COLUMN: On female friendships

Aug 03 2014


Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at University of Texas, Austin
Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at University of Texas, Austin

THE passage of Muslim Personal Law in 1948, which gave women the right to inheritance under Shari’a, and that of the Family Law Ordinance in 1961, are seen as major victories in the struggle for civil and gender rights in Pakistan. The Family Law Ordinance provided some legal curbs against polygamy, expanded the right for women to initiate divorce proceedings and also dealt favourably with inheritance rights for women.

However, the impact of these changes on the lives of a large majority of women in Pakistan, whose literacy levels are low and who live under restrictive social conventions, has generally been minuscule. Yet General Ayub Khan’s government (1958-1969), for the first time through this Ordinance, brought the regulation of the private sphere under the state’s supervision and control. With all its problems, it was a liberal intervention by the state in comparison to the later curtailment of women’s sexuality through the General Ziaul Haq regime’s Hudood Ordinance, passed in 1979.

This move by the military government was not always reflected in its cultural politics. The same year the Family Ordinance was passed, the film Saheli (1960) received five President of Pakistan medals for different categories. The film’s central theme was the friendship between two women (the characters played by the actors Shamim Ara and Nayyar Sultana) and depicts one of them letting her friend marry her own husband as a second wife.

The film, although immensely popular at the box office (it also won four Nigar awards, Pakistan’s most prestigious film award), has been criticised by liberal circles as normalising the practice of polygamy in post-independence Pakistan. Similarly, it may be considered an irony that a regime that had passed a law creating restrictions on polygamous marriages would bestow awards on a film that ostensibly propagated the same system. To be clear, the Muslim Family Ordinance did not ban polygamy; it just made it dependent on permission from the local authorities who needed to receive the consent from the current wife (or wives). In the film, the wife herself persuaded her husband to marry her friend, so the story did not challenge the path set out by the Ordinance.

Irrespective of the award committees and their decisions and the politics surrounding polygamy, what is underappreciated about the film in my opinion is the social bonding the two female protagonists share in the movie. I argue that the on-screen affection between the two friends accounts for the story to allow them to marry the same man so they may be together. This analysis enables me to open up an argument about women’s representation in popular media in Pakistan in order to create a different archive of women’s cultural politics and histories. Let me start with a brief plot of the film and then share a reading that questions its more obvious interpretive reception.

The film was directed by S.M. Yusuf, a veteran of the Bombay film industry who had migrated to Pakistan in the late 1950s. This was Yusuf’s first film in Pakistan and he brought together a team that consisted of experienced script writer Hasrat Lukhnawi, music director A. Hameed and a group of talented young actors like Darpan, Shamim Ara, Nayyar Sultana and Aslam Pervez. The film, as mentioned above, tells the story of two female friends, Jamila (Shamim Ara) and Razia (Nayyar Sultana), who grow up together in Rawalpindi with Jamila’s mother and her elder brother, played by a dapper Aslam Pervez.

When Razia is called away to her relatives in Hyderabad, the two friends are separated. They constantly miss each other and write letters to stay in touch. But these are intercepted by Jamila’s brother who has a soft spot for Razia, yet also has a mistress whom he keeps promising to marry. The friends, hence, are unable to communicate due to the brother either not passing on the letters to Jamila or not posting the letters she gives to him for Razia.

Literally pining for her friend, Jamila fakes an illness and wants the doctor who comes to treat her to tell her mother that she should be sent to Razia (or Razia should be invited back) to recuperate. In his visits to the house, the doctor, played by Darpan, falls in love with Jamila. She reciprocates his feeling and their marriage date is fixed. On the day of the wedding, the doctor dies in a car accident. As the groom does not arrive the guests leave and Jamila, now traumatised, enters a shock-like condition. The family, hearing of a doctor in Karachi who is a specialist in healing psychological problems, takes her there. When Jamila opens her eyes in the Karachi hospital she sees the person who was supposed to be her husband. This is Darpan again, who is now playing the character of the elder brother of the deceased doctor (but looks identical) and is now married to Razia.

Jamila, of course, does not know this and she is eager to get married to him. Her mother explains the situation to Razia, who persuades her husband to marry her friend as that is the only way she would recover from her health condition.

