May 13 2014
Author talks about positive changes in society and the forces sometimes ranged against them…
SEX is a battlefield – often with ideas and the need for social control at the very root of all arguments.
In Asia, it comes with far more religious and political baggage too, where the personal space is also intensely political and rarely just a matter of taste or preference.
Tonight, three women writers, who have all tackled the subject in some form or another, will share their thoughts and ideas at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in Central London in what promises to be a lively and spirited debate.
Among the trio is Moni Mohsin (pictured above), whose books are famed for their humour, acute social commentary, and insightful perspective on the life of the largely monied and privileged not just in Pakistan – but the sub-continent as a whole. A wife and mother, she divides her time between London and Pakistan.
She will be debating “Changing Sexual Mores” with Shereen el Feki, author of blockbuster “Sex and the Citadel” and Sally Howard, writer of “The Kama Sutra Diaries”.
Mohsin spoke to www.asianculturevulture.com ahead of the debate from London about the situation in Pakistan and how in one generation there has been considerable change and even progress but said also the battle continues.
“There is a very famous short story writer who is now in his 90s and moved from India to Pakistan after partition and he made a statement recently saying he had seen the growth of two forces since then.
“He said: ‘I have seen the Mullah grow in force and strength and I have seen women grow in force and strength’.
“If you think about it, there is a dialectical opposition there and they are on a collision course. And I think that is eventually going to be the big battle ground.”
While it might look like the Mullahs are winning, especially as Mohsin feels there has been a general global tilt towards greater conservatism, there has also been progress.
“I’ve read both books and although they talk about a depressing picture, there are always people trying to bring about change and sow small seeds and it takes time but it does happen.”
Her own family experience is almost a perfect example of this.
Mohsin and her sister were the only ones of her generation to attend university – in Moni’s case Cambridge.
Many of her contemporaries were confined to purdah, which meant being largely restricted to the house and unable to go out of their own accord or certainly not unaccompanied – and wearing a burka was also fairly obligatory.
“My grandmother lived in complete purdah and a lot of my cousins growing up did purdah. I didn’t – my mother came from the city and my father didn’t believe in it. We used to cover our heads when we went to the village but never wore burkas,” Moshin told www.asianculturevulture.com
What is fascinating is that within a generation that changed and her grandmother, matriarch that she was, (and raised in purdah) approved of the change and growing independence of Moni and her sister.
“When my sister returned from university she told my parents she wanted to marry of her own free will and will not have an arranged marriage and my grandmother said it is her right.
“She was a deeply conservative woman but she was also an enlightened one in her own way and she felt that women must get that chance to improve themselves.
“When my father decided to send my sister and I to university she was very pleased and it was very important to my grandmother that we got an education because she had felt the lack of it.”
Now – none of her contemporaries’ daughters are brought up in purdah.
“In one generation it’s changed completely, their daughters are all being educated and some of them work.”
There is little doubt that at one end of this debate economics is having a very direct impact on mores.
“The economic realities are such that in Pakistan a lot of women work and they have to work – particularly in working class families, if you don’t have two incomes, you can’t make ends meet.”
The migration from the village to the city has also aided that change and in another respect has given girls an added boost.
“Families send their girls to school, there are more schools in cities and it’s the done thing and once they’ve gone to school they are equipped to do a job.”
Moshin said many women were now going to college and securing employment and tending to marrying a bit later in their lives.
“It means they have fewer children and that has a knock-on effect.”
Even in some villages, girls were being routinely educated.
In her own family village in Shergarh in the District of Okara, about 60 miles from Lahore, the change has been profound.
“It is one of the very few villages where the literacy rate for women is higher than it is for men and there is a trust there that runs the school.
“They graduate and come back to the school to teach and they have got jobs. They have set up small businesses – there is a beautician, (women-run) tailor shops and pharmacists, they have become quite independent.”
For some men, of course this developing independence is a threat and goes to the very heart of (patriarchal) control.
Commentators have suggested the violence towards women is an expression of this loss of control and an attempt to reassert it.
Mohsin painted a very compelling picture where a certain kind of man trying hard to sustain a living is sometime gravely irritated by his wife’s growing independence.
“There is a kind of macho environment where men are supposed to ‘keep their women in control’ (and have the notion) of a swaggering male with a huge machismo.
“This male feels very frustrated because he cannot live up to all that, and he takes it out on his wife. Men like that who are frustrated on every level are not going to be able to have a fulfilling and rich relationship with their wife at home or in the bedroom.”
Indeed, el Feki says that to really understand a society you need to see what is going in its bedrooms and her book explores this idea meticulously in relation to the Middle East.
So, while women have been making progress, there remain conservative forces who sometimes paint these developments as “Western” and “liberal”, damning them subtly as anti-religious or un-Islamic on one level and depraved and morally reprehensible on another.
“All mullahs give these sermons and there’s this one near our house and he’s always ranting against independent women and he is very against a famous woman activist lawyer and constantly trying to fire his congregation up against her, saying she is a vulgar woman who is fast and loose and meets men and shakes them by the hand and looks them in the eye and it is shameful – and all that kind of stupid thing,” lamented Mohsin.
The best argument is probably this: “We are trying constantly to argue with them, through television and writing and women (themselves) are doing it every day because they work, they need to work and they are looking after the home…what do they think these women are up to?”
- “Changing Sexual Mores”, Asia House 6.45pm. The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival continues until May 21. Tickets £8 or less unless stated.
Selected highlights at a glance
- May 14 6.30pm Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W17LP. John Keay – Midnight’s Descendants: South Asia from Partition to Present Day with Nepalese novelist Prajwal Parajuly
- May 20 6.45pm New Pan Asian Fiction with Romesh Gunasekera, Xialou Guo, Roopa Farooki and Paul Blezard
- May 21 6.45pm £15 (with food) India’s contribution to the Great War – Lord Bhiku Parekh
For full listings, please see www.asiahouse.org