In Review

‘The portrait of a lady’

Published 08 Apr, 2019 12:13am
A young girl plucking chillies in a field | Danial Shah
A young girl plucking chillies in a field | Danial Shah

Having grown up in Lahore, Aysha Baqir is a self-confessed introvert who was taken to an anti-Zia protest by her mother. The protest served as a defining moment of Aysha’s life.

“A blind woman had been raped by her employer and his son and she was sentenced to jail and lashes,” remembered Aysha, while speaking at the launch of her book at the Lahore Literary Festival. Driven by a need to fight off the patriarchy silencing women, Aysha found herself on a journey where she lived and worked amongst the rural women of Pakistan and set up Kaarvan Crafts Foundation.

Aysha’s work with village women gave her a perspective free of preconceived notions of rural life. Much to her surprise, the women Aysha interacted had resilience built in them as a way of life. She witnessed a raw kind of love made on a foundation of sisterhood, humour and friendship – not too different from the urban women who had formed Aysha’s world.

Years later, having migrated to Singapore, Aysha found the time to look back upon all those moments, making her sit down and write — drawing upon the well of memories and experiences that defined her as a person. The result of those memories is a beautiful book called Beyond the Fields.

The story is set in the 1980s. Twin sisters – Zara and Tara – are growing up in a village. Their world turns upside down when one of the sisters gets raped. But the story Aysha manages to tell is much bigger. Tara and Zara serve as mirrors for societal expectations from girls and women.

The sisters’ tale is a comment on alternate reality for one of the sisters, if she decides to take control of her destiny. Tara character symbolises submission, silence and suffering — her role is merely to exist and serve. She gets kidnapped and raped, but the matter is brushed under the carpet with her marriage to a ‘respectable’ man. But the secret gets out with a newspaper clipping and her life – or her marriage – now is in jeopardy.

To save her sister, Zara sets off on a path to seek justice for Tara. On her journey, she discovers a network of men and women who support, educate, advise and eventually help her achieve her goal.

Though the narratives are different, both sisters are subjected to physical and mental trauma and have very few avenues for protection as a result of government decisions. This is where Aysha ties her own perspective on the draconian Hudood Ordinance with her experience of working with rural women.

The running theme of the novel is survival and Aysha aptly captures the varying struggles faced by women in our society. The rural women who have little besides their honour and the rural-urban migrants who end up oppressing their own gender to earn, both find a voice in this book. The sisterhood that exists beyond borders is an unspoken recognition of the universal fight against patriarchy. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the book is the comparison between urban and rural women. Where poor rural women have a strong network of neighbours and family in times of their joy and sorrow, the city ‘begums’ live a lonely, isolated life — a luxurious but empty life, much like Tara’s.

Aysha, through these narratives tries to explore which woman is freer — the rural or the urban one? Is an urban woman with all her wealth, education and freedom less susceptible to the numbing force of patriarchy?

Ultimately, Beyond the Fields is a story of hope, the glorious possibilities of progress if a girl is given a fair chance at living her life as she wants. At one point in the novel, Zara wonders if she will ever go beyond the endless fields stretching out in front of her. Every girl at some point has asked herself if she can go beyond the realm of misogynistic and patriarchal fields laid out in front for her.

Aysha’s message is simple: there is life and so much more beyond the fields of despair.

The writer has been a columnist for The Daily Mail. She has worked as features editor at The Friday Times and assistant editor at Good Times.