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From victim to survivor: a critical study of Qaisra Shahraz's The Holy Woman.


Treatment meted out to women in different cultures, and the extent to which this treatment is caused by religious dictates, is debated globally. In feminist discourses, religion, religion-based anti-women cultural mores, and male religious interpretations remain a focal point worldwide. Qaisra Shahraz in her debut novel, The Holy Woman (2001) set within contemporary Sindh's patriarchal and feudal frame, looks with a feminist lens at the age-old oppression of a woman by her own near and dear ones--by her male protectors. (1)

Qaisra Shahraz was born in Pakistan but lives and works in England. She is a well-known educationist, and has a successful writing career in many genres. Her close observation of rural Pakistan gives the impression that she has never been away. Her first two novels, The Holy Woman (2001) (2) and Typhoon (2003), detail essential characteristics of Sindh, its physical features, its people, its customs and its traditions. Her aim is not to portray feudal culture only; she sketches the life of the humble and subdued ones too. More importantly, she deals with the lives of women who try to cope with feudal structures entrenched firmly in customs and traditions having serious, often fatal, consequences for women. The action of her first novel The Holy Woman, and its sequel, Typhoon, takes place in rural Sindh, defamed for trivialising women at one hand, and on the other, placing them in the most sought after office of head of the government. She also compares and contrasts rural Sindh with urban Sindh, and even with the world outside. While describing the village people and their customs, she provides a credible setting, with the eye of an insider, by weaving together the present with the past. Hence, the text turns into a kaleidoscope, capturing all the colours and hues of the land, mirroring all the images- from joyous moods to mournful moments.

As a Muslim woman living in the West, Shahraz in The Holy Woman is not narrating the story of one woman, Zarri Bano per se; the story becomes the story of all those women who encounter violence at the hands of those whom they hold dear. They let themselves be deprived and victimised, not because they lack power to defend themselves or to counterattack the victimiser; they opt to do so because the victimiser looks vulnerable to them and they wish to protect him. Also, by looking at the wider perspective, moving beyond the physical and cultural confines of Pakistan, in narrating this story, the writer attempts to counter the rhetoric of the Orientatlists and to contest the fundamentalist stand toward her people- the Muslims. Commenting upon these two aspects of Shahraz's novels, particularly in the context of their publication in Turkey 'at a time when discussions were ongoing on the theme of clash of civilisations', Burak Fazyl Cabuk observed that they 'have also been reliable and useful sources of information for those who interpret the West differently from the East.' (3) Edward Said, while challenging Orientalism as a concept of difference between east and west, further argued that Orientalism 'was an exclusively male province ... it viewed itself and its subject matter with sexist blinders.' He explained, 'This is especially evident in the writing of travelers and novelists: women are usually the creatures of a male-power fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality; they are more or less stupid, above all they are willing' (Said 2007, 45-55). The production of such an episteme then has led to the emergence of a powerful ideology which tends to universalize Western norms. Ziauddin Sardar, a London-based cultural critic of Pakistani origin, in his book Orientalism (Sardar 2005:117) referring to the problematics of orientalism, writes,

"Orientalism is built out of the constructive imagination of the culture of the West. It is as diverse as the dexterity of Western culture; this is why and how Orientalism as a process has survived, keeping step with the place of its origin and use, a work of change and continuity. Orientalism is memory, imagination and present utility in a process of representation that structures knowledge and information. As such, Orientalism cannot be appreciated only as academic discourse; it is a cultural discourse in the widest possible sense, it is simply what is known and taken for granted."

The fundamentalist narratives also follow the same line. Zine in her article 'Between Orientalism and Fundamentalism'observes, "Muslim women's bodies continue to be disciplined and regulated by both oppressive laws mandating veiling under authoritarian theocratic regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan as well as by the laws denying their freedom to wear headscarves in Western democratic society like France, Germany and Turkey. In either case the fact that their bodies are made subservient to the decrees of patriarchal state authorities is an anti-feminist move." Muslim women, Zine warns, must be attentive to 'the ways their bodies and identities are scripted in service of neo-imperialist goals and from within fundamentalist worldviews' (Zine 2006: 10).

