Arpita Mandal

Rafia Zakaria is a Jill of many trades, serving as an attorney, a human rights activist, a columnist, and an author. Her interests are focused on women’s lives, and she has been a vocal participant in debates about Muslim women and their mischaracterizations. It is no surprise, then, that her recently published memoir, The Upstairs Wife: An intimate history of Pakistan, offers further insight into subjects that have been at the core of Zakaria’s writing career.

The Upstairs Wife offers more than just an intimate history of Pakistan. The cover of the book depicts two open windows of a room and a partial map of Pakistan, with Karachi standing out in bold letters. These two images are separated by the author’s name in the middle. Much like the cover, which interweaves the private sphere with the political, Zakaria, too, intertwines Pakistan’s history of birth and death with the births and deaths that occur in her own family. Pakistan and Zakaria’s family are very much connected; the national drama on a big scale unfolds on a smaller scale within her house. When the nation suffers, so does her family.

Her memoir begins with the news of her Uncle Sohail having survived a stroke, which coincides with the death of the national leader, Benazir Bhutto, the first Muslim woman to have led a Muslim country. The death of the “freest woman,” as Zakaria refers to Bhutto, is a literal, political event, as well as a metaphor for a personal one, which is the death of Aunt Amina’s marriage to Sohail, who takes up another wife, conveniently ignoring Amina’s refusal to sanction the marriage. Ironically, Sharia law requires husbands to seek their wives’ permission before remarrying, but does not stipulate consequences for husbands who act against their wife’s wishes.

This personal betrayal by Sohail plays out on many political levels; one being the betrayals that the citizens face, either because they are considered “muhajirs,” or refugees, or they are considered militants or terrorists by the state. Either way, the figures of the citizen and the wife/woman are in precarious positions, at the mercy of the state or the husband/patriarchy, respectively. The figure of the wife as a woman and citizen serves as the intersecting point of women as citizens, where issues of womanhood and female citizenship in a patriarchal country rife with ethnic conflicts and dictatorship - either military or in the name of Sharia - are bought to the fore.  

The strength of Zakaria’s work lays in being able to tease out parallelisms in the richly intertwined political and personal histories. The political history she reveals is marked with exact dates - a tedious task, but possible to achieve. However, her revelation of the personal-political world of the female citizen, her histories hidden from the public male gaze, is an important contribution as she brings to the forefront the very women for whom laws and policies are mandated, but whom they never consulted. An example of this comes through the recounting of Aunt Amina’s marriage to Uncle Sohail. Having followed a typical arranged marriage, Amina’s parents select Sohail for her, to which she shyly agrees. During the marriage ceremony, her father, Said, and her new husband-to-be, Sohail, finalize the marriage contract by signing it. Much of the marriage excitement for the women stems from the fact that the bride does not know the exact moment of the contract signing, which has made her into a wife. The lack of agency in making decisions for oneself and being unable to act upon them, such as signing one’s own marriage contract, renders this work as a story about a patriarchal household.

However, Zakaria complicates the notion of dominance and patriarchy by revealing the internal politics of hegemony in women’s private spheres. The world of Zakaria is not one in which men control women lesser in power or stature. Women dominate other women, and to some extent, men, through their matriarchal positions. Such is the case with Amina’s sister-in-law, Aziza Apa, who is the equivalent of a controlling mother-in-law. Within the internal sphere of women, rules about how to serve one’s husband and bear children, preferably sons, have to be met. Instead of solidarity for the woman who has failed to uphold the expectations, women join in the condemnation of other women by supporting patriarchal Sharia practices of having multiple wives, a practice that is worthy of a sacrifice by the first wife as long as the women supporting it are not themselves the wives in question.

If the female citizen shielded in the private sphere seems to be constrained by customs and laws, the “freest woman” in the political sphere does not fare much better, either. Despite being educated at Harvard and Oxford, Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the hanged prime minster, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had to go into exile not once, but twice. The country that was hers by birth would not guarantee her safety or her rights as a female citizen to stand in opposition to military dictatorship and mullahs who decreed that to let a woman lead a country meant the country’s future was heading towards darkness.

Since women in the public sphere are perpetually in danger of being sullied by lusty males, Benazir straddled the weight of being the virgin mother of the nation, “pure” enough to be a good Muslim woman and “motherly” enough to not incite lust in the men she would lead. Sworn in as the first woman Prime Minster of Pakistan on Dec 2, 1988, Bhutto granted amnesty to women prisoners in Karachi Central Jail (all women except those convicted of murder). The goal of this amnesty was for the politically “free” woman to grant freedom to other women, whose agency and citizenship had been reduced by Sharia decrees on marriage, divorce, and sexuality. What followed, in a cruel irony of events, was that the very women she sought to liberate begged to be jailed again; political freedom would not guarantee their safety or innocence in the private sphere where customs and family, both patriarchal and matriarchal, sought to condemn and harm them.

Just like the failed attempts at granting freedom to the women in Karachi jail, Bhutto’s other political efforts were deemed a failure by the men who had promised to support her. In order to prevent the mistake of letting a woman rule the country again, heavy corruption charges were filed against her and her husband, forcing her to go into exile for the second time. Her last attempt to return to Pakistan and bring democracy in 2007 ended in her assassination. The “freest woman” it turned out, was not so free in her own country.

With these two parallel stories, Zakaria intersects the private and political sphere, both places where women citizens seem to lack agency, not because they cannot speak up, but because customs and laws in the name of culture and religion have made it impossible for women to assert their agency. Zakaria not only offers a complicated understanding of the female citizen, but also of the nation from its inception to its current times. She also presents comprehension of the hegemonic structures that control the state in the form of mullahs (who deem women leaders as a calamity), military dictatorship, terrorism, and in the Sharia laws designed to punish and make examples of women in particular. Although this hegemony seeks to control citizens at large, it is the female citizen whose freedom is most curtailed. What emerges is the grim picture of the kind of fate designed for women like Bhutto who try to fight against hegemony only to be silenced forever.

Arpita Mandal is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Connecticut with an interest in human rights, post colonial studies, and Arabic and Anglophone literature.