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Talking Policy: Rafia Zakaria on Pakistan

A renowned attorney, political philosopher, and human rights activist, Rafia Zakaria works on behalf of victims of domestic violence and serves as a director for Amnesty International U.S.A. Her writing is featured in the latest issue of World Policy Journal, where she critiques the coverage of honor crimes in the West. In her recent work, The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Zakaria weaves together the memories of her family with episodes of the country at large that, together, “reclaim the story of Pakistan for its women.” Oscillating between democracy and martial law since its inception, Pakistan’s government presents a nationalist narrative that edifies the military and those currently in power. Rebelling against this predominately male narrative, Zakaria paints a story of Pakistan with women, such as her grandmother and Benazir Bhutto, at the forefront. World Policy Journal’s Erin Bryk sat down with Zakaria to discuss the themes of The Upstairs Wife, including Pakistan’s ideological struggle with marriage, the consequences of migration on ethnic politics, and the country’s “war on public space.”

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You’ve previously expressed that you wanted to “reclaim the story of Pakistan for its women” with The Upstairs Wife, so I wanted to start out by asking you how you did this.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: History is a point of contention. Even when you’re young, you get different strands of history in a country that has oscillated between democracy and martial law: There is one history in your textbook, another from your grandparents, and a third in Pakistan’s free press. I grew up mostly around my mother, grandmother, and aunt; I went to an all-girls school. But that world was not at all reflected in any literary narrative that I encountered. As a writer, I wanted to show these different versions of Pakistan that exist all together. I wanted to write a book that I wish I had growing up that connected what was happening around me to the lives of women who had come before me.

And then, of course, the larger, more ambitious idea I had was that if I could write about Pakistan in this way—primarily through the stories of women—I could reclaim its history. This is important because women in Pakistan are marginalized. My book was a rebellion against that. It was a rebellion that I could tell the story of this country, of my country, entirely through the perspective of women.

Additionally, one of my worries—and perhaps the worry of a lot of people that come from small countries that, like Pakistan or Afghanistan, are at the periphery of global consciousness—is that there is no depth of understanding. Pakistan appears flat. It’s heartbreaking that most people’s association with Pakistan is either terrorism, the Taliban, or nuclear weapons. I wanted to give American readers a prismatic, three dimensional look into Pakistan.

WPJ: Even though there were multiple histories you learned growing up, you wrote in the book that “there were things [you] did not know” as well. I’m interested in your process and how you went about writing this memoir. What did you grow up with? What did you learn only after interviews and research?

RZ: The government presents a very nationalist narrative that edifies the military and whoever is currently in power. The history we got in school was sanitized—sanitized and male. Until I started doing research on the genesis of the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, I had no idea that there was any effort to ban polygamy in Pakistan. I grew up in West Pakistan, not in Bangladesh—which at the time was East Pakistan. I never knew that women in Rokeya Hall, a women’s dorm at Dhaka University, had put up the sort of resistance they did in 1971, that they had been a part of the struggle for Bangladesh. In another case that I write about later on, Bushra Zaidi was killed in Karachi by a Pashtun bus driver. It was her death that began an entire era of politics in Pakistan, and in Karachi specifically, that was centered around ethnic identity.

WPJ: Gender roles, marriage, and polygamy are central to your aunt Amina’s plot, as well as the book in its entirety. How have Pakistan’s laws affected marriage, and particularly women?

RZ: When Pakistan was part of India prior to partition, polygamy was banned. Afterward, it was thought that polygamy in a Muslim, or majority Muslim, country should not be banned. The Muslim Family Law was passed and signed into law in 1961 by Ayub Khan, a military general who was not democratically elected. The law itself was a compromise, even though it did not incorporate a ban on polygamy. Under the law, a man could no longer divorce a woman just by saying “I divorce you” three times. There were now waiting periods and requirements to register that divorce. It tried to the extent it could to balance the marital relationship with the rights available to men and women.

Marriage is at the core—in a lot of ways—of the ideological struggle that Pakistan faces. The ordinance, which still governs marriage today, is constantly under attack by the Council of Islamic Ideology and various conservative clerics. Now, since the decade the law was passed, it’s been done away with more and more—to the point where the Council of Islamic Ideology has recently said that the government cannot place any limits on polygamy, that asking men to register is not right. The dynamics of the marital relationship are being altered under the larger premise of an Islamic republic and the burden of how Islamic Pakistan is has been squarely placed on the shoulders of Pakistani women.

