Women from the other frame

Halfway through my interview with Fatima Bhutto — the high-profile Pakistani author — we had moved into expansive terrain — beyond the book and its characters. We had negotiated our way into the nucleus of her story’s origins — the North West Frontier Province. Her fiction debut — The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, is already earning rave reviews across the globe for its truthful depiction of this area. As one of the many who has completed reading it, the biggest takeaway (for me) was the insightful window into the life and times of women in that part of the world — an area often forgotten and dubbed a danger zone, where skewed reportage rarely portrays the real picture.

What was refreshing to learn was how this same region was in reality, home to several empowered women who exhibited immense courage, thought independently, and were allowed to carry on with their work and calling. Bhutto admitted that she too had her set of apprehensions about the area. She recalled how her mindset did a complete U-turn when she travelled to the Kalash Valley in North Pakistan. This valley is home to descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. Right there, she was amazed to note that this area followed the matriarchal system! “I came with my prejudices,” she shared, of “how people here were scary, and oppressed their women…” But she learnt, eventually during her time there, that not only were the women here empowered, but they also played a huge role in the community building and the society at large.

These women had even voted in General Elections since the 1970s. It’s difficult to believe for most of us, fed on TV footage and reams of newsprint, of this other world, tucked away in some remote, hilly region that shares its borders with Afghanistan, and where grenades and rocket launchers are part of the daily lingo. All of these goings-on moulded the emergence and evolution to make for fascinating reading of Bhutto’s women characters — who she admits, were her favourites in her book.

This eye-opener, of incorrect notions about women across South Asia, will come as a slap on the face of the archetypal Western view. Ironically, it is this region that produced the world’s first democratic women leaders; this evoked a warm chuckle between interviewer and subject, “Look at America or any of the countries in the Western Hemisphere — where are their women leaders? And, to think that they define women in South Asia by such trivial factors, and dub them as submissive,” she remarked. It was true. She had reminded us of a huge, fat lie that the West has and continues to paint about women in this part of the world.

Bhutto, like many other South Asian authors, wants her writing to do the talking — about educating, engaging and opening up new windows to the rest of the world about such misgivings and wrong imagery of our women. The more such voices emerge, the better. South Asia’s strong women could do with better PR.

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY 

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