I once attended a talk in Karachi on the challenges that women writers face, hoping to learn something about how women approach reading and writing in our society and culture, as well as our country.
The focus of the talk revolved around the problems that women face when trying to write and take care of a home at the same time. The onus of emotional labour, or the idea that a woman is a perpetual caretaker and can almost never find time for her leisure, let alone her writing, falls squarely upon the woman in our society. The speakers’ solutions ranged from trying to find a tribe of like-minded women writers who could provide childcare or other types of support — clearing a space for a woman to write — to being strong enough to withstand society’s antagonism towards an intellectual woman, and trying to reduce one’s dependency on expectations of likeability, success or popularity.
Often, women are encouraged to write about home and domesticity, or produce ‘chick lit’, but are looked down upon for doing so, while men are celebrated when they write portraits of the home or domesticity, for being so prescient about things that don’t truly conform to their nature. But in today’s times, women are writing confidently about all the things we are intimate with, including the lives we live as women. This is in large part thanks to more women as literary critics, reviewers and editors who give women’s writing the gravitas that has always been given automatically to men.
Women still face discrimination in the publishing industry: not being published in the first place, not being reviewed enough, not meriting space in literary journals, not being given the big prizes and awards unconditionally (as evinced by the Booker Prize 2019, which had to be shared by Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo even though this is against the rules of the Booker). To be honest, if we’re still having any of these conversations in the next 20 years, I will be very disappointed.
There exists a masterful film called The Wife, about a woman (the magnificent Glenn Close) who writes all her husband’s books and eventually cracks when he is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In that film, it is the husband who cooks, cleans and looks after the children while she writes masterpieces — and then he takes the credit. It is frustrating and heartbreaking to see the wife continue to feel so constrained by her gender even after the very limiting 1950s and ‘60s have passed. The women’s liberation movement seems not to affect her in any way. So far gone is she in the partnership of deception that she cannot break out of it until she watches her husband get all the accolades that belong, rightfully, to her.
Many women writers say that the only thing that truly gets in the way of their writing is the need to look after very young children. Everything else — including what society, the in-laws or ‘aunties’ think of them — needs to go to hell. In fact, you have to be made of stern stuff if you’re going to be a writer.
In a way, women writers in Pakistan are trapped in this same paralysis as Close’s character. We should not encourage women to think about writing as automatically constrained by gender and societal expectations in Pakistan in the 21st century, or it will be a long time before we see a brilliant woman writer emerge from our ranks. Our young women are still in embryo and I feel it is a dangerous message to tell them that their artistic vision has to be compromised by the demands of the house and in-laws. Surely there must be an aspiring Pakistani woman writer out there, married or not, mother or not, who has greater vision and imagination that cannot be stifled by all of this guff? We must encourage those young women to write boldly and without fear.
Many women writers say that the only thing that truly gets in the way of their writing is the need to look after very young children. Everything else — including what society, the in-laws or ‘aunties’ think of them — needs to go to hell. If you don’t have that attitude, regardless of your marital status, you won’t make a very good writer. In fact, you have to be made of stern stuff if you’re going to be a writer. You have to deal with rejection, isolation, the lack of income, competition and the inevitable disappointments of an unstable career. Yet, we all transcend our limitations when we write. A writer of any gender has to be an outsider of some sort, refuse to accept what society says, on so many levels.
Writing frees a woman from the constraints of sex and gender. This is why I chafe at the label ‘woman writer’, as I chafe at titles such as ‘lady policeman’ and ‘female doctor’. When you write, you’re a writer first, a woman second. You use and channel everything, including your sex, to distil and record, and to make art. I am fully a woman when writing, but I am a free woman when I write. Nobody puts a damper on my thoughts and ideas, or my subjects, or my process. Nobody has ever told me, ‘you shouldn’t write about this or that because you’re a woman’. Those are only the things that I tell myself, in times of doubt or uncertainty.
This is arguably the best time in the history of the world to be a woman and a writer, because we are aware of the historical ways in which we have been prevented from doing our work. But today we can put our own names on our books; we can write about history, politics, sports and any other traditionally masculine topic we want, using our perspective to make it our own. Putting words to paper was, once upon a time, all but illegal for women. This year, women won the Nobel Prize for literature and the Booker Prize. What, then, are we waiting for? It is boldness, not timidity, that Pakistani women writers must inculcate in themselves to succeed.
The columnist is a Karachi-based author of seven books
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 22nd, 2019