A shorter version of this ran in The Nation earlier.
Over a decade back, while working for an ad agency in Islamabad, I met a recently divorced young woman. The woman had grown up in the US but had submitted to her parents’ wishes when it was time to marry. Soon after the wedding, however, she discovered something amiss. The marriage could not be consummated—her husband was gay. It would be four years before she was allowed to drop the pretense and ask for a divorce.
In traditional society, marriage is a fraught prospect. It is more than the union of two individuals: for the political elite, it’s an influence multiplier; for the economic elite, it’s a corporate merger; and for the have nots, it’s a bid to have. The personal, as it were, is the political—and the social—and the economic.
The transactional character of these unions is rarely acknowledged. Material concerns are sublimated into the concept of ‘honor’, which masks marital dysfunction and serves as caveat emptor. Divorces, consequently, are rare, and divorcees disdained. Many women endure bad marriages for fear of the stigma that attends divorce.
Central to Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is the story of her aunt Amina, who, after her husband takes a new wife, decides to stay in a polygamous marriage rather than suffer a divorcee’s fate. Distraught and humiliated, Amina initially returns to her parents and contemplates divorce. But her parents’ anguish and community pressure eventually make her submit and she returns to the indignity of her husband’s divided affections.
As Amina resumes her diminished life and her new struggles unfold, so unfolds the story of her dysfunctional society. Zakaria alternates scenes from Amina’s life with vignettes from Pakistan’s history. The episodes, recounted in a vivid, non-linear narrative, vaguely track Amina’s new travails. The disparate strands of the seemingly arbitrary events are given shape by Zakaria’s larger family history.
Zakaria’s narrative technique reminiscent of Steinbeck’s in The Grapes of Wrath, or Alfonso Cuaron’s in Y Tu Mama Tambien. There is a cinematic quality to the oscillation between the wide angle view of the society and the zoomed in, intimate portrait of the protagonists. Zakaria has a sharp eye for detail and the family dynamics and social micropolitics are finely rendered. Here, for example, is Zakaria describing the psychology of women in the community who faulted Amina for her barrenness and showed greater sympathy for her husband, a self-denying hero, in their eyes, who was keeping her despite her flaw. ‘Many had exacting broods of children, whose pressing needs grated on their lives,’ writes Zakaria. ‘Denouncing the barren woman elevated them, made their sacrifices of lost sleep and interrupted meals and mountains of soiled clothes a gift to be cherished’.
This, however, is far from a mawkish catalogue of righteous victimhood. In her detailed and sympathetic account of Amina’s struggles to regain her husband’s affections, Zakaria is setting up the reader for a devastating denouement. But as we accompany Amina, we are also journeying through Pakistan—through its culture and society if not its history.
Zakaria’s portrait of Pakistani culture is nuanced and lively even if her history is episodic. But what she loses in narrative force, she makes up for in her evocative rendering of the historical events she describes, some of them forgotten. Few people in Pakistan know, for example, that shortly before the brutal war in Bengal that led to the secession of Pakistan’s more populous half, the people of East Pakistan were visited by another calamity: cyclone Bhola, that snuffed out half a million lives. Few knew even then. The media blacked out the catastrophe; politicians didn’t want to know. There was no relief.
The episode isn’t chosen randomly. It is a poignant reflection of the blithe neglect that eventually drove Bengalis into revolt. The trigger however was the 1970 elections. The Bengali Awami League had won a clear majority, but the military and the west Pakistani elite, led by future prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, denied its leader Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman the right to form a government. Instead, with Bhutto’s approval, the state annulled the election results, arrested Mujib, suppressed the media, imposed martial law, and unleashed the military.
In arresting sketches, Zakaria reconstructs the nightmare that followed. We experience the terror with a group of Bengali women at a university hostel, who are saved from the military rampage by a courageous principal who hides them in her home. We experience the humiliation when the same army is laid low in a surrender ceremony whose pageantry is orchestrated by the presiding Indians to accentuate the humiliation. East Pakistan had deceased; Bangladesh was born.
The birth was preceded and followed by trauma. Following Pakistan’s surrender, there were reprisals. The Bihari community had stayed loyal to Pakistan; they were now in the crosshairs. Many sought sanctuary in west Pakistan. Karachi, where most migrants from India had settled after partition in 1947, experienced a new flood of refugees. The scale of the exodus alarmed west Pakistani authorities and the new prime minister, Zulfiqar ali Bhutto, banned further migration. The lucky ones settled into slums which a decade later would become the centre of an entirely new conflict.
Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is home to migrants from India and Bengal (the “muhajirs” and the “biharis”). It is also home to economic migrants from the north-west and refugees from Afghanistan. Karachi is in fact the biggest Pashtun city in the world, with a larger concentration of Pashtuns than in traditional capitals like Peshawar, Kandahar or Jalalabad. The mix of ethnicities makes Karachi both vibrant and volatile. In 1986, it erupted. The trigger was a massacre of muhajirs in the city’s Qasba Colony by a group of Pashtun men. The Pashtuns were retaliating for a military operation in the nearby slum of Sohrab Goth. ‘The massacre in Qasba Colony,’ writes Zakaria, ‘…would be the first in a multiepisodic saga of vengeance, of massacres that would pile one atop another’. Karachi has seen little peace in the decades since.
Zakaria is particularly good at evoking a sense of place. She brings Karachi to life, evoking its splendor and squalor, its commotion and inertia, its teeming vastness and its claustrophobic vacancy. Some of the best passages in the book describe her grandparents’ journey from India to the new Muslim promised land of Pakistan. (They were the lucky ones: they chose. Most made the same journey under compulsion; some didn’t live to tell the tale.) But as the émigrés resume life in a nation still under construction, the nostalgia remains. Under its pull, Zakaria’s grandmother continues to visit Bohri Bazar, where merchandise from the old world could still be purchased and conversations in the old idiom could still be had. The past remains alive in the aromas and flavors of the spices‑until one day when a bomb blows up the bazar and past with it.
