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Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women's Literary and Cinematic Fictions

Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women's Literary and Cinematic Fictions

by Shazia Rahman
Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women's Literary and Cinematic Fictions

Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women's Literary and Cinematic Fictions

by Shazia Rahman


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While news reports about Pakistan tend to cover Taliban attacks and bombings, and academics focus on security issues, the environment often takes a backseat in media reportage and scholarship. In particular, Pakistani women’s attachment to their environment and their environmental concerns are almost always ignored. Shazia Rahman traces the ways in which Pakistani women explore alternative, environmental modes of belonging, examines the vitality of place-based identities within Pakistani culture, and thereby contributes to evolving understandings of Pakistani women—in relation to both their environment and to various discourses of nation and patriarchy.

Through an astute analysis of such works as Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani (2003), Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani (2008), Sorayya Khan’s Noor (2006), Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing (2003), and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009), Rahman illuminates how Pakistani women’s creative works portray how people live with one another, deal with their environment, and intuit their relationship with the spiritual. She considers how literary and cinematic documentation of place-based identities simultaneously critiques and counters stereotypes of Pakistan as a country of religious nationalism and oppressive patriarchy. Rahman’s analysis discloses fresh perspectives for thinking about the relationship between social and environmental justice.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496216113
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2019
Series: Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 246
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Shazia Rahman is an associate professor of English at the University of Dayton.

Read an Excerpt



Eco-cosmopolitan Feminism

Shabbo: It's a strange world. Our children must also make their way in it. They're not ours to call our own forever. Let him go.

Ayesha: Then whom can we call our own? What can we call our own?

Khamosh Pani

Punjab literally means "land of five waters," or the five rivers that make the area in both Pakistan and India the breadbasket of each country. During the tumultuous 1947 partition at the end of the British occupation, this province of British India was split between India and Pakistan. Since the partitioning of Punjab coincided with the simultaneous independence of India and Pakistan, it is hard to discuss Punjab without also talking about both the gendered violence and the damage to the region's land and water that resulted. This chapter expands upon literary ecocritic Ursula Heise's work (2008) and suggests that Sabiha Sumar's first Punjabi-language feature film Khamosh Pani (Silent waters, 2003), which focuses on land, water, and food to account for this violence, resists both religious nationalism and economic globalization. The film's eco-cosmopolitan feminist stance is grounded in the environment and cognizant of both the pitfalls and the advantages of the local and the global. The resulting narratives of belonging show that we all should have land, water, and food to "call our own."

Due to partition's large-scale migrations and the displacement of 17.2 million people along religious lines, the current region of Pakistani Punjab is no longer religiously diverse (Schaeffer 1999, 99). The two new nations were not equipped to deal with these massive migrations. Their chaotic and violent split led to the deaths of nearly 1 million people, and 75,000 women were "raped, kidnapped, abducted, [and] forcibly impregnated by men of the 'other' religion" (Butalia 2000, 34–35). Women were also further disproportionately affected by the violence as Hindus and Sikhs moved to India and Muslims moved to Pakistan. As anthropologist Veena Das (2000, 205) stated about the partition of 1947, "The violations inscribed on the female body (both literally and figuratively) and the discursive formations around these violations made visible the imagination of the nation as a masculine nation." The masculinity of India and Pakistan was evident in the ways in which women were violated. Such violations of the other have been described as a weapon of war. As feminist sociologist Shahnaz Khan (2009, 138) writes: "The rape of women by men from the other community sends a message to their men that they cannot protect their families. As protection is a fundamental component of masculinity, such men are symbolically emasculated. Thus rape is domination by men but also domination of men. It becomes a weapon against women but also against men of their communities. Raping and impregnating women of the other communities thus become a strategy of war — a way of destroying the opposing communities." While many women were violated by men from the other community, many women were murdered by their own family members as well.

