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COLUMN: Women and public space

Published Jun 02, 2014 12:26am
Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.
Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.

In delivering a public lecture on Karachi cinema in the 1960s in London a few weeks ago, I was asked a question by someone in the audience about the cinema-going habits of women in that era. I hesitated answering the question as I could only offer personal anecdotes about how in my family, or those of my middle class friends, our mothers and aunts in the 1950s would go to watch movies without chaperones. They would wear saris, less and less visible in the contemporary public space, and walk without hesitation through the elegant streets of downtown Karachi. But rather than share my middle class, male and specifically “muhajir” perspective I invited women of Pakistani descent of a certain age to answer the question. After all, it was their experience that was being asked for. The question also made evident the major gap in our understanding of women’s relationship to the city.

In several columns that I have written for this space, I continue to share my views on Karachi and its cultural and social life in multiple ways. Being an anthropologist by training, I am well aware of the representation of the city in social science literature. For example, in recent years this has primarily focused on the rise of ethnic violence, on the growth of Muttahida Quami Movement, on housing and on resource distribution. However, this literature has traditionally ignored the public and domestic (the mundane, the everyday) experiences of the majority of urban women. In thinking about these lives we need not dismiss the importance of other studies, but an added and necessary argument could be made to make audible female voices that are as present in the urban milieu.

We are all aware that social changes in the last few decades in Pakistan have forced a large percentage of women from all classes to work in the traditional and non-formal sectors of the economy. In recent years, due to economic pressures and the dissolution of extended families in urban areas, many more women are also working for wages than in the past. Women are leaving domestic spaces to work in the expanding service sector, and as bank clerks, schoolteachers, office workers and more. Of course in urban areas, the poorest women have always left their homes to work as midwives, domestic servants, urban labourers, sweepers, or maids. More often, poor urban women remain at home and sell manufactured goods to middlemen for compensation.

Further, the proliferation of global media, the expanding nature of consumptive desires and the addition of women to the labour force in large numbers (many at the bottom of the wage market) among other social processes may produce conflicting and contradictory effects in relation to the more radical aspects of religious discourse about women’s place in society. Women leaving their homes to work challenge these ideas, yet the proliferation of more conservative dress codes to negotiate the hyper-masculinised public spaces may be forms in which these discourses have an effect on women’s daily lives.

In her book, The Sphinx in the City, Elizabeth Wilson (1991) discusses that the emergence of the modern Western city and its relationship with women characterises the urban as a space of opportunity and abandon for women. With all its difficulties the city emancipates women far more, Wilson argues, than rural life or suburban domesticity. This said, and despite promises of egalitarian freedoms, the disciplinary nature of “liberal” modernity in places like Pakistan — and elsewhere — have never allowed the urban to be a space of such complete abandon for women. In general, the control of urban crowds, the management of the working poor, the harnessing of female sexuality, the issues of vagrancy and unattached children have been the historical dilemma faced by administrators and academics alike who seek to control the city and make it “safe”.

However, it needs to be emphasised that although women, the poor and children (in some cases minorities) in cities have not been granted full and free access to the streets — are not complete citizens — yet industrial life has brought them into the public life; they survive and flourish in the interstices of the city and negotiate its contradictions in their own particular way. Hence for Karachi’s working class women, urban space too is used for mobility, transgression, and the different pleasures that they seek, in the process “negotiating” the everyday in favourable and unfavourable terms. Yet they may also exist in a social and cultural landscape of potential harassment, with their movements being regulated by the imminent threat to their bodies and emotions. Perhaps other representational forms than those found in the social sciences are more suited to render meaningful the range of women’s social experience. In order to explore these interstices we may have to turn to women’s voices that are present in non-formal archives such as diaries, biographies, memoirs and even fiction; sources where we find women speaking in non-public spaces. For example, one may need Monica Ali’s Brick Lane about Bangladeshi garment workers in Dhaka and London to truly appreciate the affective dimension of these experiences.

