By Khaled Ahmed
Jyoti Malhotra writing in Pakistani daily The News in 2016 told us how the Shah Bano case in India in 1985 had highlighted the plight of a Muslim wife given “three talaqs” and driven out of her home by her husband. After the Supreme Court of India ruled in her favour, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi got cold feet and passed a law which made three talaqs legal. Now in 2017, the Supreme Court has finally made sure that another woman, Shayara Bano, is not treated the way Shah Bano was and has annulled the “three talaqs” slapped on her.
Back in 1985, I recall only one Pakistani scholar with guts enough to say in writing that “teen talaq” was not strictly Quranic, but it didn’t register with a population delighted with the “punishment” of Shah Bano. The gender inequality lying at the root of this custom of divorce has since grown and is considered an edict of Islam. In Pakistan, the current crisis for the woman forced to leave her home and study or work is harassment, and violence, if this harassment is protested by her.
Foreigners who visit Pakistan often don’t get to meet Pakistani women but when they do they become aware of how culturally superior to men they are. In college and university exams, girls get all the top positions since long and there is nothing the male-dominated state can do about it. But the woman as a mother, sister and wife continues to be treated shabbily till she can no longer have any positive influence on her offspring. The quality of Pakistani men has suffered because of the poor quality of life of the Pakistani mother and is growing worse as the ideological state hurtles towards its male-dominated dystopia.
Oxford University Press Pakistan has celebrated the 70th anniversary of a backward-marching Pakistan by publishing Kicking up Dust, a book by Azra Abbas who did her MA in Urdu before teaching at a college in Karachi. A Shia Muslim, she is married to novelist-poet, Anwer Sen Roy. In 1981, she published her stream-of-consciousness poetry Neend ki Musafatain (Journeys of Sleep)’ which is now translated and presented by Samina Rahman.
There is pain in Azra Abbas’s unembellished prose-poems: “There is a silent, running battle going on with my mother over her passionate love for my brothers/She visibly showers them with her love. I fret silently as she saves more food for them/Buys more clothes for them, blows on them after saying her prayers to ward off the evil eye/ I try to do all that my brothers do/I play like them and study more than they do/ but her lack of concern for me and my other sisters is evident.
“I remember one day my brother sleeping on the bed next to mine/I hear my mother say, ‘Look how he sleeps, just like father.’/I wake up as she says these words/I see my brother sleep in the same pose that I had been in but my mother has eyes only for him/That day I lay for a long time in that position/Maybe my mother will notice me sleeping like my father.”
The most moving scene depicted by Azra Abbas is at the Shia ritual of Majlis where the martyrs of the family of Prophet Muhammad PBUH are remembered. The call is “where is Ali Asghar” in Karbala, and not for any woman in the family: “It is not for the first time that I am hearing sounds of lamentation/I often accompany my mother to these majalis/My mother also reads the tragic verses in her deep, emotion packed voice/But tonight the voice penetrates my sleep/As a dark night descends from a dark sky, it forcibly pushes its way into my consciousness.
“I gently remove my hand from my mother’s clasp and escape the confines of the side-screens/There is a crush of people making my mother oblivious to everything/People outside are holding large religious banners/Here are lots of people/I am dodging between their legs/A man is holding something in his hand/Weeping as he reads/I start weeping as well/ People are looking at me/There is a group of very young boys holding small banners/They are all off to somewhere/I am surrounded by a circle of sounds/I grab a banner from one of the boys/‘Give it to me’. He is amazed/Someone comes up to me and says. ‘You are a girl/A girl cannot hold an alam (flag)’
Last message in the poem “Untie my hands”: “Untie my hands before the tumult of judgment day/let me gather my tatters around me/procure sustenance for my children for the last time/and drink from the poison cup/Let my shackles be opened.”
Indian Express, September 9, 2017