Questioning The “givens”: Stories From Pakistani Women
A review of “And the World Changed” an anthology of stories by Pakistani women, edited by Muneeza Shamsie and published by The Feminist Press
By Kathambi Kinoti
“And the World Changed” is an anthology of short stories from Pakistani women within Pakistan and in its diaspora. It is the first compilation of its kind in English, even though there is a long history of women’s writing from what is now Pakistan.
The book is an excellent read and gives a quick journey through the history and reality of Pakistan and the diaspora, seen from the eyes of women. A comprehensive review of 25 differently nuanced stories by 25 different talented writers is difficult but a few broad themes that characterise the collection will be discussed here. The stories are arranged in order from the oldest author to the youngest and this in many ways stresses the changing preoccupations of generations.
Change and the negotiation of new ways
The title of the book neatly summarises a theme that recurs throughout the book: the conflation of the old and the new, and the accompanying adaptations and tensions. The writers recall the transition from colonial times to independence in 1947, the Partition the same year, which saw Pakistan separate from India and the subsequent breaking away of Bangladesh in 1971.
With migration and the conflation of cultures, identities change and mutate. In Bina Shah’s “The Optimist” the characters illuminate the conceptual differences between generations in one migrant family. When a young woman, brought up in England, is incensed that her family has arranged a marriage for her without consulting her first, her father responds: “There’s no question of asking you.”
Commonalities and differences in the experiences and cultures of South Asians come to the fore in the first story in the anthology. A reunion in the United States brings up painful memories of Partition in Bapsi Sidhwa’s “Defend Yourself against Me,” which is the first story in the anthology. While in their new location in the United States to outsiders they may appear homogenous, in their flashbacks to Pakistan, their heterogeneity is prominent. Still, the superficiality of their religious and cultural differences is apparent. Commonality is highlighted in “Clay Fissures” in which differences between characters that were otherwise so stark pale in the face of an imminent natural disaster.
The straddling of cultures is another strong theme that appears throughout the anthology. In “A Pair of Jeans” by Quaisra Shahraz a young woman’s clothes are important in determining whether marriage plans go ahead or not. Her main character moves between the cultures of Pakistan and England. On one occasion, her tardiness in arriving home to take off her jeans and don her traditional clothes is extremely significant.
Soniah Kamal’s characters in “Runaway Truck Ramp” explore cross-cultural miscommunications, misunderstandings and sensitivities. As in “A Pair of Jeans,” the need for migrants to expertly navigate Northern and Eastern cultures is evident. In the Kamal’s story, one character introduces himself to a white American woman as Sulaiman. “But if you can’t pronounce it just call me Sully,” he says. When she asks whether it doesn’t offend him to have to change his name so that other people like her can pronounce it, he says “Offend no, feel sorry, yes.”
Muneeza Shamsie’s privileged Anglicised characters encounter the reality of racism when a legend that has grown about a relative portrays him as less than human; a caricature. It also juxtaposes the way the colonised view their former subjects against the former subjects’ point of view.
Challenging assumptions and stereotypes
Another very prominent theme in the book is the challenging by Pakistani women of stereotypes and norms. An English Egyptologist in Ahmad’s “Meeting the Sphinx” is constantly irritated by a Pakistani woman’s questioning of what to him are givens. The story challenges historical “facts.” The women in “Daughters of Aai” don’t deliberately set out to challenge anyone, but in their practical matter-of-fact way they effectively overturn assumptions about women’s powerlessness and blind deference to men. In this story, the women in a poor, rural community rally around a young woman with mental disabilities. They shatter popular misconceptions that women in settings like rural Pakistan are utterly and debilitatingly disempowered.
“Impossible Shade of Home Brew” challenges gender and sexuality identities. In “Rubies for a Dog” a young woman dresses like a man in order to undertake adventures that will save her father’s life. In doing this she defies her own father’s expectations of her. She describes herself as “a daughter who is very happy to be a woman now that she has shown what womankind can achieve.”
The stories in “And the world changed,” bring out nuanced narratives of the situation of Pakistani women in Pakistan and in the Diaspora. In the introduction to the book, the editor says that the goal of the anthology is to reveal how Pakistani women writers challenge stereotypes. It does this very well.
"And the World Changed" is edited by Muneeza Shamsie and published by in 2008 by The Feminist Press in New York.