Though not included among the countries Zine discusses, women in Pakistan, since centuries, 'continue to be disciplined by and regulated' by oppressive traditions in the name of religion, tradition, and expediency of state authority. As tradition, ideology and culture informed by patriarchal dogmas generate a set of beliefs which influence masculine and feminine identity formations, both men and women in Pakistan have succumbed to these dictates. In Pakistani society, women are highly valorized as mothers and daughters but their bodies are subjugated and identities mutilated by mechanisms of power the moment they deviate from the prescribed norms. (4) The essentialized construction of a Muslim woman as the 'other' has created a series of debates amongst postcolonial theorists and feminists. The sensationalized representation of a Muslim or the third-world woman as victim in the Western media is a regular practice. Homi Bhabha (Bhabha:1990) rightly observes that, the epistemological generalizations sensationalize issues relating nations.

Questioning the validity of the western representation of 'third-world women', Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a leading feminist, postcolonial critic and deconstructionist, by giving a provocative title to essay and the book, 'Can the Subaltern Speak' (1988), opened a new discourse on how the 'other' women are forced into silence or remain without unspoken words. The knowledge produced thus extends the frontiers of hegemonic power more and enriches knowledge less, so argues Spivak. Commenting upon what Spivak refers to as epistemic violence, Stephen Morton says, "Spivak has argued that everyday lives of many third world women are so complex and unsystematic that they cannot be known or represented in any straightforward way by the vocabularies of Western critical theory. For Spivak, this crisis in knowledge highlights the ethical risks at stake when privileged intellectuals make political claims on behalf of oppressed groups. These risks include the danger that the voices, lives and struggles of 'Third World' women will be silenced and contained within the technical vocabulary of western critical theory" (Morton 2003: 7). Spivak, however, also feels the need to register the protest against the world-view based on western knowledge that 'all women's lives and histories are the same' (Morton 2003:90).

Contesting the binaries of orientalism and fundamentalism, Shahraz in her tale of The Holy Woman, embarks on a journey to represent Muslim culture to the western eye. Like a native informant, Shahraz in Spivakian spirit feels that 'Literature can provide rhetorical space for subaltern groups to re-articulate the suppressed histories of popular struggle' (Morton: 2003:124). Hence Shahraz, in an interview, explains that through her novel The Holy Woman she tries to dispel 'negative views about Islam and Muslims at large' by introducing 'the vibrant Muslim world, its customs and rituals' by taking them 'on a journey to four Muslim countries--Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia'. Regarding the issue of Muslim women's veiling practices, Shahraz, wishes not only to 'debunk stereotyped views and Western myths that Muslim women are oppressed'. On the contrary, she wants to show that 'in the modern Muslim world most women are making choices in taking to the veil whole heartedly and for personal reasons and feelings of self-esteem, dignity and a Muslim identity' (Ahmedehussain, 2007).

As majority of writings represent Muslim women as oppressed by their religion. Shahraz, however, decides the other way. Her novel The Holy Woman studies the life of a woman who has the best of this world but rural customs and traditions decide the other way. Zarri Bano, a daughter much loved by her father becomes the victim of his oppression. Although she has bee trained to grow into an independent woman with feminist consciousness, the death of her only brother, un-wed and therefore childless, makes her life helter-skelter. For the feudal father the only way to preserve his land and name is by erecting an old tradition of turning his beloved daughter into Shahzadi Ibadat (a rural custom when a girl is forcefully married to the Qur'an). Her father plans to do this at a ceremony, in which he would announce her marriage to the Qur'an. This paper aims to explore how Shahraz's heroine, Zarri Bano, standing at the cross-roads of the forces of obscurantism operating in the name of religion and globalization negotiates her way.

Faith, Feminism and Shahraz

Pakistan though a post-colonial society is structurally tribal and feudalistic to its core. The dominance of these structures at a socio/ political level weakens the position of women in the society by empowering men in all spheres of life. Zarri Bano, (5) the central female character of The Holy Woman, is a peculiar mixture of age-old feudal mores and changing urban trends. The reader gets a first glimpse of elegantly dressed Zarri Bano with a defiant look, while she is attending an annual village fair (Shahraz 2001: 12). Gradually we come to know of Zarri Bano as the darling child of her father who loves his land as intensely as he adores his daughter and is determined to have complete, undisputed, and unchallenged hold over her life. (6)