Thinking about such texts for Karachi and Pakistan, one recalls the poet and author Azra Abbas’ short book, Mera Bachpan (My Childhood). This text depicts Karachi of a not so distant past and gives us a window into Abbas’ early life. Published in 1997, the narrative is filled with small rebellious acts by a young girl growing up in the city in the late 1950s and who is trying to understand the world around her with all its ironies and contradiction. Told in short passages and paragraphs that sometimes have dream-like sequences, the way memory works when recalled many years later, Bachpan shows us a world through a female child’s eyes and emotions. A distinctive aspect of this memoir is the changing face of the city and the place of females in it. Abbas fondly remembers the dusty unpaved street in front of her house where she, along with other boys and girls from her neighbourhood, would play marbles, fly kites and how she would go to the cycle shop, rent a bike and ride it for hours. This is in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in a Karachi where young girls could ride bikes even in the lower middle-class neighbourhoods of the city. However, as she grows older, the city outside changes, the unpaved street gets street lights, but Abbas’ own life temporarily becomes more darkened as her movements are increasingly restricted to the house with no more playing in the dusty road outside.

Abbas’ remembrances echo that of the journalist and author Zeenat Hassam’s memory of her own childhood in the early 1960s. In her essay ‘Guzre Din, Guzarte Din’ (Past Days, Passing Days) she mentions how, in the middle of the afternoon, her mother would take Hassam to meet her mother’s friend who, along with her daughter, would be ready when they arrived and all four would then walk over to the nearby cinema to catch the matinee show of the latest Indian movie (like my own relatives). Hassam’s text, published with a series of essays on Karachi (two volumes of the journal Aaj, 1995-96) partially explores her childhood in the newly developing middle class neighbourhoods of greater Karachi (PECHS). She narrates how, as children, she along with her siblings and cousins, could play all afternoon near or away from their homes in the undeveloped plots of the subdivision and also venture far from their homes without any fear or hesitation. This was a Karachi of peace and tranquility, with fluttering butterflies, blossoming bougainvilleas and fruit-bearing almond and tamarind trees.

There is a poignancy of freedom in these voices that we lack in our general discussion about women’s experiences of contemporary public spaces. These memories and representation of gendered childhoods in different parts of Karachi were ironically published and read in the mid-1990s, when the city was ridden with ethnic violence, police action, kidnappings, burglaries and car snatchings. These narratives as they unfold into the present hence have a serious tone to them. The narrators being women, the discussion of access to public spaces is more contentious as implicitly the authors make us aware that today, even in carefree moments, there is a constant struggle to maintain a sense of safety in Karachi’s public spaces. Perhaps these publications are also a nostalgic look at a Karachi whose past seems more peaceful to certain classes and people of distinct ethnic backgrounds. It needs to be emphasised, like anywhere else, Pakistani women of different strata and economic class have varied histories and ability to negotiate state-imposed and social restrictions.

Let me introduce you to Sufia, a garmentworker, to share working class women’s perspective on how they negotiate the public and the private spaces in their lives. Some years ago I and some colleagues had interviewed Sufia for a study on garment workers in Karachi. Sufia was a widow whose husband had passed away three years ago. She was a “Bihari” and part of a community of households that had a sense of being displaced as they arrived in Karachi in the early 1970s from Bangladesh. Her parents, like many others, had minimal resources and decided to marry her off to the best suitor that approached them. Like Sufia, a number of women we spoke to were married in the early teens to men who were almost 20 to 30 years older than them and at times belonged to other ethnicities. This meant that by the 2003-2004, some had been widowed for a number of years or had husbands that were unable to work due to illness or old age. One of the major concerns that these women related was the social economic insecurity in their lives that had led them to leave their homes and find work in the first place. Many women who were not widows faced the burden of abandonment by husbands who had married again, but increasingly, by men who have succumbed to drug addiction, rampant among the working class male population in today’s Karachi.

Sufia’s husband had suffered a work related accident and had not been able to work for many years. She had started working so that her children could get an education and the household expenditures could be met. She found regular work in the garment industry although the volatility in the industry cut into her desire for a permanent job that offered long-term security. During the time of our interview, her children were older and she worried about her daughters and their prospects for marriage. Yet she also worried about her daughters and herself traversing public spaces where unknown men who stood at street corners harassed passing females. Having said this, Sufia also had an explanation for why men lingered at public places. She would repeatedly punctuate her condemnation of men’s action by saying “if there are no jobs for them and there is also over all low level of education, these men are frustrated. If they have regular employment they will not think about women.”

Sufia’s statement sensitises us to forms in which many working class women (and men) in Karachi lead socially and economically precarious lives and helps us understand their interactions with various sites, routes and spaces within the city. Urban public life in Pakistan for all classes of women may not allow them anymore the “pleasures” of the “modern”; cinemas, the cafes, parks, concert halls, beaches or the promenade which women could enter at their own volition. Rather, especially for poor women like Sufia, it may offer the options of harassment in the narrow alleys of industrial townships, in long waits at bus stops of the unpredictable public transport system and in the discriminating work culture that needs to be negotiated due to the compulsion of earning a living.

