September Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

Attiya Dawood, who has been hailed as the “most important feminist writer in Sindhi” by Sindhi poet Shaikh Ayaz, traces her inclination towards feminism all the way back to her childhood in a Sindhi village, when, while playing “House,” she would insist, despite the protestations of her friends, on playing the role of a woman which was unheard of in their world — a strong, independent woman who had the freedom to choose her own path in life. While other children assumed the conventional roles of the overbearing husband or the meek wife who wouldn’t leave the house without her husband’s permission, Attiya would defiantly insist on playing a woman who could drive a car, have a job and go to the market on her own.

In her autobiography, Images in My Mirror, which has been translated from Urdu by former OUP editor Amina Azfar, Attiya narrates many incidents and anecdotes such as the one above, which offer a glimpse into the ways life in her village and beyond has influenced her writings on the oppression of women in Pakistani society. Her memoirs are filled with different characters with their own stories; people around Attiya whose lives helped shape her views on misogyny and bias against women. From the joyful eight-year-old child-bride who refuses to stop playing with the other children despite her husband’s beatings, to the hostel roommate in Hyderabad who desperately wants to leave behind her village life, these characters represent the struggles of many Pakistani women.

In her narrative, Attiya relates the customs and traditions of Sindh — and of Pakistan in general — and the subtle ways in which they target women. One example was the event of the birth of Attiya’s niece. Being a young child herself and overjoyed with the news, Attiya bought candy and distributed it among the village children. The children were amused and surprised that sweets were being distributed at the birth of a girl and a relative quickly intervened by saying that the sweets were a form of “sadqa” because the baby was sick, and not a token of celebration. It was incidents such as these which made Attiya realize, from a young age, the disparity in the way men and women are treated in our society.

The book also provides a unique insight into the hierarchy of castes which exists in Pakistan’s rural areas. While this caste system is not as pronounced in urban areas, it is very much prominent in Pakistan’s villages, where people are known by the caste they belong to and are treated accordingly. Attiya herself experiences this when mistakenly thought to belong to the highest caste, the Saiyids (descendants of the Holy Prophet), a woman touches her feet in reverence. The caste you belong to is closely related to the profession of your family, and Attiya belonged to the Mullah family whose ancestral profession was religion. This was a caste higher than most, as was implicit in the tradition of the other families giving food to the Mullah family. Attiya’s descriptions of the different relationships under this caste system are an interesting glimpse into the dynamics of village life.

Attiya describes herself as a rebel from a young age, a headstrong and defiant girl who constantly struggled to break free from the claustrophobic atmosphere of village life. Through sheer determination and persistence, she achieved her dream of being an economically and socially independent woman after years of struggle. In this book, in a simple narrative style, Attiya has managed to interweave her own personal history with a study of Pakistani rural life and the oppression of women in Pakistani society. For this reason, Images in My Mirrorshould be read as much more than just one woman’s struggle to break away from society’s crippling traditions and customs.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2012 issue under the heading “Rebel in the Ranks.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.