Events

No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women

January 23, 2003 // 11:00am12:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Asia Program


Shahla Haeri is Director of the Women's Studies Program and an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Boston University. She has conducted research in Iran, Pakistan, and India, and has written extensively on religion, law, and gender dynamics in the Muslim world. Dr. Haeri was involved in the University of Chicago's Fundamentalism Project, a multi-year program funded by a John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur grant. She has also made a short documentary on several Iranian women who registered for the presidential election of 2001, entitled "Mrs. President: Women & Political Leadership in Iran." Dr. Haeri is a recipient of several postdoctoral fellowships. She is the author of No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women.

No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women

In the Fifteenth century, the Persian Sufi poet Jami is reported to have recited a poem in praise of the Arab mystic Rabi'a (d.801). Were all women like Rabi'a, Jami declares, they would be shining like the sun – brilliantly and publicly visible. The title of this book (and my talk at Woodrow Wilson Center), No Shame for the Sun, is inspired by this poem, in which the sun refers to Rabi'a. Jami seems to be saying that women such as Rabi'a should not be hidden either by their own veils or by their society.
Since Rabi'a's time, many thousands of women in Muslim societies such as Pakistan have occupied a variety of public spaces through their professions and engagements with the state and civil society. But where are they in the social science literature on women from the Muslim world? The women portrayed in the growing feminist literature on Muslim societies seem to lead lives very distant from the lives of the authors who write about them. In this literature, one sees veiled women, peasant women, tribal women, urban poor women, but very few middle-class, educated, professional women, despite the latter's visible national profiles.
The veil and the custom of veiling is a fact of life in the Muslim world and its importance should not be minimized. But an incessant focus on the veil not only masks - "veils," shall we say - other life experiences and faces of Muslim women, it also creates a sense of immutability of the reality of women's lives from the Muslim world; one that is reified with every image of veiled women, and becomes harder to "unveil," to make visible, and thus known to those unfamiliar – or barely familiar - with the complexity and diversity of women's life experiences in the Muslim world.
In this book, as it becomes clear through the women's narratives, I underline the influential roles educated women have played to raise public consciousness and to influence social change. I contend that educated, professional Pakistani women's efforts (and by implication, women from the Muslim world) to claim the public domain parallel the experiences of professional women in the rest of the world, where modernity has thrown into confusion traditional gender sensibilities and relationships, dislocated masculine privileges and power, and disrupted religious and political institutions. Like professional women in most other societies (e.g. the United States) educated and professional Pakistani women have power and agency, operating within both the domestic and public domains. Their efforts to reach their individual or collective goals, however, may come into conflict with the objectives of their community, their male counterparts and kin, their friends and colleagues.
Aware of the gap between what educated Muslim women have experienced in Iran and Pakistan and the representations of "Muslim women" outside of the Muslim world, I adopted a different approach. I shifted my attention away from the lives of the downtrodden and the subaltern, currently the dominant anthropological focus, to conduct research "among the equals," namely the educated, skilled, middle-class, and upper middle-class Pakistani women.
This book is an "ethnography" of six professional Pakistani women, who while challenging the status quo and traditional male hierarchy, have achieved a degree of success. These women's lives provide examples of ways of resolving particular religious, cultural, and political conflicts. The resolution of these conflicts, successful or problematic, challenges the notion of a "hegemonic" and monolithic Islam that victimizes Muslim women. Their lifelong experiences and struggles in both the private and the public domains provide them with expertise to look at their society critically and to discuss issues of justice and gender, marriage and divorce, death and widowhood, honor and shame, feminism and fundamentalism, religion and politics. Pakistani women's narratives foreground the diversity and uniqueness of individual experiences within a particular Muslim society.
Each chapter centers on the life of one particular woman, and is divided into three segments. I introduce each woman in the first segment and give a quick synopsis of the circumstances surrounding our meeting. The second segment features the text of each women's story largely in her own words. I intentionally have retreated to the background and removed the text of my questions, though my voice is not entirely silenced. I conclude each chapter with a third segment that discusses one or two themes from each women's life story that bring out the uniqueness of that individual's life trajectory while situating it within cultural context, and within current anthropological and feminist frameworks.