In Zarri Bano's persona, one discovers layers after layers of complexities, contradicting each other, riding as ferocious tidal waves, quickly merging with each other and finally quieting down. Serenity and peace then prevails. Unlike most daughters of the feudal chiefs of Sindh, Zarri Bano is university-educated, moves freely out of the confines of the home, and knows how to share the benefits of her education and training with others, mainly with the disadvantaged members of her sex. Quickly and angrily, she remonstrates to Ruby, her younger sister, when the latter quipps about Sikander, the good-looking Karachi tycoon who comes to their sprawling home in Chiraghpur with a marriage proposal for Zarri Bano. Snubbing Ruby that Sikander 'may have the bait to draw' her 'into his web' Zarri chastises her sister: 'I am not a fish to be angled at, caught and trapped, Ruby' (Shahraz 2001, 16). Little did she know that the web was already cast; the fate of the two sisters was sealed with Sikander who was destined first to wed Ruby, and then subsequent to her demise, to wed Zarri Bano, the love of his life.

Within the depths of Zarri Bano lies veiled and camouflaged a woman who speaks intuitively but has to wait for a while to witness reality. What looks like an angry repartee between the two sisters, indeed is the key that will open the mysteries of Zarri Bano's life. Zarri Bano announces to her sister, "I am a free woman, I will decide if I want this or any other man. This is why ten years have elapsed and I still have not married. You will probably marry before me and I will be an old maid" (Shahraz 2001:16-17).

The story of her life takes sudden and sharp turns, bumping Zarri Bano helter-skelter. The tragic death of her only brother and the finale of her rendezvous with Sikander happen simultaneously in Zarri Bano's life. She falls in love with Sikander and decides to marry him.

Following his only son's untimely death, Zarri Bano's father's single most important priority is to find a solution to his own query: 'What is to become of us and our inheritance?' The answer is to turn his beloved daughter into 'Shahzadi Ibadat' (a holy woman). Marriage with Sikander had to be turned down by Zarri Bano as her feudal father declares with all the might running through his body that he is not going to hand over his lands 'to some stranger who just happens to marry my daughter'(Shahraz 2001, 66).

It is at this turn of the narrative of Zarri Bano's life that the tragic reality _ a reality shared by countless other Zarri Banos _ hits the reader. All the education and freedoms that Zarri Bano had enjoyed vanish, leaving behind a disempowered woman with no control over her body or an iota of courage to get away from kin-networks. The same family that provides shelter and security thus transforms into a site of oppression for a helpless woman.

Much has been debated and inscribed on woman's sexuality, exploring and answering why and with what consequences male members of a family in Pakistan jealously guard it. The question, how to stop it, however, remains unanswered. Zarri Bano, transformed into a new woman being in love for the first time, falls prey to the brutal force of an inhumane, primitive tradition--a tradition condemned by her faith but upheld by her society. Here, the stark irony is that this happens not to a woman who cannot speak; it happens to a woman known for her feminist stance in her social circle. As expected, she fights for herself. She resists. She appeals to her father -now the patriarch standing tall to command and order her life. "I want to be a normal woman, and live a normal life! I want to get married. I am not a very religious person you know. I am a twentieth-century modern, educated woman. I am not living in the Mughal period (7) --a pawn in the game of male chess don't you know father. I have hardly ever prayed in my life, nor opened the Holy Quran on a regular basis. How can I become a Holy Woman, I am not suited to that role" (Shahraz 2001:85). The Mother moves to rescue her daughter, and chastises and pleads, all in one breathe, to her husband, "You and your father are the puppeteers Habib, you hold my daughter's fate in your hand. What choice do I have? I can only swing and dangle along in whichever direction you pull and manoeuvre my strings. What can I do to save my daughter from the fate you have destined for her--I am shackled to the chains of your male domination, your ressmeh, (8) your tradition" (Shahraz 2001:71).

Zarri Bano's transition from a free and independent woman into a mere tool in the hands of her father for sake of the protection of male honour and ancestral lands is a true tale of many a woman entrapped in feudal culture. Her protests are of no avail and she finally submits to male supremacy. Shahraz dexterously takes the tragic story to its climax when the reader almost hears Zarri Bano crying at her helplessness. Her changed persona even shocks Zarri Bano herself; wrapped in the burqa the real Zarri is erased. Shahraz paints this new camouflaged Zarri Bano who "stood frozen wearing the Burqa dehumanized. This new role, she feels has deprived her of real identity" (2001:144).

