For some time I have been raiding bookstores trying to find autobiographies by South Asian women. Not someone else telling you stories of women they know – but a woman telling her own story.
For this is what we really need to know. What goes on in the head and heart of that woman who grows up in and survives such violently misogynist societies? Societies where daughters are unwanted. Where women are brutalized and killed. A girl growing up even in the most progressive family on the Indian subcontinent still lives in context of a culture where the mindset says that being female is like being nothing.
The strange thing is – you will hardly find any such books. Why? Because in south Asian societies it is taboo for women to speak out. Family and community are sacred – and what happens within must remain hidden. As girls grow up they are taught to tolerate pain and rejection. They are taught to hide the abuse they suffer or witness others suffer, from the outside world. It makes them the “good” daughters and “ideal” wives!
Attiya Dawood breaks all these rules in her autobiographical account – Aine ke Samne (Looking into the Mirror). She speaks from the heart with passion and an uncommon candor. She shares the pain, humiliation and vulnerability she had to learn to survive, growing up fatherless in a small village in Pakistan. She tells of the grit and determination she needed to assert her self in life, and validate her own dreams, hopes and visions. Where society would rather have her play the preordained roles of good daughter, mother and wife, – what Dawood insists on repeatedly is : but I am first a person.
I think this is what I admired most in this book. This stand – of being an individual independent of all other relations, is something that Asian women are never allowed. I remember watching this interview once of a world famous Indian woman author. She spoke of how she used to write only when her children were away from home. When she heard them coming back she would hurriedly hide her writings, because she did not want her children to feel that they were secondary to her own creative work. And Dawood, also a very content wife and mother, claims this very part of her – her core, her Self, in its wholeness, uniqueness and creativity with an attitude that is bold and unapologetic. In her her poem ‘To My Daughter’ Dawood writes:
Even if they brand you a “kari”
And condemn you to death,
Then choose death, but live to love.
Don’t sit pretty in the show-case of respectability
You must live to love.
In the desert of thirsty desires
Don’t be like a cactus, but live to love.
Will it inspire other Asian women to do the same? It seems that is what Dawood hopes for – and hopefully it will.
However by the end of the book — I had one burning question that remains. Why is it that some women rebel against systems that crush their spirits and negate their very existence, while a majority of women submit and comply? Dawood did not have any role-models or encouragement. In fact her meager upbringing hardly afforded her any opportunities in life. But even as a child she showed immense resistance to any form of tyranny. Then why is it that women even with education and income, completely and willingly relinquish all sense of self?
My Favorite Passages From This Book:
[Some women] toss all their dreams into the stove, set them on fire, and use it to prepare tea for their so-called progressive husbands.
Who could I ask to pay my dowry? Had my father been alive, perhaps I could have made my claims on him. But then I think why should one feel entitled to getting a dowry from one’s parents just for being a girl? Or for that matter why should one even expect a mehr (bride wealth) from them? I am a capable person. I can work for my living. I can buy my own clothes and food and be self-sufficient. I did not want to spend my life being shunted from one man’s shoulder to another’s like a piece of life-less flesh. So when I got married I refused to accept either dowry or mehr.
When I read the nikahnaamah (marriage vows), I was in for a shock. The things we were required to say, enraged me. The language, the wordings were humiliating. The groom concedes to give pocket-money to his wife? He grants her right to divorce? What kind of a mind-set was this? Who uses this kind of language? Had I read the nikahnaamah before the wedding I would have never agreed to a Muslim ceremony. I would have married Abro in some other way – or perhaps just decided to live in with him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Attiya Dawood is a much acclaimed poet, writer and women’s rights activist from Pakistan. She has numerous publications to her credit, and writes mostly in Sindhi. She draws inspiration from her own traumatic girlhood experiences of an upbringing in rural Sindh. However her poetry is more than creative expression. For Dawood it is revolution — a tool for challenging society with and provoking its change. It is the creative fire that she carries into the work she does with the Women’s movement in Pakistan. Amrita Pritam had said of her “Attiya is a real poet..I would like to write her in Hindi and Punjabi.”
Dawood has been bestowed with the prestigous Sindhi Adeeb Award from Akhal Bharti Sindhi Boli and Sahtya Sabha at Bombay. For more on her life, works, and interviews go to www.attiyadawood.com