In my presentation today I focus on the fourth chapter, "Legitimacy: In the Boots of a Feudal Lord," where it describes the life story of Ayesha Siddiqua, a young charismatic feudal lord, who was twenty-six years old at the time of our interview in 1992. Her father's second daughter from his second marriage, Ayesha inherited vast amount of land, power and prestige from him who was an influential feudal lord in Bahawalpour. Like her father, she wielded power and dispensed "local justice" in her village where she was respected, worshiped, and feared. But once in Lahore (Pakistan's second largest city) Ayesha was a civil servant, where the gender hierarchy and status hierarchy were turned upside down. In this relationship Ayesha had to take orders from her male superiors and was subjected to the bureaucratic code of conduct. In September 1992, she went to King's College in England and received her Ph.D. in 1996 in War Studies.
How is it possible, one may ask, that in a society like Pakistan a young woman of twenty-six can achieve so much power and authority? Or, to take a more internationally known case, what is culturally specific to Pakistan that made it possible for a young Benazir Bhutto, whose background is very similar to that of Ayesha's, to be democratically elected prime minister, not only once but twice?
I suggest we look into the complex Pakistani social organizations, with overlapping feudal, tribal and patrilineage, bradri, systems. Bradri means "brotherhood" and is an "internalized sense of solidarity extended to its members, but denied to those outside its limits. It is imbued with a sense of honor, izzat." These restrictive and superimposing social structures that snares landless and poor women and men into lifelong servitude and compounded poverty paradoxically also can be enabling to some women of feudal lineage. Perhaps the specificity of feudalism in Pakistan and much of South Asia lies in its multiple capacity for extreme brutality and oppression of many women and for concentration of tremendous wealth, power, and authority in the hands of a few. The enabling mechanism, however, is not the ownership of land alone. It is also the strong and special relationship between a lineage patriarch and his daughter. This is what I call "paradox of patrilineay." The patriarch's support recognizes her as an autonomous individual and bestows power and prestige on the daughter and legitimates her presence and activities in the public domain. Sometime the strength of the filial love is expressed in the absence of sons, other times regardless of the existence of sons or even at the expense of sons.
In patrilineal and feudal societies, male children are strongly desired and South Asia provides a notorious example. Descent is traced through the male line, and power, prestige, and privilege automatically pass on to male descendants. Yet father-son axis potentially and sometimes actually is the nexus of tension and rivalry, where the two may in fact fear or resent or even eliminate each other. Unlike that of father-son relationship, little information is available on the intricacies of the relationship between a patriarch and his daughter, whom he may indeed favor over his sons, who are in a structural position to dislodge the patriarch from his position of authority. By bestowing land, power, and prestige onto their daughters, powerful and prominent male leaders in fact groom their daughters – sometimes at the expense of their sons – to assume political leadership. The riddle of preponderance, relatively speaking, of South Asian women prime ministers is solved once viewed within this particular father-daughter political alliance.
Born in a feudal setup and by and large without a brother (he died before she was born) as a rival, Ayesha was groomed to breath life into the spirit of her dead brother. She was brought up as a boy and treated as one by her parents. Ayesha was dressed like a boy, taught horseback riding, polo, and other activities generally associated with that of boys in her culture. While she was brought up to fill the shoes of a son, the son was conveniently dead. Ayesha filled the place of a potentially contentious son and an emotionally distant wife. The father integrated Ayesha into his life, took her on his visits to their village, and had her sit next to him in public hearings, where, as a pir, he dispensed local justice or blessed villagers, their children, and their animals, a tradition Ayesha inherited.
The love between Ayesha and her father also throws a paradoxical shadow on the "traditional" pattern of family relations and the father's role in patrilineal and patriarchal family system in Pakistan. Ayesha's characterization of him as a "very tender person" and of their relation as "more natural" (than that with her mother) inverts the image of a father as an agent of discipline and punishment, as a distant figure in the daughter's life, and as a stern feudal lord. It was indeed her father's unconditional love that fostered and supported her sense of masculine power and entitlement and ultimately legitimated her authority.

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