It is at this point that the writer boldly presents the protesting voice of a resilient woman determined not to prostrate and give up the struggle. Addressing her mother she declares, 'I am not only your daughter or my father's daughter, I am me! But you and father have brutally stripped me of my identity as a normal woman and instead reduced me to the role of a puppet. I am he said to do his bidding. I never knew my father could do this to me. I used to feel sorry for other women whose men folk were tyrants--. Little did I guess that I was being brought-up in the lap of a male tyrant myself--you have all numbed me into a commitment, with which I will have to go along but not willingly, Mother" (Shahraz 2001:87). Her mother's entreaties to save her daughter from such a fate prove useless.

Shahraz in her narrative criticizes fundamentalist obsession with traditional gender relationships and the role of women as transmitters of culture and religion. Thus, on the pretext of preserving Islamic identity women are subjected to patriarchal violence under the guise of tradition. Forced marriages are common in Pakistan, especially in rural areas. If a woman is 'chaste' and docile she may escape violence; if she rebels, then violence and exploitation await her. Zarri Bano regrets, 'How am I going to come to terms with a longing that has to be denied and to a life of sterility?' (Shahraz 2001:163).

Does she really submit? Does she let her identity be erased forever by the whimsical pronouncements of a father who values his land more and his child less? Shahraz answering these questions that rattle the mind of her western reader, moves the story from being merely the story of a woman tied to rural Pakistan; her heroine, donning the garb of what would ordinarily appear as the symbol of male enslavement of the female body, i.e. the burqa, turns into a world trotter. She travels to distant lands, meets with other women and talks with them.

Zarri Bano appears happy despite being a Holy Woman, a choice albeit forced upon her. An informed reader recognises that Zarri Bano is knowledgeable about her rights given to her by her faith; as an educated woman who has the experience of working with one of the prestigious NGOs of Pakistan, she knows about the rights given to her by the constitution of her country. What, then, deters her from claiming those rights? Does she have no desires? Or, as she professes to Musa Ibrahim, the man who proposes marriage to her in Cairo, that 'I have trained both my mind and heart towards a life of total devotion-ibadah. I have learned to divorce my life from things like marriage and men' (Shahraz, 2001, 271). Has she? No. At the end of this conversation, Zarri Bano, brushing tears from her eyes, silently shrieks, Sikander, where are you?' (Shahraz 2001, 272).

What Zarri Bano says in undertones, indeed marks the crux of the story. Zarri Bano, it is obvious, has not made peace with her fate. How could she? She could read the Qur'an and understand its message for justice. Kharal in his paper 'The Holy Woman: The Feminist Perspective' referring to anti-women traditions, comments 'these male-made postulates are neither allowed by any religion nor by any law, but males have been sacrificing females and their basic rights in the name of so called family honor since the time immemorial' (2001:53). Farida Shaheed, a sociologist and a woman's rights activist in Pakistan in her article 'Cultural Articulation of Patriarchy' rightly concludes that "--Islamic injunctions protecting or promoting the rights of women have been systematically rejected. Inversely, customs which contradict Islam but which ensure the supremacy of men have been accepted and continue to operate" (1991:140). Nafeesa Shah a writer from Sindh, explains how women's bodies treated as a commodity are used to regulate settlements in Sindh (1998:228). One of the tenets of the informal settlements system is the concept of 'Izzat, Ghairat or Honour'. It plays a very crucial role in the lives of rural women. "In the Pakistan context it could be woman's assertion of sexual rights or defiance of dictatorial male attitudes towards sexual/marital choices, that is fornication and loss of virginity, premarital intercourse and out of wed-lock pregnancy, divorce from an abusive husband or refusal to marry someone of the family's choice", explains Tahira Khan (khan 2006:43).

Zarri Bano admits to a friend in Karachi, 'I became a coward and a victim rolled into one, by suppressing and sacrificing my own needs....' Zarri Bano, here, is echoing Johan Galtung's definition of cultural violence. To Gatlung 'Violence is needs deprivation; needs deprivation is serious' (1990:295). What makes Zarri Bano's case different is that she had her choices but she preferred not to opt for them, 'Yes, I could have refused my father, if I had wanted to. But I didn't at the end, for the same reason as thousands of other young women in our patriarchal society end up saying "yes"." (Shahraz 2001:173). At another place, she explains this to Sikander, "Our family, behaviour, social etiquette is dictated by a code of ethics and customs peculiar to my clan--that you as an outsider from another social group, cannot begin to understand. I am a part of that whole, and that is where I belong. I cannot cut myself off for you from that whole, it is not that simple!" (Shahraz 2001: 126). Her father's decision is also an indication of protecting and preserving the economic interests of male family members only. The feudals do not approve of their property being transferred to another family in the form of dowry, since they consider the son-in-law an outsider. Eventually, the invention of this tradition (woman's marriage to the Qur'an) empowers the feudal to control his women and property. Furthermore, they use religion as an ideology which not only pressures women to accept such decisions but also provides them with the moral ground to exercise power.