This ethnographic representation of Sufia’s life permits me to share a mere glimpse of the everyday of under-privileged female lives in a city like Karachi. Sufia’s story hints at how women traverse public space with a kind of bodily discipline and emotional restraint that men do not have to endure. Public harassment and domestic surveillance of working women in Karachi’s neighbourhoods may serve purposes of control and management of female desires for specific urban freedoms. Where men can constitute themselves as “bathing in the crowds of the city,” working women’s mobility is constrained by moral discussions about their sexuality, domestic responsibilities and potential of corrupting the public space by their presence. These are complex urban stories that need more attention from us and we need more depictions of women’s lives — the unruly, the contradictory, the angry — that bring it out of the space of discursive and representational invisibility.

To be sensitive to the inaudibility of women’s voices, as suggested above, we need archives of different kinds of writings, and genres of representation (more memoirs, fiction or creative non-fiction). In this spirit, let me close this essay by turning to Claire Messud’s elegant new novel, The Woman Upstairs. Nora Marie Eldridge, the protagonist of the novel, is angry, very angry. Nora tells us that she is a good girl, a nice person, someone who held her mother’s hand when she passed away and calls her father every day to ask after him. She is an elementary school art teacher who may have wanted her tombstone to say “Great Artist,” but if she died now, at the age of 42, the tombstone would say “good teacher / daughter / friend”. However, what she really wants her grave to shout in big letters is “People Be Damned” (the expletive in the book is much stronger which this august paper will not publish)! Her anger is something she feels all women possess, except those who are not smart. And those who are smart are from their very childhood trained to look good and tuned toward appearances. Nora, like a good teacher, complains that by the third grade girls are lost in this world in which how their hair looks and how they dress becomes much more important than knowing about galaxies, caterpillars or hieroglyphics. Her anger hence is not about doing the chores and being nice, as women are supposed to be, because these are the burdens of being human, but about how and why even after the revolutionary talk of the 1970s in the beginning of the 21st century being female means “looking good and playing dumb.” Nora considers herself middle-aged — neither old nor young — she never married or divorced, is single and she is not crazy, just angry. She is not the woman in the attic … but the woman upstairs who lives at the end of the third-floor hallway, always tidy, who greets neighbours with cheerfulness and there is not a sound from behind the closed doors … the person who is invisible yet burns with anger.

I bring in Messud’s book to show how Nora stands for a range of women, invisible, socially conforming, yet angry. I find echoes of this sentiment (anger) in Azra Abbas’ memoir that I discussed above. Abbas keeps on reminding us how, as a child, the differential treatment of her sisters and brothers by her mother made her upset. After seeing her mother routinely give the boys milk for breakfast and the girls tea, Abbas one day kicks the milk cups, spilling the milk right in front of her mother and runs away to school. Another memory is about her being repeatedly asked to wear the dupatta (as she grew older) by her father and brothers. Abbas took all the dupattas in the house and threw them outside in the garbage. And yet another time she left without asking with her elder brother’s friends so that she could watch them play carrom till it was dark outside. Such acts are present throughout the text and show how, despite being forced to comply and behave, Abbas did not conform. Abbas’ childhood in her biographical piece is not about looking good or playing dumb. Unlike Nora, Abbas was not invisible then (or now). Yet her book also burns with anger. This anger could be interpreted as the “madness” of the “woman in the attic (Bertha Mason)” that Charlotte Bronte chooses to lock up at Thornfield Hall, and eventually kills, so that the disciplined and conforming Jane Eyre could marry Rochester (the patriarch who travels to the Caribbean to manage the slave-holding plantations that originally belonged to his wife). Unlike Bronte, Abbas (and Messud through Nora) force us to acknowledge that women cannot be kept in the attic anymore and their anger or “madness” is part of the struggle against their confinement and oppression. It is an anger that makes Nora proclaim that she is done being invisible and staying “quietly upstairs”. Yet it is an anger which does not negate life, but is about living! Such an anger may be needed to create new forms of representation, writings, debates and discussions on women’s lives leading to an urban politics that will make it possible again for girls without fear or fuss to fly kites, play marbles and ride a bike on that dusty unpaved road outside.