People also ask me why there seems to be a disjoint between women and the country’s political tumult; that disjoint, for me, was intentional, because I wanted Pakistani women to consider this—why don’t we know that there was an effort to ban polygamy? Why don’t we know about the Zina and Hudood Ordinance? Why don’t we know about things until we’re suffering? My aunt, for instance, didn’t know what her marriage contract said; she didn’t know that was an effort to ban polygamy. My book poses the question to that generation: why aren’t women concerned about these laws that have implications for the way they live their lives?

WPJ: Speaking of the state of these laws that you just touched upon: do you see reform in the near future? And if not, what will it take for there to be change?

RZ: Things are changing. But they’re changing, perhaps, not in a way a feminist would hope or want. However, if changes come to Pakistan, I don’t really care how it happens. And the way it’s coming is primarily through demographics. Pakistan used to be primarily rural, but in the past 25 years it has transformed to a majority urban country. As the rate of urbanization has escalated, more women live in the cities. With this, two things happen: one) women are able to become economically, if not independent, at least productive outside the home a) because jobs are available and b) they need the money to survive. And two) they’re away from the familial structures (tribal, caste, all of that) that made up the moral architecture of their lives prior to migrating to the city. Urbanization is creating opportunities for women. If you go to Karachi, or Lahore, or Faisalabad, you will see women out and at work. For those women, the idea of better treatment is changing from the armchair discussion of whether you are a feminist or not to the pragmatic discussion of “You know … I have to get on this bus every day and I’m sick of these men that harass me.” That situation is good. It spurs women into taking a position not necessarily based on ideology, but on the reality of their everyday lives.

However, as women start to do more things that they didn’t before, it creates a vacuum and makes others in the society insecure about their own power. As women become part of the urban visual landscape, they have to fight every day to own that space and exist in it. There is an escalating rate of crimes against women in Pakistan. Change is coming in a more unexpected form, but it’s the next chapter for Pakistani women.

WPJ: Women are starting to break down the barrier between the public and the private domains and becoming more visible in Pakistani society. In your recent article about Qandeel Baloch’s murder, you stated that the celebrity’s murder was a reaction to the “power [that is] being displaced from the realm of men into the hands of women” on social media. In your opinion, how has the internet blurred the lines between these two domains in Pakistan, which remained so stark in The Upstairs Wife?

RZ: There are two reasons why Qandeel Baloch upset so many people and why she got so much attention—both when she alive, as well as her murder. First, of course, is that she was very, overtly sexual and sensual, and was not willing to buy the imposition that to exist in public space, you have to somehow make yourself asexual. The second is that the platform she used cannot, generally, be controlled by society. When half the population is not given its due share of safe public space, they are going to turn to other means and, for that reason, Pakistani women are very active on social media.

Baloch showed a way of using social media to both express and weaponize herself—that had not really been done before in Pakistan. She took pictures of herself with a cleric, showing how he behaved in private spaces when he thought no one was watching. He let her put on his hat, he flirted, he was close to her. She exposed a side of men that Pakistanis don’t believe exist. It is equivalent, in a sense, to the videos Americans are starting to see of how African American men are treated by the police. I think that Baloch’s strategy was just brilliant. The problem in Pakistan is that people who do not experience harassment have no idea what women endure. Almost everyone in Pakistan has a cellphone, so I am encouraging women to use videotape, audiotape, or photography to expose the men who harass them, just as Baloch did. Because that’s going to force male Pakistan to confront the issue of discrimination.

WPJ: Another one of the themes that you discuss in your book is migration—most notably with the story about Bushra and the Pashtun bus driver, and your brother’s struggle gaining a domicile. However, it isn’t a topic that you’ve provided much analysis on in interviews so far. Please explain the importance of migration in Pakistan and how the identity of muhajirs (refugees, immigrants) has affected ethnic politics in the country.