Hence, these male-centred socio/political and ethical codes entirely disempower women. The death of Jafar (Zarri's brother) shakes the normal order at Habib's haveli (Villa), and Zarri being the eldest daughter is subjected to violence. Zarri Bano as a holy woman is not permitted to meet Sikander or anyone. Her marriage with Sikander is cancelled. Therefore, Habib annuls her sexuality by announcing her wedding to the Qur'an. Zarri Bano is lost and bewildered. Again, religion is used in the power game engineered by men to establish and maintain their hold over people, family, and land. Bernett and Manderson in their book Violence Against Woman depict the reality as such: "Hegemonic construction of gender are pivotal in the formation of women's and men's social identities, their personal subjectivities, their status and the power dynamics of female/male dynamics. In the Asian society represented, the expectation that women should remain faithful to the domestic sphere, obedient to male authority and sexually passive is pervasive" (Bernett & Manderson: 2003:11). Having control over material and non-material sources, the feudal lord then becomes strong enough socio/politically to manipulate lives and events.

Therefore, Habib's decision of making Zarri Bano Shahzadi Ibadat has socio/political implications too. He knows well that his decision will strengthen his position socially. People would respect him more in tying his daughter's fate with the Qur'an and would seek his daughter's advice on matters pertaining to religion. "In his mind he recalled the vision of another Shahzadi Ibadat from his child-hood. How fascinated he had been by that woman and the fame and the reverence she had elicited from everyone. Wherever she went,--Bibi, Bibi (9)--had echoed reverently around her. His Zarri Bano and her personal charisma would surpass every Shahzadi Ibadat of all time. She was both beautiful and educated. She even had a postgraduate university degree. The more he thought about his daughter becoming a Holy Woman, the more convinced he became that it was the right decision"(Shahraz 2001:68). Hence, The Holy Woman clearly portrays the character of a feudal who cleverly uses different tactics to empower himself and oppress the other half to maintain status quo.

Contrary to expectations, Zarri Bano's orientation to Islam opens her eyes. Instead of considering it a religion of oppression for women, she found that Islam has liberated her from vain ideas and meaningless practices. A woman being so un-religious changes altogether. On her visit to England during her talk on religion, she is questioned on her strict observance of veil. She answers, 'It is true that I found it very strange at first, Jane, when I began to wear hijab. Two years ago I wanted to tear it aside, now I cannot live without it. The veil has given me a sense of my self-worth, respect, and dignity. Above all, it has freed me from vanity. I never thought it to be easy but I have been able to shed myself of the trappings of female vanity" (Shahraz 2001:284).

She rejects the erroneous concept that Islam degrades woman and rather feels that the West attempts to create unnatural equality between man and woman. Zarri who earlier had no knowledge of Islam, learns about the true spirit of Islam which she feels does not subjugate women. Interestingly, becoming Shahzadi Ibadat provides her with great learning experiences. Spirituality strengthens her 'self' and she becomes a caring, humble, and compassionate human-being. She also ensures Sikander that her present role would grant her greater freedom and mobility of which she was deprived even as a University student. She plans to go to Egypt to study religion and attend conferences relating Islam. She defends her father's decision as such, "In fact, my role as a holy woman, I will have greater freedom and independence as a woman. I will not be tied to any man, nor to any roles and commitment only to my faith and that what entails like any other normal person. What can be better than commitment to our faith" (Shahraz 2001:125).

Her steadfastness after becoming Shahzad Ibadat depicts a woman who has strong Asian traits of devotion to family and culture. Luckily, later her father repenting his decision tells Zarri Bano, "I want to make amends. If now, or in the future you ever wish to marry, you will have my full blessings" (Shahraz 2001:187). However, she repeats her pledge of not marrying. Unfortunately, the sudden death of her sister Ruby who had married Sikander leaves her shaken. At this stage her mother requests her to marry Sikander for the sake of little Harris (her nephew). She reacts as such, "How convenient of you to remind me now, mother- now that it suits all of you, I am asked to marry. Do you think I am a wax doll (a putley) that you can mould to dance to your tune when and however, it suits you? I am a human being! A woman who can never contemplate wedlock" (Shahraz 2001:349). Talking about the relationship between Sikander and Zarri Bano in an interview (2007), Shahraz comments, "There was love-hate tension in this relationship, making the readers want to know what would happen and would they ever get back together again." In the end, she decides to marry Sikander on her own terms for the sake of her nephew. An average reader would feel that her family, patriarchal norms and the society have gravely wronged Zarri Bano. But in the case of Zarri Bano her acquiring of the religious knowledge helps her and the family around to have a clean picture of Islam and not the one portrayed by obscurantists.