Razia’s husband initially rejects the idea, but is then convinced by his wife. Jamila gets married and for the time being Razia starts living in a different house. One day Razia comes to visit Jamila. This scene is played very well as no one is a stranger for anyone, yet Jamila introduces her new husband to Razia (who is also Razia’s husband). Razia, who is a poet, sings a song at this juncture which became very popular, ‘Hum bhool gaye har baat, magar tera pyar nahin bhooley’ (I have forgotten everything, but your love; Naseem Begum was the playback singer). The song, of course, shows her love and affection for both the people who make up her immediate audience — her friend and her husband. That evening, Jamila finds Razia speaking alone with her now husband, and in a fit of rage, throws her out of the house. Even at that point Razia asks her husband to not divulge the truth.

However, the doctor’s loyal servant tells Jamila everything — how the person she was supposed to marry was dead and that the person she was married to was the elder brother of the deceased, and also how Razia had sacrificed her marriage for Jamila’s happiness. Jamila calls Razia to apologise and while she is on the phone she hears Razia shriek. Jamila’s brother, who liked (or lusted after) Razia, had forcefully entered her house and was threatening to rape her. Sensing trouble, Jamila arrives at the house with a gun, confronts her brother and shoots him. He falls down dead while the unconscious Razia is lying next to him. Jamila then goes and surrenders to the police.

The movie is actually a flashback that Jamila narrates in front of the judge hearing the murder trial. At the end of the movie another witness comes forward and says that Jamila’s brother was killed by her bullet. This was the character played by Bahar, Jamila’s brother’s long-suffering mistress who is pregnant with his child. She killed him, she says in her testimony, because she could not see him ruin another life. This ends the story with the last shot showing the two friends embracing each other (both faces to the camera) and then riding back to their mutual home in a large convertible, the husband nowhere to be seen.

In her book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007), Sharon Marcus reads Victorian fiction to discuss female relationships in England of that era. She shows the intensity of these relationships in terms of mother-daughter dynamics, in female friendships, in the mutual investment of women in images of femininity and the range of different ways women associated with each other.

These homo-social relationships were deeply imbibed by ideas of altruism, generosity and mutual indebtedness. Marcus argues that this was in contrast to the way emerging market forces were creating competitiveness, hence these friendships provided a critique of individuated relationships with their focus on reciprocity, equal power balance and gift-giving rituals. There was always a play in their behaviour where women-to-women bonds created spaces for women to be more assertive and yet spontaneous in their relationships in comparison to those with men. The book concedes that the power of men, patriarchy and the institution of heterosexual marriage defined lives for these women, but asserts that we need to also understand the strong affective and complex bonds that women had between each other that these forces could not always undermine.

Marcus’ argument helps me share a reading of Saheli that goes beyond the more accepted analysis. Like Marcus, we should acknowledge that the two women protagonists of this film were very much part of a male dominated society where they could also be seen to perpetuate the institution of heterosexual marriage and even polygamy. But what the viewer also witnesses is that the bond between Jamila and Razia is far stronger than what they could have with their respective male companions. At the very beginning of the film, when the two are shown together for the first time, the script allows them to address each other as habib and mahboob, both terms of endearment used for lovers in the Urdu language. In fact, when they write to each other they do not address each other by name, but rather with these terms that are normally reserved for relationships between men and women (there is a clear eroticised message being conveyed, which the censors or the general public did not object to).

Since the strongest bond of affection in the film is between these two women, the separation created by Razia’s departure to Hyderabad results in a creative dilemma that the script needs to resolve. This is akin to the tropes of firaq (separation) and vasl (meeting), so common in Urdu literary writings. In this case, irrespective of the conventional tropes, the reunion of these women could only happen with the removal of a male figure. Hence, Jamila’s fiancé had to be killed in order for the friends to be together again, without the hassle of conforming to the demands of two husbands. We may condemn the institution of polygamy, but in this film we may want to see it as a cultural metaphor (a bowing to convention) that allows the two who truly desired each other to come together within the patriarchal tradition of taking the second wife. As mentioned above, despite the twists and turns, the relationship that triumphs is the one between the two women and the last scene focuses on them, while the husband is off-camera.

Speaking of men, the story for Saheli, which was released in December 1960, was clearly influenced by the Indian movie Chaudhvin ka Chand. Based in the city of Lucknow and produced by Guru Dutt (M. Sadiq director), it is a story of deep friendships among men. In the film, Waheeda Rahman (who incidentally is also called Jamila), through a misunderstanding, is married to one friend (Guru Dutt) while she is the love interest of the other (Rahman). The tensions that ensue are resolved through the sacrifices the friends make for each other.

