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REVIEW: Writing about rural women

March 31, 2013

Reviewed by Nosheen Ali

The Other Side of Silence: The Lives of Women in the Karakoram Region is a refreshing read on the region of Baltistan, particularly in the aftermath of a text like Three Cups of Tea which was immersed in political and intellectual deceit. The book claims to uncover the silence around the lives of rural Balti women, who are often defined and confined by shallowly understood terms such as “poor, traditional, Muslim, and secluded by custom.” Farida Azhar-Hewitt, a social geographer, lived among the women for extended periods in 1989 and 1993, and continued to visit the region over the next two decades. During her research, she lived in the region with her daughter and learnt the local language as well. Both these factors facilitated her acceptance and participation in the local community.

In the text, Azhar-Hewitt meticulously describes how the rural women of Chutrun in Baltistan inhabit their domestic and farm spaces, how they tend to children, animals, families and guests, the ways in which they socialise, and how their responsibilities and problems have shifted with the transition from a traditional to a market-based world. The gendered division of labour is a central aspect of the story that Azhar-Hewitt tells. Balti households in the area of Chutrun are fundamentally maintained by men’s role in livestock rearing and women’s work in cereal production.

Through textured life stories of women like Rabia, readers get a sense of how women’s time is spent on activities during a day, as well as during different seasons. We learn how spring, summer and early autumn are consumed by material production, whereas winter is a time for cultural and communal creation through crafts, songs and storytelling. Whatever the season, “work and play are not sharply separated as they are in the Western world. Rather, women of all ages manage to combine the two.” Azhar-Hewitt neither romanticises nor other-ises rural lifeworlds. Her success lies in her thick description of daily life which, above all, communicates just how much women do and the ethic of care and earnest effort through which they operate. I could thus connect with the author when she wrote that Rabia was the most hard-working woman she ever met, especially since I myself have encountered similar women in the neighboring region of Gilgit.

Having said this, the book raised a few concerns for me as well. To begin with, the text often focused on the life of the author in Baltistan instead of the lives of women in the Karakoram mountains — as claimed by the title. It thus tended to read like a travelogue or diary, with details that were sometimes tiresome and unnecessary. While a reflexive approach that weaves the author’s experience into an ethnographic narrative is critical and offers a corrective to earlier forms of objectifying anthropology, it has to remain grounded in self-awareness and self-positioning instead of self-happenings. Some of the author’s observations regarding her own place and perception in the field were also rather striking. For example, at one point, Azhar-Hewitt discusses how she was singled out in a bus and asked to show her identification papers, even when she was dressed like local women. Clearly, being dressed like a local woman does not mean that one is seen as one, or can pass off as one, particularly in a close-knit region where outsiders are immediately visible and those who stay for long routinely interrogated. I found it troubling that in the text, the author tries to make sense of the event by wondering whether it was the spectacles she wore or the full set of teeth she had that gave her away as a non-local outsider.

At points, I also found myself hungering for more interpretation. For example, at one point we get the gist of two fascinating stories that may be told in the evening around bonfires, but we do not get a sense of what these stories mean to the listeners, or how the author interprets them in relation to the Balti lifeworld that she inhabited and seeks to portray. Because of this lack of perspective and interpretation, one is not always convinced that the book is about uncovering silence. This is in sharp contrast to Urvashi Butalia’s pioneering work which is also titled The Other Side of Silence, and which provides a deep, revealing sense of how women experienced the multiple violences of Partition.

Finally, the references in the book range from Lila abu Lughod’s ethnography on Bedouin women to Rory Stewart’s travels across Afghanistan. In this part-anthropology, part-travelogue approach, a reference that seems conspicuously missing is Helena Norberg-Hodge’s work on the neighbouring region of Ladakh. Because of the similar regional context as well as the shared substantive concern with women’s lives and social relationships in a rapidly changing traditional setting, Norberg-Hodge’s research would have provided a significant and enriching parallel for Azhar-Hewitt. Overall, The Other Side of Silence remains a relevant and illuminating account of women’s life and work in Baltistan, particularly at a time when developmentalist claims about women’s status in northern Pakistan have often become embedded in imperialist politics.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Habib University

The Other Side of Silence: The Lives of Women in the Karakoram Region


By Farida Azhar-Hewitt

iUniverse, Canada

ISBN 9781450287685

236pp. Price not listed

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