RZ: The larger issue is the burden of migration in general. It’s a political upheaval of the sort that partition was—a sudden and literal creation of a country. Regarding Bushra’s story and the muhajir struggle: with the creation of Pakistan, no one thought about the idea of belonging and how it was going to translate in reality. All these transplanted people were supposed to come together and make up a cohesive country. The expectations and political ideas we had about unity, about community, about independence clashed against the realities of human life. Pakistan, the physical land that came to constitute the country, is made up of people who lived in the region for hundreds of years—long before there was a Pakistan, long before there was a British empire. Their identity was tied up with the land they lived on. When millions of migrants, and Karachi is made of migrants, were imposed on this population, a fissure developed.

My family lived for generations in Bombay. Then all of the sudden they were in Karachi. People, like my grandparents, who had no experience with migration or transience, were expected to not only migrate, but also successfully take root in Pakistan. Karachi is a living experiment of the creation of community. What portions of it work? What should be rubbed out by time? Eventually, when enough generations are born in Karachi, they’ll come together because of their common birthplace. But, on the flip side: they’ll lose their memory of the political and ideological fervor that led to their ancestors’ migration. The loss of history is a good thing, because it erases the fissures that cause conflict, but it also alienates people from the story that lead them there. Karachi right now is bending towards Islamist and conservative ideas, because the original story of Pakistan—three generations after partition—is becoming increasingly tenuous to their reality. There is a search for a new ideology and answers to questions such as, “Why are we here?”

Pakistan is a mélange of many ethnic groups. There are five provinces, but there’s many, many more ethnic groups, languages; it’s a very diverse terrain. Because of its diversity, at least until very recently, voting and electoral politics has been pivoted on ethnicity. If you’re Punjabi, you’re likely to vote for a Punjab, and so on and so forth, which obviously puts the people who had migrated from India post-partition in a weird place. How do Indian muhajirs construct a political identity based on ethnicity when they are of many ethnicities? Who do they vote for?

That struggle continues to some extent today. Punjab is controlled by a Punjabi. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the northwest is primarily Pashtun; its provincial government is controlled by a Pashtun. Sindh is controlled by the People’s Party, a primarily Sindhi party. Ethnicity has been the dominant structure of Pakistani politics for the length of its existence—when we haven’t had martial law. What will endure is unknown, as we move more generations away from partition. Karachi used to be a city of muhajirs, but now there is a sizable portion of Pashtuns, who migrated from the northwest to escape the war. There are more Punjabis. In contemporary Pakistani politics, we’ve delayed the census for over 17 years. No one wants to know the reality of the ethnic change of the population, because it will cause a change in the power of various political parties.

WPJ: My final question relating to Pakistani politics: The Bhutto family served a large role in The Upstairs Wife, particularly Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was the “freest woman you knew.” I wanted to hear what you think the future holds for the family in politics, particularly her son, Bilawal.

RZ: Benazir’s legacy has become something apart from her life and is politically valuable. I’m sure her son will claim her, just as her husband did. It irks me to see this centralization of her family as the inheritors of her legacy. For me, one of the disappointing things about her party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, is that it doesn’t elect its leaders within the party. To some extent, I think Benazir herself benefited from the framework of a dynasty. However, given what the reality of what Pakistan is and how patriarchal it is, I would have to insist that there was still some value to having a woman as a leader. It represented that such a thing was possible for women.

I was fascinated with Benazir Bhutto, because she had been such a big political figure in the early years of my life. I traced her life in the book, because I struggled to evaluate her. Even today, there are parts of her life that I still don’t quite understand: why did she acquiesce to an arranged marriage? Why did she choose to make the compromises that she did? I also wanted to show—and I think this is particularly relevant to Americans right now—that when a woman leader triumphs over a lot of men and operates in a very patriarchal system, all women should in theory support her. But in reality, we don’t. Why is it hard for women to get behind another woman? What are the complications of this issue?

WPJ: You’ve hinted that your next book would explore a bit more of your own life. I’ll close by asking what you plan to explore in it.

RZ: I had to write The Upstairs Wife to look back at the tools, influences, people, ideas, and prejudices that were instrumental in my intellectual, spiritual, moral formulation, and, most importantly, in my idea of being a woman. I had an arranged marriage when I was 18, and that is definitely the next part of my story. But, I didn’t feel like I could write that story, my own story—why I chose that and to build the life that I live as a writer—if I didn’t first look back.  That’s definitely terrain I want to write about now.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Erin Bryk]

[Photo courtesy of Jeremy Hogan]

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