Men worried that their sisters and daughters could be abducted and raped because this violence was considered to be dishonorable and emasculating. This fear of emasculation led many families to force their female family members to commit suicide by jumping into wells or setting fire to their own homes. Feminist partition studies scholars Urvashi Butalia (2000), Ritu Menon (2006), and Kamla Bhasin (with Menon 1998) were the first to describe the honor killings perpetrated by women's family members. While the term "honor killing" was not used in 1947 to describe such murders, they were inspired by a sense of "honor" nonetheless, and I refer to them using that term in my discussion of Sumar's film, which places partition in the context of Pakistan's history of Islamization.

Khamosh Pani depicts two linked but different moments of crisis in Pakistani history — the partition of British India in 1947 and the beginning of Islamization policies under Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's military dictatorship in 1979 — that affect the lives of its citizens, particularly its women, in debilitating ways. Because partition led to displacement, Sumar's film explores its Pakistani and Indian characters' cross-border attachments to Punjab; their attachments could also be considered cosmopolitan since they extend beyond the nation. Since cosmopolitanism is often defined as thinking or acting beyond the local, cross-border attachments are considered cosmopolitan, global, and open to differences among people all over the world (Appiah 2006; Breckenridge et al. 2002; Brennan 1997; Cheah and Robbins 1998). The term has wide appeal among scholars who believe in global human rights. However, the fact that cosmopolitans are considered loyal to all of humanity rather than to one local community or nation has been seen as the most positive, as well as the most negative, aspect of cosmopolitanism. For instance, some environmentalists (Naess 1993) and nationalists consider cosmopolitans as rootless, or lacking in attachments to their environments and their people — that is, local community members as well as fellow citizens of a nation-state. These critics insist that without a sense of attachment to local environmental and social communities, politically progressive work leading to greater sustainability and democracy is impossible. In addition, some scholars consider cosmopolitanism synonymous with global capitalism, economic globalization, and a type of Western imperialism because cosmopolitanism was and is associated with colonists' claiming to "civilize" the "heathens" of cultures different from their own (Brennan 1997). In the same vein, transnational feminists have argued that first world feminists behave in a cosmopolitan manner when they impose their own idea of feminism on women from developing countries (Kaplan 2001). Clearly, colonialism, capitalism, the oppression of women, environmental hazards, and the functioning of the nation-state have concrete, material effects on people and environments, particularly on local places. Taking a more global view can make us lose sight of those material realities. However, because each of these different critiques comes out of a similar discomfort with an abstract, seemingly rootless theory that is not grounded in a local place, a vision that does not see the local and the global as mutually exclusive has become necessary.

In Pakistan the local and the global overlap in other ways. For instance, because cosmopolitanism includes being open to other cultures beyond national borders, cosmopolitanism denotes resistance against the excesses of national Islamization policies that oppress women and minorities. However, Pakistan's religious nationalism, a perpetrator of much violence, can itself be considered cosmopolitan. The Muslim nationalism of Pakistan is considered cosmopolitan not only because the nation was created as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims of all ethnicities but also because the Muslim fundamentalism that has become increasingly widespread in Pakistan operates globally. Pakistani nationalism draws on religion, which is, by definition, not limited to one nation. That cosmopolitanism works as a descriptor of these two opposing ideas — religious nationalism and the resistance to it — suggests the complicated nuance as well as the pitfalls of the term. As a result, especially when we discuss Pakistan, it is necessary to move beyond just cosmopolitanism.

Ursula Heise (2008) coined the term "eco-cosmopolitanism" to couple cosmopolitanism with an attachment to the ecosystem of a certain place. She wants people to have both a sense of place and a sense of planet, as her book is titled. She insists that eco-cosmopolitanism "reaches toward what some environmental writers and philosophers have called the 'more-than-human world'— the realm of nonhuman species, but also that of connectedness with both animate and inanimate networks of influence and exchange" (61). Similarly, historian Wendy Harcourt (2016) theorizes about place within global movements. She writes, "Though intuitively place may seem inherently conservative, a reading of place as a site of progressive politics allows us to understand more concretely how environment is linked to culture through relations of power, agency, and responsibility to human and nonhuman environments" (161). My interpretation of eco-cosmopolitanism in the place of South Asia emphasizes people's connections with a land and a topography that were severed during partition. In the context of partition, eco-cosmopolitanism includes not only a connectedness with inanimate landscapes but also the effects of the global economy and global Islam on the lives of ordinary people and, more specifically, of women. Thus, Pakistanis are cosmopolitan because they are connected not only to global networks of influence, which include the global economy and global Islam, but also to global feminist organizations. However, the cosmopolitanism of some Pakistanis is also local because it continues to be grounded in local traditions, places, and religious practices. This confluence of the local and the global is an example of eco-cosmopolitanism.