Zarri's liberal feminist views, before becoming Shahzadi Ibadaat and her total absorption into the new role, become problematic for the reader. Furthermore, her emphatic defense of Islam and its tenets even those relating to women shows a new position of women emerging as a result of post 9/11 development, militant violence and religious extremism. The text allocates Shahraz and her spokes-woman Zarri the position of 'faith-based feminists'. They do not consider religion to be the source of women's oppression but feel that tradition and misinterpretation of religion are responsible for this mess. A notable faith-based feminist, Zine writes, "Muslim feminists such as Leila Ahmed, Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud, and Azzizah al- Hibri do not consider the hijab to be a religious requirement, yet they may nonetheless support the civil liberties of Muslim women in Europe and Turkey who are denied the choice to adopt this particular style of dress in schools and other public institutions' (2006:9). This also appears to be Shahraz's point of view.

The novel ends with Zarri Bano's decision to live a normal life with Sikander. He assures her absolute freedom and independence. He says, "Let the passionate woman come to life again--you can still carry on leading your life the way you have chosen to do. You can even run your own madrasas, go to conventions, hold seminars- whatever you want. I am not going to strip you of your religious identity, if that is what you are afraid of. I respect and accept you as you are. In fact, it is a great honour for me to have a pakeeza woman and a scholar for a wife. Do not see me as threat to yourself, but as a friend" (Shahraz 2001:488-89). Zarri Bano's decision to marry Sikander suggests that she has complete control over her life and body. Furthermore, the situation also favors her in having the love of the man whom she once passionately loved once. It is Sikander who bends down and is ready to do anything for his love. Zarri's decision to marry Sikander also reflects Shahraz's thinking that a woman should not ignore her physical needs, while remaining within the limits prescribed by religion.

Hence, peace is restored when the protagonist reconciles her two opposing selves, the spiritual and the physical. Therefore, Shahraz's views are in direct conflict with those of Bapsi Sidhwa's. Sidhwa, a Pakistani fiction writer, who believes that religion is responsible for the oppression of woman. In her novel, An American Brat (1993) the heroine (Feroza) knows that Parsi women cannot marry outside their community but she decides not to allow religion come in her way. Qaisra Shahraz can be better compared with another Pakistani writer Tehmina Durrani. Both writers consider culture and not religion as the source of women's exploitation. Durrani's Blasphemy (1998) also throws light on the misuse of Islam by feudal Muslims priests. Interestingly, then tradition at times used as a tool of oppression might also lead to the development of independent thought in an individual. Both heroines, Zarri Bano in The Holy Woman and Heer in Blasphemy, react in their own way affirming that they no longer would be enslaved by customs, traditions and unfair use of Islam. Both are ready to meet the future with 'new vision of life'.

As a Muslim writer and native informant, Qaisra Shahraz not only deconstructs the monolithic truth relating Western Orientalism but also the obscurantist discourses which reduce the complexity of women's experiences in their respective countries. However, Shahraz thinks that problematic culture is the chief enemy of Muslim women. Furthermore, she feels that both views need to shed the limitations they contain, since both favour either cultural imperialism or religious extremism. A notable professor from Aligarh University and co-editor of The Holy and the Unholy: Critical Essays on the Craft of Qaisra Shahraz's Fiction, Asim Sidiqqui (2012), comments, "She redefines feminism for Pakistani society. Call it Islamic Feminism, Muslim Feminism or by whatever name, she does not mindlessly indulge in Islam and Muslim bashing which is the motif in lots of, what has been called oppressed women's novels. Her target is rather the agrarian system, some oppressive customs in Sind and the subversion of Islam to serve one's own interest." Zarri Bano's decision to marry Sikander and her resolve of reaching out to him suggests 'a new beginning in their relationship' where Sikander is ready to make all adjustments to accommodate the needs of his wife and co-exist happily, defying the traditional order commonly practiced in South-Asian cultures. The novel also strengthens the thesis that marriage does not stifle the growth of an individual but rather, as in Zarri Bano's case, facilitates in determining her identity in the Pakistani context.

