Author, attorney & human rights activist Rafia Zakaria speaks about her book The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, about Pakistan in the 80s affected by Islamization and its effect on her family, especially her aunt.
Based on Zakaria’s family, which shifted to Pakistan from Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1962, they came against odds when the military powers brought in Islamization in the 80s to retain power. Sohail, her aunt’s husband takes another wife (allowed by new laws). Rafia sees the internal & external turmoil & anger. The book speaks about how personal life & political changes mingle to change things forever.
At what point did you realise that this personal tale must be told? How did the title come about?
The past few years have been incredibly difficult ones for Pakistan and as a columnist, documenting the vast catalogue of tragedy has been a daunting one. Like all Pakistanis, I feel a sense of terrible loss. It is not that things were beautiful before but there it is hard not to be baffled by the darkness of now. I wanted to trace the beginnings of that as best that I could. I believe that the most excluded characters; the most marginalized are the ones that have the most poignant stories to tell. For me, this was my aunt and her story. I wanted the title to tell the story of the division of affections, emotions and land that is the center of the book and so I chose this title.
It’s not easy to share something personal, though connected to a larger picture of Pakistan’s struggles.
I think Pakistan in the global imagination and even the Indian imagination as a very monolithic place; synonymous with danger, terror, and violence. My basic goal was to humanize Pakistan, to show how ordinary people’s lives are within this landscape. I think it is difficult to get the world to empathize with any Pakistani character, and to try to accomplish that I had to lay bare the story of my family. It was also important because I feel that the narrative of Pakistan in literature has been largely been dominated by elites. The lives of ordinary people are hence unrepresented and I wanted to represent them.
How do you look at Pakistan’s journey & things that happened, during the time you have mentioned?
Well, the hardest portions to write were the ones that take place in India before my grandparents came to Pakistan. I have never been to India or Mumbai (then Bombay) and so I had to combine their recollections with as much historical research as I could manage. Another challenge was writing about the portions that relate to the ethnic conflicts that took place in Karachi, or episodes under martial law. All of these are politically contested in Pakistan and it is difficult sometimes find accurate death counts.
How has your family taken to the book?
I think it’s been a gradual process for them. I think they knew the sincerity of my intent and larger than that the importance of the idea that if we are to have a description of what life is like for ordinary Pakistanis, someone has to begin that task. I think our story is representative of many families; the unanswered questions in the book are the ones confronted by generation of Pakistanis today. What can be done, how does our past determine our future and more than that, how does the violence in the public sphere infect the private? You cannot pose those questions without making the private public.
When it comes to women & their issues, they have to really struggle anywhere. Writing a book
on them and intertwining it with politics is double whammy. What
was the reaction in Pakistan about it?
It is certainly true that we live in a patriarchal world. My desire through this book, however, was to reclaim Pakistani history for Pakistani women. I think the lens of Western feminism limits itself to only those stories that feature an individual disavowal of tradition and culture; I wanted to underscore the value of resilience and endurance. I think the women of the subcontinent have borne more than perhaps women anywhere else in the world. In both India and Pakistan, nationalism and patriotism has often been interpreted as the ability to control women and this is reflected in our history.
They say of course that history is written by the victors... I want women to be the victors but they aren’t as yet. And my hope is that the reverse; that those who write history become victors, is also true.
As an attorney and human rights activist, is it a struggle to fight for what one sees as basic rights? What makes you cringe and want to shout aloud to be heard?
Of course, I think one of the most cringe inducing realizations is how much women growing up in male dominated cultures learn to sabotage and hurt each other. One of the biggest curses of this is that they spend all their time manipulating and hurting one and another rather than challenge the men that make the system and insure that women are refused the power to make their own decisions. So if I could shout out one thing to all the women of the world, it is to stop hating each other, to stop subjugating and sabotaging each other’s success and believing each other to be the enemy.
Did the situations around you while growing up reflect in the choice of your career?
Definitely, I think what I saw in my aunt’s marriage. What impressed on me as a young girl was its inherent injustice; and that no one had the power to undo it. That was the beginning of a realization that unless I speak out & devote my life to this, there would be no change, just new tragedies.
Are you working on any new book?
I am working on several projects; one is focused on my own life and the choices I had to make as a woman. I felt it was necessary to write this book first because you cannot really understand the path you take unless you engage with the paths of those that came before. I am also working on a project that deals with women and terrorism and particularly the tactics used by extremists to recruit women.
The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is available at Rs 599 trade paperback.