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Writer and publisher Shandana Minhas has just come out with her latest novel Rafina, published 14 years after it was written. She speaks to EOS about the story’s continued relevance to the present times and the uncomfortable truth about women’s oppression.

“I haven’t seen the film,” says author Shandana Minhas when I meet her over breakfast to talk about her novella Rafina that has just been published. “I’m glad I haven’t seen the film,” she reiterates. There’s a moment of silence before she continues, “They’re completely different beasts.”

The revelation that Minhas has not seen the 2014 film Good Morning Karachi, which was based on her book, comes as somewhat of a surprise: how does that work? “Dekho, once you’ve given someone the rights to your story, you do not have the right to criticise them for it,” she says. “It’s Sabiha Sumar’s baby and actually I thought that casting Amna Ilyas for it was genius. When I was revising the book this time, I kept seeing Amna Ilyas. Kudos to her for bringing this person to life.”

Rafina, a dark Cinderella story about a young girl from an impoverished background trying to make it as a model in the fashion industry, was first written in 2004; the film came out 10 years later and the novella was finally published this year. What’s the story behind that? “In 2004, I was trying to write my first novel,” says Minhas. “I had a 2.5-year-old and I was going to have another child soon. I had this idea that I was going to write a novel before, you know, I was ‘occupied’ and so my focus was on Tunnel Vision. Rafina was something that I shot off and I didn’t pursue that any further.”

She was then introduced to a filmmaker [Sumar] who was looking for stories. Sumar liked Rafina and optioned it. “I pretty much forgot all about it and it was lying in cold storage,” adds Minhas. Until the movie was filmed.

Several years later, publishers were still interested in Rafina as a standalone novella. How does the transition feel to her? “It would be hard for me to tell you what I was going through when I [first] wrote it,” says Minhas. “Because when we were editing it this time, I had to sit down and ask myself: am I going to revise this as Shandana the writer in 2018, or am I going to be faithful to the writer that I was in 2004? The decision I made was that I was going to be faithful to the writer I was then.”

Minhas is no stranger to the entertainment industry. In the course of our conversation, it turns out that back in the day, she dabbled briefly in film, television and modelling. So, she knows what it’s like to be Rafina? “No,” she replies. “But I’m always more interested in outsiders. The people at the periphery who actually make everything happen. That’s who I’m watching and that’s who I’m listening to. I found the juxtaposition of extreme deprivation and privilege fascinating. So Rafina, really, the overwhelming story for me is the story of class conflict. And in a women-centric setting. Women abdicate responsibility for the way the world we live in, is. And I really just don’t think that’s right.”

In the novella, some of the biggest obstacles in the way of Rafina realising her dreams are other women. These are privileged women who are adamant that Rafina know her place: beneath them. And she is policed by these women to ensure that she remains there. It’s a classic scenario of seemingly enlightened women oppressing another — the values of freedom and women’s liberation that they espouse are only for them.

“It’s topical right now, but there is a parallel to Rafina in Qandeel [Baloch],” says Minhas, referring to the provocative social media celebrity who was murdered by her brother two years ago. “Qandeel was also a young, ambitious woman who had almost no options and she funnelled into limelight the same way. One of the reasons why I was more sympathetic to Rafina this time was because we have recently seen what can happen [Baloch’s brutal ‘honour’ killing]. It seems to me a relevant story because Rafina was written at a time when social media didn’t happen.”

In the aftermath of Baloch’s murder, one of the things that stood out for me was that most middle-class women one spoke to failed to see that Baloch came from a background of little education, zero financial backing, a family with no influence, etc — privileges that these women have and a woman such as Baloch did not. They don’t see Baloch’s nearly 10-year struggle to make a living, or make it in the entertainment industry and still not be taken seriously, until she started putting out those provocative videos. They dismiss Baloch’s entire struggle by saying, “but she used her body.” The same, incidentally, is what concerns the characters that surround Rafina.

“This is a really uncomfortable conversation for privileged women to have,” says Minhas. “Because it requires them to face the fact that the choices that they have made in terms of love — or the facade of love — and marriage, have also been a kind of prostitution.”

“I’ve seen a lot of comments recently about how ‘I don’t like Rafina, the character. She’s not likeable.’ I got the same reaction to Ayesha in Tunnel Vision, my first novel. I think we’re made uncomfortable by ambitious women. And unfortunately a lot of readers — women readers in particular — for some reason feel that you have to be virtuous to deserve good things. So, if a female character is not virtuous, she ‘deserves’ what happens to her.”

But that’s a reflection of a very patriarchal mindset. “Patriarchy is an ideology,” says Minhas. “It’s not a gender. Feminism is not a gender. Women can be enforcers of patriarchy as well. And privileged women are enforcers of patriarchy. And they benefit from it.” You can see this playing out in the novella.

“Until we’re in a situation, unfortunately, where it’s bad enough to hurt them and their lives and their privileges and all the things they have, they will not make the effort to change it for other women,” says Minhas firmly.

A major subject that Rafina revolves around, but one that isn’t clearly stated, is sex. Gendered sexual dynamics and how that works in influencing behaviour. “Because one doesn’t necessarily have a conversation about sex,” says Minhas. “That’s a part of the treatment of it. It’s the same thing with Tunnel Vision. I don’t deal with sex head on, right? Because people don’t deal with sex head on, right? Even when you’re having it, you’re not talking about it!” She laughs. It’s hard not to join in.

Coming out with Rafina 14 years after she wrote it and four years after the film, was there any concern whether the story was still relevant? “There are two ways to look at that question: are these particular people or characters still relevant? That’s something different. But there’s a deeper story or the psychological nuance of it. Is that still relevant? Absolutely,” Minhas responds.

But Minhas isn’t done with Rafina just yet. “I’m fascinated by the novella as a form and who Rafina would be if she were here today,” she relates. “I’m toying with the idea of doing a series of novellas with Rafina. Assuming she survives.”

Why wouldn’t she? She comes across as quite street-smart and strong, I remark. “I think so too,” says Minhas. “I’m also toying with the idea of taking a year off. We started a small press a couple of years ago called Mongrel Books. Between that and three kids and other stuff that’s happening in my life right now, I just really need to sleep and take a break. I feel brutalised. My sensibility and imagination are brutalised. I need to disconnect.”

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 22nd, 2018