Through this narrative, Qaisra Shahraz tries to establish the fact that Islam is not a misogynistic or a sexist discourse. She resists the views of those secular scholars who reduce Islam to make it fit into a negative framework. She believes it is imperative now to move beyond reductive paradigms and build solidarity amongst feminists having diverse positions. Mir-Hosseni (1999) also emphasizes the same point for Muslim women when she writes, "It is important to locate women's demands in a political context that is not isolated from the women's movements and experiences elsewhere in the world. Feminism is a part of twentieth century politics, and only through participation in this global feminist politics can Muslim women benefit from it and its agenda" (1999:89).


Shahraz's depiction of rural women is flawless but she could be a troubling figure for the feminists. She could be blamed for creating heroines that are not rebellious enough. Second, the ideal stance of her heroines makes them unreal figures. Shahraz is keenly aware of the changes coming in society. Rural women in particular and urban women in general do live in highly controlled societies. She believes in reform but is no radical. Her system of beliefs is distinct from that of her contemporaries. Shahraz believes that women should create space for themselves by fuller self-development and blending the modern with the traditional as in the case of Zarri Bano. She feels tradition and commodification are responsible for woman's present victimization. Women therefore, emerge as playing a subordinate role in practical life. The road to woman's empowerment lies in knowing about their (woman's) rights in Islam and evolving cultural norms according to the needs of the modern woman. Shahraz strongly defends Islam in her narratives and believes that cultural conditioning of religion and feudal lust for power and wealth pose serious threat to woman's emancipation in rural Pakistan. Furthermore, she believes that Western brand of feminism is not likely to succeed in Pakistan where only the elite of the society have access to technological innovations and Western paraphernalia. A majority of the population is still loyal to the Eastern way of life.

Shahraz calls for a more engaged feminism. She redefines feminism for a Pakistani woman and believes that a dialogue needs to be initiated between first and third world women in order to have a thorough understanding of similarities and differences. And differences must be respected. Such steps could create solidarity across feminist divides and help fight oppressions of neo-orientalism on one hand and religious extremism on the other. This viewpoint allocates her a distinguished position among Pakistani novelists. She is a realist not a fantasist. If her heroines are not independent souls, it is because women are like that specially in rural Pakistan. She does not have an agenda to promote but tries to show things as they appear to her.


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(1) First in the English-readers' world, and then other parts of the world, the concept of patriarchal family as a major site of women's oppression was discussed at length by American feminist, Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1970).

(2) The Holy Woman, since its publication, has been rendered into several languages, including Turkish and Bahasa Indonesia.

(3) Cabuk is Chief Editor, Paraf Publishing House, Istanbul, Turkey. For this interview see,

(4) Status of body has emerged as a focal point of western feminist discourse, particularly by Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, Rosi Braidotti, and Vicky Kirby. For more on this, see, 'Satoial Fabric-ations: Enlightenment and Western Feminism' by Meyda Yegenoglu in Postcolonialism, Feminism & Religious Discourse ed. By Laura E. Donaldson & Kevok Pui-Lan. London: Routledge (2002), pp. 82-99.

(5) Zarri is a derivative from Zari, a Farsi word meaning woven with gold thread.

(6) It is important to note that money, women, and land (zar, zan, zamin) are proverbial items of possession within feudal societies. All three can be controlled, disputed, exchanged and gifted to settle claims, discords and to create alliances.

(7) The rule of the Mughal dynasty in the subcontinent of India (1526-1857).

(8) Ressmeh (plural of rasm) is an Urdu language word meaning social mores.

(9) Term of respect used addressing women. Literal meaning a 'lady'.

Najia Asrar Zaidi

Department of Humanities,

COMSATS, Islamabad

Najia Asrar Zaidi is an Assistant professor in the Department of Humanities, COMSATS, Islamabad. After completing her Masters' from Kansas State University, USA, she has recently completed her PhD from University of Balochistan. The title of her dissertation is 'Fiction and Autobiographical Writings by Pakistani Women Depicting Socio/Political Status of Women in Pakistan'.
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Author:Zaidi, Najia Asrar
Publication:Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies: Alam-e-Niswan
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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