partition between India and Pakistan is that you can never go back. It can’t be undone. There can be no bigger loss of the dream of Pakistan than that reality.

Categories: Asia, Pakistan

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  1. http://www.alislam.org/urdu/nazm/viewnazm.php?id=141
    Nazm Home > Yay Zindigi Hay Hamari ( Obaidullah Aleem ) > Wo chaand chehra
    ہ زندگی ہے ہماری ( عبیداللہ علیم ) وہ چاند چہرہ ۔ (میرے خدایا میں زندگی کے عذاب

    ہ زندگی ہے ہماری ( عبیداللہ علیم ) زمین جب بھی ہوئی کربلا ہمارے لئے
    کلام: عبیداللہ علیم صاحب
    Composed By: Obaidullah Aleem sahib

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