THERE are times when you begin reading something without high expectations. Suddenly, you sit up as a little jolt shoots up your spine, and you find yourself in the grip of a clever, fascinating work.

Being jaded, and with thousands of books behind me, this does not happen very often. But Maham Javaid’s short story, The Tallest Woman, worked its magic on me. Her award-winning entry to the Zeenat Haroon Rashid (ZHR) Prize for Women works on different levels, as it forces readers to look at the world around them in different points of view.

In a writing competition for women, it was inevitable that many entries focused on the injustice they suffer every day of their lives. Some were subtler than others, but misogyny was the common thread running through the submissions.

I must confess that when Syra Rashid Vahidy, an old friend, first approached me to serve on the panel, my heart sank: I was expecting to plough through a score of amateurish pieces. But as this effort was to honour the memory of her mother, Zeenat Haroon Rashid, I couldn’t say no. The late Mrs Rashid was an activist in the 1950s, encouraged to study by her parents. As the first member of the Sind National Women’s Guard, she learned unarmed combat, and became a voracious reader. I regret having met her only a few times, but was struck by her charm and intelligence.

Perhaps this award will encourage women’s writing.

So it is entirely appropriate that Syra has launched this annual writing prize in her memory, and I am grateful to be part of it. No doubt there will be tweaks in the second award, but as long as there is continuity, there will be an incentive for women to carry on polishing their skills. Perhaps this award will be the precursor for a movement to promote women’s writing.

In a recent interview, Syra mentioned that out of around 600 entries, scores were from small rural towns. Naturally, the level of grammar and spelling were not of the same standard as the submissions from city-dwelling writers. Perhaps some seminars with teachers from rural institutions could help.

My greatest regret is that there was only one prize on offer. Hopefully, next year, there can be second and third prizes as well. So high was the standard of the entries I read that I had a great deal of trouble placing one above the other. That said, the winner, for me at least, was outstanding, and I am glad the other judges concurred.

Maham Javaid’s The Tallest Woman is about the travails of a girl who just doesn’t stop growing. As her height increases rapidly, Zainab faces discrimination, not just because of her gender, but because of her size. She can no longer go to school, or even step out of her house with her mother. Virtually a prisoner at home, she feels the walls closing in as her options vanish. Unable to finish her schooling, Zainab cannot get a job. And who would want to marry a seven-foot diyoni?

Then, suddenly many possibilities

open up: due to an accident, she has to go to the hospital where a young doctor tries to assault her; she defends herself; the fracas is videoed, and goes viral under #MeToo.

Immediately, the local TV station sends its vans. Local militants fighting for their land against the army adopt her as a member; sociologists from Karachi University want to study her; the local intelligence boys offer her protection; a couple of goras want to place her in the Guinness Book of Records; an officer from the Prime Minister’s Office offers her a million to be photographed with his boss, provided she agrees not to apply for asylum abroad. And, wonder of wonders, there is a marriage proposal predicated on the couple going abroad and asking for asylum.

To each of these supplicants, Zainab says: “Come back next week.” All of a sudden, the diyoni has discovered that she has options. The reader is left wondering which one she will exercise. We also cheer her on as her delayed exploration of the world commences.

The author examines the different levels at which discrimination operates: if you are a woman, you are clearly unequal. If you are too tall, too short, or too dark, there’s something wrong with you. Even befriending you brings its own sanctions.

Maham Javaid also looks at the way society exploits those who are different: instead of valuing Zainab for who she is, university professors, politicians, and the cops want to get maximum mileage from her for her height. Her long-suffering mother has one lesson for her jinn-ki-bacchi: “Don’t let anybody ever touch you.” This advice stood Zainab in good stead when she was attacked by the doctor.

Incidentally, this story will be published in EOS in Dawn tomorrow, while many others will follow on the competition website: www.zhrwritingprize.com

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2019

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