The film’s emotive structure reminds us of the historian and literary critic Rene Girard’s early work (Deceit, Desire and the Novel) on European fiction, where he shows how the bonds that link two rivals is as strong and potent as the one they have for their beloved. According to Eve Sedgwick (Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire), Girard argues that within the male-centered novelistic traditions of high European cultures, it is always two males who are rivals for a female. Similarly, in the erotic triangle set up in Chaudhvin ka Chand, it is the two men who actually have the deeper relationship. This is not different from the figure of the raqueeb that surfaces in Urdu poetry, whether in Momin, Dard, Ameer Minai or Faiz (to just name a few poets from the classical and modern era). In most cases the two raqueeb seek the attention of the same (female) beloved, but what remains under-theorised in Urdu literary criticism is the attention, as in Girard’s argument, to the intensity of male bonding that permeates this relationship. However, whether in European or in Urdu literature, this male-centric gaze is on the passive female form (similar to the narrative structure in Chaudhvin Ka Chand).

This construction of rivals immersed in male bonding is somewhat akin to the argument put forward by the anthropologist Levi Strauss on marriage. In his influential structural model of kinship, Strauss argues that marriage constitutes the exchange of women between two male groups. Women in this process figure as objects of exchange and not as active partners. The structural emphasis then becomes the relationship between men (or male groups) and women remain mere conduits for this bonding. Levis Strauss and other structural anthropologists have of course been severely criticised by feminists who have shown empirical diversity in ways marriages are organised in different cultures and have argued for women’s own agency in social life.

Interestingly enough, while S. M. Yusuf, by using friendship as the central argument for the film Saheli, does borrow the story line of Chaudavin Ka Chand, in his treatment he also subverts it. Rather than concentrate on the issue of male homo-sociality among rivals, he concentrates on female friendship and sacrifice. The film does develop a triangle of desire between the two females and their mutual husband, but the male character remains superfluous and is used like a prop so that the story could come to a final resolution (much like the use of Waheeda Rahman in Chaudavin ka Chand). In Saheli, the affection between the two women remains paramount and the narrative arc creates an ending that shows them being together. This in itself was a radical decision by the director and needs further elaboration and discussion in terms of current theoretical paradigms in gender studies.

In pushing this narrative, Yusuf subtly brings attention to how women work, live, care for, provide support to, and also desire other women — I use the word desire in its larger connotation of homo-social bonding and not merely in a narrow sexualised meaning. Further, the film — I am positive Yusuf did not have a critique of Levi Strauss in mind — cinematically takes up the structural argument on the exchange of women. If Razia is the object of desire for both Darpan (her husband) and Aslam Pervez, then there is a symmetry (albeit superficially) set up between the accepting of Jamila (the sister) also by Darpan in exchange for the giving up of Razia (Darpan’s wife), albeit in this case forcefully; the idea of exchange of women between two groups of men. However, this does not occur and Jamila shoots her own brother and by showing her agency destroys the structural and patriarchal premise of this exchange. In the end, neither agnatic (own family), affinal (through marriage) or conjugal (husband) relationships take priority over the bonds of friendship that the two female protagonists of the film have.

My reading of the film should not be taken to mean a support for polygamy or a misunderstanding of the power of how patriarchy functions in society. I would agree that even the depiction of women’s friendship in this film does not insist on the exclusivity of women and that women in the film do promote heterosexual alliances and notions of domesticated femininity. Yet my argument, following Sharon Marcus’ work, suggests that this cannot be the entirety of the story and there is more to these relationships than can be encompassed by the normative explanatory tools we have.

In delving into these stories we need to recover how women create meaning in their lives, to excavate the histories of pleasures and pain that remain inaudible, and the multiple ways that women associate with each other. To create a new archive we need to concentrate on lived social life, on the everyday, and follow what scholar Shahnaz Rouse has argued for — a return to sources where we find women speaking in non-public spaces or find women’s narratives in letters, diaries, biographies and memoirs. What is further needed is to hone them for stories of friendship, caring, expressions of affection, reciprocity and desire in order to bring women into the centre of history making and so that they are not relegated to merely the sidelines linked to topics such as sexuality and subordination. My revisiting (and re-reading) a film like Saheli may be a small step in creating this archive.