The Upstairs Wife,An Intimate History of Pakistan:A real tapestry

In 1947, when India was partitioned and Pakistan was carved out, many crossed the border with the dream of living in what was supposed to be ‘their’ country but, till today, they are regarded as Mohajirs (migrants) because religion per se is not the only criterion of social bonding. Soon after 1947 other primordial identities replaced religion and social conflicts started on their basis. It is not that those who did not go to Pakistan in 1947 were satisfied. In the following decades, some were forced to change their decision due to socio-political developments in India. Seismic after effects of the brutality of 1947 was so long and powerful that Muslims, after getting news or a rumour about occurrence of communal riots even in far flung areas, took the risk of crossing into alien land. This two-way process of group migration continued till the 1960s. Hindus too fled from Pakistan due to the violence and discrimination practiced against them. However, many people from these groups could not use their discretion because they had neither money nor relatives across these sovereign borders. Rafia’s grandparents, who had links in Pakistan, migrated from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Karachi in 1961. Though she has not mentioned communal riots as a factor influencing her grandparents’ decision to change their country, it cannot be completely ruled out.

In this book, Rafia has talked about embedded patriarchal values, predicaments of migrants and the political journey of Pakistan. Though these are different themes, they are interwoven. Socially, the migrants who came to Sindh in 1947 and afterwards were never accepted by the local people. Their cultural traits, which are not based on religious homogeneity, were different from the Sindhis. As a result, ethnic tensions between the two began. The government of Pakistan did not take effective steps to manage the situation; instead, one group was used against the other. Socio-economic tensions further exacerbated after the Pathans from Afghanistan entered Karachi. They first came as refugees, turned into warriors against atheists and finally started showing an interest in the truck business, which was dominated by the Mohajirs. Culmination of many such factors has led to ethnic violence between the Pakhtuns and Mohajirs. One of the difficulties the migrants faced in those initial days was in receiving a domicile certificate that, as Rafia mentions, is a necessary document to obtain the green signal to take the ninth grade exam administered by the Board of Education, Sindh government. During the formative days of Pakistan these kinds of exclusive policies led to the development of feelings of alienation among the majority of Mohajir youth, which has been exploited by different stakeholders to unleash violence.

The other pertinent issue raised by Rafia is about the patriarchal structure, which is a political institution now sanctioned by religious practices and with social acceptance. The plight of women is considered to be a private affair but it is a political programme through which one gender controls the activities of the other. It defines values and sets up norms to control and regulate the body of women. This control and regulation becomes strong in conflict-affected societies where the level of violence is high. The stronger group tries to abduct and carry out violence against women from other communities while the minority, in the name of protection of its ‘honour’, puts all forms of restrictions on their women and carries out violence against them within their own community.

One of the most celebrated acts of women, according to patriarchical norms, is to give birth to a male child. If she fails in doing so, she is taunted for being non-fertile. In polygamous communities, a male is allowed to abandon his non-fertile wife and re-marry so that he can have a son as his heir. In many such cases, the first wife is entirely abandoned or even thrown out of the house. Rafia’s aunt, Amina Appa, was abandoned but allowed to live as a half-wife in the same building. Her husband married another woman because he found her ‘infertile’ though his second wife too failed to procreate. These patriarchal norms also regulate the body of so-called powerful women. If they want to acquire a public space they have to make compromises and adjustments to fit into the set structures. Benazir Bhutto, after she became prime minister of Pakistan, had to wear so-called ladylike dresses and keep her head covered in public appearances. In parliament she had to ignore many gestures and taunts (especially when she was pregnant) made at her by male members. Other than her, Fatima Jinnah, who presided over many functions as first lady of Pakistan in 1947 and 1948, led a reclusive life in Mohatta Palace.

Through the eyes of Amina Appa, Rafia has sketched a portrait of Pakistan some may not like but one that is important and timely nonetheless.


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