If there is a theme tying together these seemingly disparate sketches, it’s the ironies of circumstances.
Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s conspicuous feminine presence, makes several appearances, first as the would-be avenger of a slain father and then as a political schemer playing the game of thrones. Zakaria juxtaposes the pomp and ceremony of Bhutto’s expedient marriage, in December 1987, to the silence of the Orangi slum where the Biharis—the refugees from Bengal who blame her father for the breakup of the country—seethe in resentment. Bhutto’s triumphant rise, her appointment as a prime minister, is followed by her ignominious fall in a swirl of corruption allegations. Years of exile follow before, in October 2007, Bhutto makes another grand entrance at the head of an extravagant welcome procession, swelled by rent-a-crowds, that is marred by two bombing, killing 140. Bhutto lives to grandstand another day—but not for long. Within weeks, on December 27, 2007, she is herself assassinated. A suicide bomber strikes her car as she is leaving a rally at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, a park named after Pakistan’s first prime minister, who was assassinated in the same place. (pp.234-38)
The degree to which the personal is the political in Pakistan is highlighted by another episode. In the 1950s, Muhammad Ali Bogra, the Pakistani prime minister, romanced and married his young secretary Aliya Saadi. At the time, he was already wedded to the persnickety Hamida Bogra—but as the head of an Islamic Republic, he took advantage of the religion’s special dispensation for men. ‘Absent in his calculations’, however, ‘were the measures of fury the woman he had already wed would unleash on him’. Zakaria adds that Hamida ‘initiated his undoing by elevating his second wife to the centerpiece of her new campaign for women’s rights in Pakistan’. Hamida Bogra’s key allies in the campaign included Rana Liaquat Ali Khan, wife of Pakistan’s slain prime minister, and Nasim Ayub Khan, daughter of Pakistan’s supreme military leader.
Bogra’s government fell in 1959. But the All Pakistan Women’s Association marched on. It had its significant victory when in 1961, the new military dictator, General Ayub Khan, signed into law the Muslim Family Law Ordinance that would regulate marriages and divorce.
But a rights campaign rooted in domestic politics inevitably has limits. The Ordinance they lobbied for was passed through executive fiat. The women’s organization had pointedly avoided supporting Fatima Jinnah, Pakistan’s first female candidate for governor general, sister of the country’s deified founder Muhammad Al Jinnah. Jinnah was running against General Ayub, father of Mrs Bogra’s ally, Nasim. For the women, loyalty superseded principle.(pp.58-59)
For Jinnah, defeat in the heavily rigged election was devastating. ‘Alive but forgotten’, writes Zakaria, ‘…she moved to Mohatta Palace and shut herself up alone in its twenty-four rooms’. Built by the Hindu businessman Shivrattan Mohatta, the palace had been expropriated by Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs in 1947. Mohatta’s tearful appeal for restitution to Pakistan’s founder—who ‘had himself given up too much’—was rebuffed with the cold logic: ‘It is a matter of state’. (p.59) Fatima, his sister, would die a recluse in its haunted halls.
The victories the All Pakistan Women’s Association had won were limited—and they came at the expense of democracy. Polygamy was still permitted. But before a man could take a second (or third, or fourth) wife, he had to seek the permission of his existing wife (or wives). In a patriarchal society such consent is not hard to secure.
Aunt Amina also consented. And Amina’s story is the story of many women—and also some men—in traditional societies where the communal super-ego has a strong claim on individual behavior. They submit because to rebel is to bear a scarlet letter for the rest of one’s life. Long before Freud, Blake spoke of the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that control behavior without overt coercion. The disciplining that begins with family is augmented through education and enforced by society so that all are implicated in perpetuating onerous traditions.
Modern technology and the relative ease of movement have to some extent mitigated the worst aspects of tradition. But by and large they still resist the evolution of universal values. This was illustrated some years back by a particularly gruesome incident. On July 13, 2008, three teenage girls from the Baloch Umrani tribe were shot at the orders of a tribal council for deciding to marry men of their own choice; they were buried while still alive. Two female relatives who tried to save them were also killed. Yet two senators from Benazir Bhutto’s ostensibly enlightened Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) defended the action. Both invoked tradition. The perpetrators were known, but no one was charged with the murders; one of the senators was promoted to a cabinet position. ‘Honor’ proved an irreproachable alibi.
To wait for unsavory traditions to die of entropy is to wait too long. They require a legislative catalyst. But laws given by fiat can be taken just as easily by fiat; how the laws are passed is significant. The minimal protections for women introduced by General Ayub Khan, for example, were later undone by General Zia-ul-Haq with his vile Hudood Ordinance. By contrast laws guaranteeing women’s rights introduced under the democratic governments of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari have endured.
In Pakistan, it is easy to be disenchanted with democracy. But if the country has learned anything in the 68 years of its existence, it is Churchill’s old aphorism: ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’. Apart from the military, Pakistan’s institutions remain weak. The strength of the society compensates for their lack, even serving as an informal social welfare system. But strong communities are necessarily rooted in tradition—and traditions stifle the individual. One hope for individuals is to distance themselves from the society that smothers them; another is to change society itself. Zakaria’s personal story embodies both possibilities. She too had to submit to an arranged marriage—but after moving to the US, she opted out; and through her writings and activism, she is imagining a better society.