Circles of Women 22 April 2008Posted by Ayesha Mattu in BARAKA, Culture, Relationships.
Before we moved to Pakistan in the mid-80s we used to visit the extended clan, many of whom were feudal zameendar (landowners) outside of Lahore, every year.
I ran through the twisting narrow village streets jumping over buffalo tails, goats, and chickens with a gaggle of raggedy urchins at my heels.
I went to the tubewell to see the water being pumped out to feed mustard, wheat, or rice fields depending on the season.
And I read books sitting on the deep windowsill in the room where my mother grew up, dreaming as surely as she had all those years ago, watching the sunset and listening to the adhan (call to prayer) mixing with the sounds of animals coming home from pasture.
The village girls who played with us – Bina, Naz, Parveen, and Toti – taught us games, ganay and galiyan (songs and curses) and they would also inevitably share their lice with us at some point on our trip.
In our antiseptic US culture lice are horrific. They aren’t a picnic in Pakistan either, but they are indications of people, life, and dirt all jostling up against each other and rubbing literal shoulders. The lines of sanitation and class get very blurry here at times – just as they do in the grave.
Time gilds the oddest memories – looking back some of my golden moments are of my khalas (maternal aunts) and mumanis (maternal uncles’ wives) picking lice out of our long black hair.
They’d haul us out into the sunlight of the enclosed courtyard, sit us on peeris (stools), and pick through our hair, nonchalantly crushing any lice that they found scampering about between their nails and picking off the eggs clinging to individual hairs too.
Then they’d oil our hair thoroughly and brush it with a fine-tooth comb without once losing their indulgent smiles.
What I remember about those days most isn’t the stinging smelly medicinal shampoos we had to use afterwards until our scalps showed pinkly clean, but the conversations that my khalas and mumanis engaged in, the laughter, gossip and good-natured ribbing as exhausted women found respite and camaraderie.
We’d sit at their feet squirming at first and then become slowly hypnotized by the warmth of the sun and the soothing motion of fingers through hair.
Eventually it seemed they’d forget how young we were and the conversation would move from child-friendly topics of recounting who had the biggest lice ever when they themselves were girls and which child had the most now, to the nature of possession supernatural, material, and of the heart, and whispered speculation on deaths, madness and pregnancies in the village.
They were a circle of women telling us stories about what it meant to be a woman in that day and age – of the boundaries, happiness, secrets and sadness inherent to womanhood.
They told tales of women who shouted their labor pain into muffling granaries because a woman’s voice mustn’t be heard outside of her home.
Of women who dressed up as men and escaped into the night with their lovers to achieve freedom and were never heard from again, living only as a spark of possibility in the lowered eyes of the women left behind.
Of women who were widowed young and stood up to protect their children from the inheritance vultures…and who fasted till their bodies and fleshly desires were eaten away because remarriage was not an honorable option.
Of women who dishonored their families by becoming pregnant out of wedlock, were taken away for a time and came home childless. (No one ever asked what became of those children.)
We were just kids listening in, barely comprehending, half-hearing possible futures but often just thinking about playing baraf pani (freeze tag) as soon as we were done.
On a subsequent trip to the village I approached the front door to go out and play. My Mamu (maternal uncle) barred the way in typical dramatic Punjabi fashion, saying that I had become a woman and could no longer go out without a chador, nor was I to mingle with my playgroup anymore. (‘ You women, “you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things”’ his unyielding hand seemed to say as I tried to get around him.) Instead I was to amuse myself by playing quietly indoors with my four older, patakhi (fiery) but well-bred cousins.
I was 11 on the day that I became a woman in his eyes.
Those illiterate village girls whom I had played with and now only saw when they were working around the house: one had a pressure cooker on a wood fire blow up in her face, another died in childbirth, a third became pregnant out of wedlock and was married off to a decrepit old man because she had lost the one thing that gave her worth, and the fourth eventually married and had enough children to weary her once-young body.
I think about them sometimes and wonder at how different our lives are, lives that intersected briefly years ago when we were all children who didn’t know better, girls I shared lice with. (Bugs suck our flesh equally and will again someday.)
I think about the women in my extended family more often, knowing that for them being a woman often means being dukhi (sorrowful). Centuries of biting one’s tongue, being patient, forced to bend one’s neck in submission not to God but to a man, an idol, a majazi-khuda (god on earth/husband) has culminated in me, my sisters, and female cousins: a generation of women who study religious and secular texts here and abroad, have the choice to work inside and outside of the home, marry whom we please, and explore a world that our foremothers may have been too harried to even dream about.
In spite of (because of?) their suffering they maintained their iman (faith) in God and attained a spirituality I can only aspire to.
Too often, I forget where I come from (‘Why teach a girl to read? She will only dishonor us by writing love letters.’) and what a great gift all of my opportunities are.
My youngest Khala who is visiting us in Islamabad right now saw our cook itching her head and, fearing we all might be infected with that childhood bug, dragged us outside to sit in the sun as she picked through our hair.
We three sisters are all in our thirties now and it was funny and strange to sit before her so. Memories of other times, village times, that I’d forgotten came tumbling forth…I have heard so many stories and learned so many things while sitting at the feet of women.
By barring the door my Mamu reaffirmed that some types of freedom remain the domain of men, but one thing that he could not take away from me, and probably cared nothing about, was the knowledge of the secret, interior life of women.
Often a reluctant participant in that circle of women, it took me years to realize that while politics, international affairs, and other (predominantly male) pursuits are important, they are often considered the only topics worthy of serious discussion.
But the study of relationships, creativity, spirituality, aesthetics, and personal landscapes, the underlying, intertwined “female” aspects of life if you will, are just as consequential.
I am just one woman, one stone dropped in a vast pool and that line between the personal and the political is one I keep smudging in remembrance of the generations of women radiating in circles behind and beyond me.
I stand on their shoulders as surely as you do. Remain firm for the women who will climb up onto us in turn.
– From the collection Safarnama: The Republic of Tea 2006