Tahira, Naseem Taj Bibi, Farida, Amna, Sakina, Naila and Fehmida — these are common women’s names in Pakistan, found everywhere, in every neighbourhood. The very commonality of these names makes them a collective pitted against the tyranny of Pakistan’s patriarchal social mindset. And, as a plethora of rights warriors struggle for justice on issues of women’s empowerment and all forms of gender-based harassment against women, Shaista Saeed goes a step further; her book Pakistani Khandaan Aur Aurat: Parvarish, Paabandi, Khudmukhtaari [The Pakistani Family and the Woman: Nurturing, Restrictions, Autonomy] focuses on the lives of ordinary women to shine a light on the root cause of the issue of women’s disempowerment.

Saeed is a sociologist and counsellor for the Pakistan Women Lawyers’ Association (PWLA) and has written extensively on the necessity of nurturing and strengthening the family unit to create a broadminded, healthy and progressive society. Pakistani Khandaan Aur Aurat, coming after her maiden publication Do Naslon Ki Maaein [Mothers of Two Generations], is almost a personal testament of her theories put into practice; the author writes of sorting through her earlier published articles in the company of her educationist and author husband, the late Syed Mumtaz Saeed, who was also a strong driving force behind her putting her writings together in collected form. There are also some additional writings penned specifically for the book.

There is much happening to women inside their homes, on the streets and in the ‘cool’ confines of corporate offices, that is now being brought to public notice through primetime entertainment and online comment. But, horrendous, heartrending and downright callous as it is, disempowerment is not an issue that can be, or should be, solved with a topical bandage. Saeed chooses to explore the origins of this problem, taking the reader along with her on a journey that culminates in understanding why women are in such a situation to begin with. Her book puts forth notions of sensibility and sensitivity about the ideal family unit, the sum of Saeed’s contentions being that a family founded on the principles of shared responsibility and mutual love, commitment and respect is key in laying the foundation of gender parity at all levels.

Saeed’s book is divided into three parts. The first, ‘Parvarish’ [Nurturing], consists of 23 opinion pieces that focus on the centrality of the family unit, the importance of transferring values to the next generation and the recent distortions that have resulted in unprecedented upheavals in the ideal setup. The author creates a roadmap of experiential wisdom here and her discussion ranges from the judicious application of parental authority, to the lack of coordination between schools and the home environment, to the unbridled rise of political activity in educational institutions. She also writes of school admissions blues, child labour and the detrimental effects of comparing children’s intellects with those of their peers.

A sociologist looks at the common problems faced by women in Pakistani society and shines a light on their root causes, offering sensible solutions in accessible language

The second part, ‘Aurat Aur Maashra’ [Woman and Society] consists of 10 chapters focusing specifically on issues around educating daughters, marriages, women’s political autonomy, women as second-class citizens and the tribulations of domestic workers who are, more often than not, women. These concerns are seemingly mundane — one or the other of the ‘common names’ has experienced them as a matter of routine — and so it goes to the credit of Saeed’s lucid expression that she harnesses real-life stories to illustrate the harsh intensity of the problems.

The difficulties parents face in arranging suitable matches for educated daughters, or the gravity of undetected depression — and the acceptance of it — in women may generally elude serious debate, but Saeed offers sensible alternatives that, if taken to heart, have the potential to create a society that is more stable and free of turmoil. One of the most pertinent essays in this section features the plight of the woman in this age of so-called economic empowerment, where the husband — who should, by all means, be the principle or at least an equal breadwinner — conveniently fades into the background under one pretext or the other. At the other end of the spectrum are case studies of women who would like to put their education to good use and become equal economic partners in a marriage, but are denied the right to do so by in-laws and husbands who choose a ‘queen’ to marry, but prefer her to exist in the marital home as a ‘slave’.

The third and last section is titled ‘Sachi Kahaniyan’ [True Stories] and details the real life stories of women who, as a result of deeply ingrained gender disparity, have become ‘lost souls’. These women — Tahira, Naseem Taj Bibi, Farida, Amna, Sakina, Naila and Fehmida — have been forced by parental whims into child marriages, become innocent victims of polygamy, have been fraudulently deprived of their trousseaus and have fought for their children’s custody in the aftermath of divorce. Desperate for help, they have approached the PWLA to find a way out of their misery. On a critical note, these stories should perhaps have been put at the beginning of the book, seeing as how these are the case studies of women’s issues to which Saeed has been giving solutions until now.

Bleak as the subject is, however, Saeed’s book happily does not read like a hardened battle cry for women’s rights. Written in very accessible vocabulary, Pakistani Khandaan Aur Aurat is, instead, a gentle reminder that the sense and sensibility of the feminine perspective in human relationships is central to a balanced family unit and, consequently, society. Wilful disregard or ignorance of this sets off a flood of problems, which invariably become a woman’s lot.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development.

Currently she teaches Content Writing and Editing for Journalism at the Lums Lifetime Learning Programme

Pakistani Khandaan Aur Aurat: Parvarish, Paabandi, Khudmukhtaari
By Shaista Saeed
Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698791515

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 24th, 2020