Because I am interested in the intersection between social inequalities and their relationship with the environment, I extend Heise's eco-cosmopolitanism to an eco-cosmopolitan feminism because eco-cosmopolitanism without feminism is insufficient for discussing gender relations. A cosmopolitan feminist perspective that critiques patriarchy while taking multiple viewpoints into consideration is also not sufficient to oppose the local and place-based particularities of the violence displayed during partition that currently flourishes in Pakistan. Neither eco-cosmopolitanism nor cosmopolitan feminism captures the attachment to the land and social justice that marks both the specific partition narrative that I discuss and partition narratives in general. Grounded in the materiality of a local place that balances the local and global, while overemphasizing neither, an eco-cosmopolitan feminist theory allows for a more nuanced discussion of gender relations, social inequality, and attachment to the land that is rooted, in the case of Khamosh Pani, in the historical context of Punjab in Pakistan.

The eco-cosmopolitan feminism of this film critiques patriarchy in the Punjab across the border with India and, simultaneously, remains locally grounded in that place with its local language, history, and religious practices. During partition, when fathers and brothers forced their female family members to commit suicide by jumping in the village wells, they simultaneously poisoned the well water as the men migrated across the border. Violence against women was thus also violence against the waters of the Punjab. In addressing the continued violence against women in South Asia while also keeping the environment in mind, an eco-cosmopolitan feminist stance with a focus on land, water, and food counters the religious fundamentalism of Pakistan and the global economy.

Feminist Cinematic Fictions

Khamosh Pani provides viewers with a snapshot of Pakistan at the beginning of Islamization to illustrate people's contradictory attachments to a place, a religion, and a nation in the context of partition and growing fundamentalism. The film focuses on Veero, a Sikh woman who watched as her father in 1947 forced her mother and sister to commit suicide by making them jump into the village well. Veero escaped these forced suicides but was abducted by a group of Muslim men. While sexual violence is not shown in the film, it does show the physical violence of one attacker while another attacker defends her. Eventually she converts to Islam, changes her name to Ayesha, and marries the man who defended her. The film begins in 1979, with Ayesha living as a widow in the village of her birth and raising her only son alone. Two mullahs befriend her teenage son, and he becomes involved with the patriarchal and religious nationalism that is slowly spreading throughout Pakistan. Her son is later horrified to discover that his mother was once Sikh, and Ayesha eventually commits suicide in the same well in which her mother and sister died. Postcolonial film critic Priya Jaikumar (2007, 217) argues that Sumar is able to "call into existence an imaginative sympathy" with Veero/Ayesha as part of a larger feminist project. By including flashbacks to 1947, Sumar also shows the patriarchal nature of religious fundamentalism and connects atrocities waged against women during the 1947 partition of British India with the Islamization policies that military dictator Zia-ul-Haq implemented in the late 1970s in Pakistan.

