One of the first thoughts that occur after going through the stories in the book under review is how similar are the stories of women situated in India and Pakistan. Popular notions in India look at a Pakistani woman’s image as a burqa-clad creature whose life is controlled by the men in her life. Further, Pakistani society is drawn as a cage in this imagery where women’s lives are ruled by the tenets of Islam. She is imagined as a woman without any agency. Modernity is considered to have touched her in a limited sense while matters of life choices are not considered to be her cup of tea.
Through Unfettered Wings Sana Munir, a storyteller from Pakistan, introduces us to ten Pakistani women located in different spatial, temporal, social and economic contexts.Unfettered Wings promises to tell us extraordinary tales of ordinary women. In its own way, the stories break the popular notions about Pakistani society and most importantly, the lack of agency of women.
Set in the year 1947, the first story revolves around a little girl named Farida and how she understood and analysed the traumatic events following the Partition of India which resulted in not only a new country called Pakistan but also in human tragedy incomparable in history of the modern world. Young Farida was trying to make sense of the intense discussions going on within the family subsequent to which she had to witness her father’s murder in their own field. As she gains consciousness and returns home, she finds her other family members including her mother and younger siblings being murdered by her own grandfather to protect the honour of the household. The story looks at the traumatic experiences that Partition unfolded through a child’s eyes.
The poignant story of sexual abuse of a child called Reema is the haunting theme of the next story. The memory of that single incident which broke her trust in a very dear relative remains with her even when Reema is very old and is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Confused and traumatized, Reema spends a lifetime keeping the secret while at the same time trying to decode it within herself.
Habiba is the story of a young Pukhtoon girl with Topaz-coloured eyes who belongs to a family whose main business is to kidnap well-to-do people from urban areas. Habiba along with her sister remains untouched by the cruel family vocation that they are daily witness to. Unlike their hot-headed teenage brother, the sisters nurse humanism for the victims which costs Habiba her life. Newly married Ayesha discovers that her husband Bashir also had a soft corner for her baby sister when he gifts her a Topaz ring saying that he had bought it for the woman he wanted to marry.
Nazia is a happy story of finding love. Divorced after a violent marriage and a three year old son, Nazia feels lost when Imran comes into her life as a ray of hope. Life keeps its promise as Imran stands by her to face her ex-husband during his fortnightly meets with their son.
These are indeed extraordinary stories of women who have been hurt, wounded, yet are far from broken. These women learn to negotiate with their pains to live a normal life.
In yet another story, Munir explores the way female sexuality can change the way a man experiences life.
The story of Summi and her soldier husband Murad could be the story of any couple located in any spatial context. Murad is constantly trying to prove himself as the boldest soldier in the eyes of his wife. Little does he realize that in reality, he is fighting a battle in his subconscious mind to convince his own self of his bravery. Summi documents the agency of a woman who challenges her husband through her eloquent silence and docility.
Munir also tries to trace the journey of women in Pakistan since its inception as a nation. Torn between her body and soul just like the nation itself, the woman in Pakistan has stood the test of the times since Partition. She has learnt to fight for her own cause with or without male support. The stories also inform us of the contribution of women—whether as policewomen or academician or homemaker—to the nation is no less than her male counterparts.
A career woman and a doting wife and a mother, police officer Saima balances her two lives with the support of her husband Asif. This is the story of the new age woman who knows what she wants and gets it as well. If Saima had mastered the art of striking a perfect equilibrium in both her personal and professional lives, Beena has not. Sana Munir refuses to build any stereotypical image of the new age career woman of Pakistan.
Self discovery is the theme in the story of Professor Meera Mallik. Through her academic journey with her students for company, Meera enjoys every phase of her life in the city of self. Eeman is the story of a child with Down syndrome whose very existence becomes an inspiration for her mother to tread on a path that she would otherwise not have taken. As Munir shows Eeman’s mother Zainab enjoying each phase while making efforts to make things better for her daughter, she gives a strong message about the moral value of daughters to the conservative Pakistani society that, like other South Asian societies, suffers from a disease called son-preference.
The writer keeps her promise of presenting before the reader tales of extraordinary women. The protagonist in each of the stories comes out as a sensitive soul yet possessing an independent mind. A young girl like Habiba knows her mind well and exercises her choice despite being conscious of the risks involved. Even little Eeman is an agency in her own right as she inspires her mother to have confidence in her own self. These are stories of human spirit and courage. In fact, representation of desires, pleasures, pathos and pain and complex human relationship by protagonists have a generic resonance that carry the stories beyond the subcontinent. The protagonists could actually belong to any location because no territorial boundary can ever deter unspoken pains and silent struggles of human beings.
The book is a must read for anyone who wishes to go beyond the fixed imagery of women in Pakistan. As Robert McKee puts it, ‘storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.’ These stories, indeed, have the power to replace the existing rigid notions about women in Pakistan with an imagery that is contemporary and closer to reality.
Swati Sucharita Nanda teaches Political Science at DAV Post Graduate College, Varanasi.