On writing women

22 Jan 2017


In researching my previous column on the work of Elena Ferrante, I read how certain critics were convinced that the author was actually a man writing under a woman’s pseudonym because she wrote assertively and confidently about the domains of men, especially politics, crime, and violence. In return, Ferrante’s supporters asserted that not only could a woman write well about these domains, but that “only a woman” could know of the secret interior worlds of women and write about them as truthfully and authentically as Ferrante.

Is it possible for a male writer to do the reverse, and describe the life and mind of a female character as well as women writers must do when writing about men? A consensus has emerged amongst women readers and feminist critics of literature that many male writers have not felt obligated to create female characters who are as complex, well-rounded, and three-dimensional as the men.

Virginia Woolf’s masterful creation Orlando, from her novel Orlando: A Biography, is a male poet who turns into a woman at the age of 30 and then goes on to live for centuries. There exists no better literary metaphor for the role of the writer; writers must perform a similar, voluntary sex change in order to be able to take on multiple perspectives, voices, and genders.

Bina Shah is a writer and columnist based in Karachi. She is the author of six books and also writes for The New York Times.

The writer has to scrub off the baggage of their own gender when inhabiting another’s; be a keen observer of the world of men and women, both together and apart; be a spy and inveigle one’s way into the secrets that men keep from women — and vice versa. It takes extraordinary intelligence, intuition, and empathy to convince the reader that they actually know what it’s like to be a woman or a man.

Male writers have been accused of producing flattened caricatures that exist as a few things: a sex object or its opposite (the pure and virginal female whom the man dreams of obtaining); a receptacle for a man’s hatred and frustrations (the evil mother or nagging wife stereotype); a foil for two male protagonists to fight over. This is the result of the ‘male gaze’: the concept that the world of visual arts depicts the world and women from a purely masculine point of view.

This male gaze has, in turn, coloured literature, making the women passive props next to the male characters’ dominant actions, thoughts, and beliefs. The observation has become keener with the construction of the Bechdel test, which asks if a film contains two female characters talking about anything besides a man. Half of all films produced fail this test, which itself references Woolf’s essay ‘A room of one’s own’, where she writes: “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. ... And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. ... They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…”

"Our writers tinge their writing with the subtle and not-so-subtle mistrust of women we’ve grown up with, while other women characters are cast as bewitchers or unreal seductresses.

This harsh assessment shows how willing we had been to forgive men for writing women who are ciphers, but now women readers have decided that they are tired of reading about themselves portrayed in this way, and are demanding better from male writers.

Our own subcontinental writers tinge their writing with the subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny and mistrust of women that we have all grown up with, while other women characters are cast as bewitchers or unreal seductresses. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s women characters in his short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, are for the most part greedy, grasping, and unlikeable.

Mohsin Hamid’s Mumtaz in Moth Smoke and Erica in The Reluctant Fundamentalist exist only to function as lovers. Erica, who is not a real woman but a stand-in for an entire country, eventually goes insane and disappears, literally as well as figuratively. Academic and critic Claire Chambers observes an evolution in Hamid’s female characters, writing in The Huffington Post that “the pretty girl” in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is “the best female character Hamid has yet created”.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary are two prime examples of female characters that have been imagined and executed with as much care, attention and complexity as any male character before or since. For literature coming from South Asia, Aamer Hussein sensitively sketches women’s hopes, dreams, ambitions, and fears, making them central not just to the lives of the individual women, but to everyone around them. Usman Malik writes a strong female character with voice and agency, Tara, in his award-winning short story ‘The vaporisation enthalpy of a peculiar Pakistani family’.

One South Asian author has done the most daring thing of all: taken on the voice of a female protagonist and written an entire story of the relationship between her and her best friend: in Just Another Jihadi Jane Tabish Khair tells the story of two British-Pakistani schoolfriends, Jamilla and Ameena, who run away together to become jihadi brides in Syria. Khair has performed the trick that Orlando did, courageously casting off his maleness to write not one, but two of the most compelling and believable female characters in contemporary literature.

Khair precisely and skilfully captures the bizarre pressure cooker of youth, confusion, and femaleness, with its attendant discriminations and oppressions, which turns normal schoolgirls into the wives of terrorists. He weaves between the exterior and interior worlds of the girls through dialogues and inner monologues that actually sound like two women talking to each other about life, about religion, about choices — anything other than a man.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 22nd, 2017