A return to purdah

Published March 21, 2014
It may be useful to consider, how patriarchy in Pakistan may employ women to do its dirtiest work. -Photo by AFP
It may be useful to consider, how patriarchy in Pakistan may employ women to do its dirtiest work. -Photo by AFP

In her novel, The Crooked Line (Terhi Lakeer) author Ismat Chughtai presents a glimpse of the world inside purdah. It is a vicious place, flowing with gossip and intrigue, with one woman and then another jockeying for supremacy. Emotions are ammunition, and manipulation, particularly of the men that are the womens’ emissaries into the “outside” world are often the subject of them.

Shama, the narrator has a widowed aunt who relies on pity, a mother on a detached other worldliness, myriad others, cousins, sisters, grandmothers, all possess their own strategies of feminine warfare. The world of purdah is one of women sentenced to powerlessness and self-loathing, whose survival depends on such underhanded techniques as they can muster, all intent on achieving some minimal control over the hearts and minds of men, who are ostensibly deemed their guardians and protectors.

History would tell you, that that world exists no more, not at least with the dominance that it did in the earlier portions of the last century. Indeed, there are women, especially those in the remote areas of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province who have never emerged from purdah at all and theirs is a story of persisting seclusion.

For the rest of the Pakistani women, those for whom purdah is an historic artifact, it is useful to remember the dynamic of gender relations which it created. As is aptly presented in Chughtai’s novel and numerous other works from the time, women in purdah were much like caged animals, they paced their cages, they stalked their prey and they wasted away, and eventually becoming dependent on their male captors. In that dependence, was the purdah’s key to insuring that they could never unite against their real enemies.

Indeed, the scheme of survival was arranged such, that women competed with each other for access to and influence over men. The relationships within the women’s world therefore, were arranged accordingly, wives against mothers-in law, sisters against each other and an endless line of enmities and hostilities in between. If allegiances and alliances did exist, they did only for the ultimate purpose, to be the greater influencer of the man in charge. Being the favored woman, a matriarch or a darling daughter or a much loved wife, was the height of female aspiration.

Those days of purdah may have ended in a literal sense, but their shadow persists in female relationships in Pakistan today. Their shadows can be seen most visibly in the continuing patterns of female relationships. Mothers-in law and daughters-in-law may both, go to work, enjoy direct access to fulfilling professional lives, but seem unable to escape the legacy that pits them against each other. Now in the open, they continue to compete for the affections of golden sons, each demanding a greater love. As it was in the days of old, there are quibbling women on either side with mighty men in the middle.

The cult of competition is not limited the fault line between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, its venom bleeds over into all other interactions of women between women. The primary product of a patriarchal society, thus is the self-hating woman, or the woman that never identifies herself as a woman, is an agent in service of a system that insures her own subjugation. The vast variety of these hatreds, the kaleidoscope of their poisons parades itself in every Pakistani woman’s story from their reactions to women they see on television, to the way they talk about their friends, and in the jealousies and envies that permeate much of women’s relationships with each other.

Now that Pakistan seems to be at the cusp of considering purdah again, (and yes the rape of girls going to college, the beating of women professionals, the banning of women from one or another arena of public life equates to just that) it may be useful to consider, how patriarchy will once again employ women to do its dirtiest work.

It will be mother’s that forbid daughters, and sisters that sabotage sisters and so on. The architecture of future limitations will utilise the very women it seeks to imprison; the future captives will construct their own cages. As the building is underway, perhaps not yet complete, some women can consider how the loss of sisterhood among women, the loss of empathy and kindness, the loss of refusing to judge another woman’s choices, castigating another woman’s words, is the mechanism of control that will enable a future of further darkness, of retrogression and seclusion.

The death of sisterhood, the chords of empathy that connect one woman to another, is the grave on which the propagation and persistence of patriarchy is erected. When there are no mourners, there is the promise of continuing power, with those who can rebel and resist turned on each other, there is no danger of change.

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