As Khamosh Pani illustrates, Pakistan's religious nationalism can be traced to its roots as a country for the Muslims of South Asia. Even though the state of Pakistan has steadily curtailed the rights of women and minorities, General Zia's regime, which lasted from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, is remembered as particularly disempowering for women and minorities because he formally initiated the process of Islamization as state policy in 1977 (Jamal 2005). These policies range from formal legislation to informal proscriptions regarding everyday interactions, such as how people dress and greet one another. Ayesha Jalal (1995b, 239) argues that Zia's Islamization policies are closely connected with controlling women: "While the Pakistani economy largely escaped being overhauled along Islamic lines and the military regime gave short shrift to the egalitarian aspects of Islam, it was women who came to symbolize the regime's Islamization policies and Islamic commitment." This portrayal is accurate. If Zia's military regime was actually interested in benefiting the people, it would not have been as oppressive to women and would have instead overhauled the Pakistani economy along Islamic lines. This policy would probably have been helpful for keeping food prices affordable for ordinary people. However, Islamization policies were not aimed at the good of the public. Sumar's film critiques these policies by showing how people, specifically women, lived in 1979 and how both Pakistani men's and women's attitudes changed as the political climate of the country changed.

Sumar's focus on the particularities of certain Islamization policies in one village helps to avoid orientalizing Islam in general. Her strategy is in keeping with that of sociologist Amina Jamal (2005, 64), who suggests "that religion acquires various forms and is differently involved in the construction of subjectivities at various times." Rather than stereotypically demonizing Islam, Sumar's film illustrates how the religion was used as a tool for political purposes, diminishing the rights of Pakistani women and minorities.

Khamosh Pani provides an example of the politicized nature of Islamization legislation in a scene set in 1979. The barber Mehboob (whose name means "lover") is cutting hair while the mullahs Mazhar and Rasheed sit nearby. The radio is on, and everyone hears, "This is Radio Pakistan. It's 1:00 p.m. Atiya Zahid presents the news. The president has announced that Islamic laws will be introduced within six months." The images of the president — military dictator and general Ziaul-Haq — are shown throughout the film. Mehboob is aware of the self-serving nature of Zia's legislative changes as he asks Rasheed, "What's happening in Lahore?" Rasheed responds, "People are accepting the changes. They feel General Zia represents people like you and me." But Mehboob can see through his rhetoric and states, "How can I be compared to you, sir? I'm a naive villager. And you are a man of the political world. So that brings us to the question: who does the general represent, you or me?" To the chagrin of Rasheed, Mehboob then tells a joke about how Zia's barber "keeps asking him about holding elections" because the word "elections" makes his hair "stand on end so the barber could clip it easily!" Mehboob knows that Zia is not interested in ordinary people, does not represent him, and does not want to hold elections. No matter what Rasheed says, these Islamization policies are not what the people want. Given the meaning of Mehboob's name and that he sings and dances with women in an earlier scene shows where his sympathies lie — not only with ordinary people but also with women — while Zia's policies undermine ordinary people and especially women.

The will of the male state is made clear in Khamosh Pani when the two mullahs, Rasheed and Mazhar, befriend two of the village boys, Zubair and Saleem. When Ayesha's son, Saleem, is asked if he will come to a public meeting in Rawalpindi, he hesitates and implies that he'll have to ask his mother's permission. His friend Zubair laughs; for him, the idea that a male should ever ask a female for permission is ludicrous. When Saleem looks for a gift for his girlfriend, Zubeida, Zubair tells him that "this love-marriage business isn't part of our culture." Here a consensual relationship between two people is considered anti-patriarchal because it might lead to equality between the sexes. While Zubeida wants her relationship with Saleem to be one of equals, Saleem begins to claim that she wants to enslave him. Zubair's final test of Saleem is to ask his mother to prove publicly that she is a pure Muslim. Saleem tells Ayesha, "All they say is that you stand in a public square and declare that you are a Muslim ... that you accept Islam and reject your false beliefs." Saleem's new friends convince him that he must either control the women in his life or distance himself from them. When Ayesha refuses to make this public declaration, the gulf between her and Saleem increases, as does the distance between Saleem and Zubeida.


Excerpted from "Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism"
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Copyright © 2019 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Place That Is Pakistan
1. Punjab: Eco-cosmopolitan Feminism
2. Thar: Bioregionalism
3. Bengal: Vernacular Landscape
4. Karachi: Pakistani Eco-cosmopolitanism
5. Displacement: Animalization
Conclusion: Justice for All

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