Photo credit: Flickr / Helmuts Rudzītis

Beware of the buffalo gals in us

I am 42 years old. I am a middle-class Pakistani woman of Pashtun, Punjabi and Sindhi origin, born and raised in the Persian Gulf. Since I was a little girl my gender presentation has confused people, especially men. With my short hair, I’m often stared at in ladies public washrooms, and subjected to subtle body shaming in the public, mostly by men. I’m over-weight and have a mild to extreme temper. In medical terms, I’m borderline bipolar. I’m single. I live in Lahore, as a tenant.

Overtly conscious of section 377 and 295c of the Pakistani constitution and my under-privileged social class and gender, I’ve learnt to remain silent about my sexuality, and my views on marriage or religion. I’ve been in therapy for PTSD due to rape, sexual abuse and violence for nearly a decade, and currently I am in my second year of medicine-free therapy.

I learnt feminism at home, or at least, it started for me there: the unequal gender relations within marriage – where the man earns, and the woman cooks and bears children. I’ve seen the exploitation of family honour by relatives, yeh Hindustani, yeh Punjabi rivalries, paedophile uncles, and alcoholics with violent, predatory tendencies towards children. I’ve seen them and escaped them all, in silence, with abbu’s science magazines.

On the other hand, I am witness to the all-women’s savings group my daadi ran at her small house in Punjab (may God rest her soul). She survived two of my grandfather’s step-wives, and lived without a husband all her life. She voted for Benazir Bhutto in the first wave of elections after Zia ul Haq’s well-deserved death.

Amma, the woman who cooked and bore children, strongly believed in corporal punishment for writing and speaking Urdu and English poorly and bad hygiene. She was 18 when my parents had me. Like my daadi, amma also has a good habit of saving money for the bad times, and balances chequebooks better than abbu. She supported the entire family when our father lost his job, bought a car for my youngest sister, renovated our entire house and garden, and bought me an e-motorcycle for my 37th birthday. Half of my mother’s family was in Delhi, before Partition. For us, coming to Pakistan in 1995 was a traumatizing migratory journey. We lost all our belongings at sea, and for two years, we had no house of our own. I was 18. It took us quite a while to rebuild our lives.

None of the first generation women in our family have had a college education, or jobs outside of home. They never warned us about rape, sexual abuse or sexual violence. Perhaps there were no terms for these in Urdu, Hindko or Punjabi? Or Perhaps Zina had been hijacked and demonized by Zia’s Hudood Ordinance?

I’ve been collecting oral histories with The 1947 Partition Archive (The Archive, for short) for four years. I found the project by accident in late 2013 while working on a paper on Punjabi feminism, which focused on the story of Heer Ranjha. In early 2014, I attended the oral history workshop from my parents’ home while nursing the flu. My workshop instructor was the founding executive director Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla herself. When she walked me through the literature, through the pre-Partition and Radcliffe maps of South Asia, my world suddenly became a beautiful version of my childhood home.

Joining The Archive full time happened for two reasons.

One: My naani hurled beautiful insults and abuses at me for asking her for an interview so late. She was one of the first people I’d reached out to in Karachi. Partition had always been a subject close to her heart. None of us had ever paid heed to her stories as kids. I interviewed her in December 2014, a dark month for students, as teachers and families of the army public school in Peshawar were butchered mercilessly by Taliban militants.

Two: A month after Dr. Bhalla’s workshop in Karachi, I met the late Sabeen Mahmud in person for the first time. In spite of not knowing each other personally, she invited me to interview her 98 year old naani Zohra Fazal, at her residence. Her very words were ‘I’d be honored if you’d do it.’ Essentially, Sabeen was the first to confirm the first interview, which did not happen at the time as I was up against deadlines for a UNESCO project. I interviewed Sabeen’s naani in February 2015. I learnt that she’d been an active nurse treating leprosy patients in Karachi, perhaps the first Pakistani woman from Bombay. Moreover, her daughter Mahenaz, Sabeen’s mother, was born and educated in Bangladesh and was the same woman who’d drafted the Pakistan Education Policy in 2005. This was my seventh interview as a volunteer. This one, which Sabeen and I recorded together, was an epiphany for me to join The Archive’s Story Scholarship Program, which I did in June 2015.

In the midst of recording the oral histories of Partition witnesses in Karachi, Multan, Lahore, Islamabad, Swat, Buner and Peshawar, Sabeen was murdered for being in love and for raising her voice for the Baloch people, who are marginalised by the state. Qandeel Baloch was honour-killed by her own brother for daring to be an independent working woman from lower-middle class Punjabi family. Lala Rukh also passed away, and lastly, Asma Jahangir, our hero for children’s and minority’s rights, also breathed her last.

I’ve contributed close to 270 stories to The Archive, organized four seminars with several other story scholars and citizen historians, two in Lahore, one in Sukkur, and helped to organize one in Karachi. They are not just stories: they are subaltern narratives of history from people of all faiths, genders and socio-economic backgrounds.  It hasn’t been easy getting there.

It’s tough to record a story when concerned elderly people in former positions of power tend to take vulgar liberties with you: verbally, by forcing you take your winter cap off to see your hair, or threatening to set dogs on you if you speak too loud for instance. These are issues we are not trained to deal with, but which we work out from personal experience – such as mine with a former elderly landlord. He had a photo of himself, giving a big fat hug to Zia ul Haq in his drawing room. There were no similar pictures of his wife, children or grandchildren. I witnessed this on the day Asma Jahangir had died. I lost a part of my sanity that day.

This is my last year collecting stories with The Archive. I’m preparing to record my 300th. The timing couldn’t have been better. Spring began in Lahore with the Aurat March, with so many Urdu colloquial terms reclaimed by feminism’s younger champions from Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Hopefully, there will be fewer traumas and more dramas to deal with now, if my heart can take it.