You had to go through three metal detectors to get into the Karachi Literature Festival. They were necessary. Inside there was to be a dance performance featuring female dancers and talks by artists, writers, and officials from the American Embassy (which was sponsoring the event). One mid-morning panel was entitled “Women Writing Women,” featuring a selection of Pakistani and Pakistani-American authors. The moderator was Dr. Marilyn Wyatt, the wife of Cameron Munter, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. After the authors had read their work—poignant selections of prose on life and love and relationships in Pakistan—she posed to them the question on the minds of many Americans: “Do you see room for optimism in the future facing Pakistani women?”
The question was well intentioned but misplaced. The women seated on the raised dais of the oceanfront hotel in Karachi, rising and established writers worthy of respect, were almost all from a tiny sliver of Pakistan’s elite, one that by virtue of class remains relatively untouched by the constrictions of culture. As most Pakistanis would be able to tell you, their presence on the stage that day is not a new chapter in the gender dynamics in Pakistan but an aged paradigm that has recently been endangered by the rapid encroachments of religious fundamentalism.
Raised in a middle-class Karachi family, self-conscious about respectability and reputation, I would as a young girl never have been allowed to attend the Karachi Literature Festival. There would have been too many questions about the nature of the event and the mixed-gender venue. With the logistics (the faraway hotel on the ocean) added to the mix, my attendance would have been impossible. As I sat there listening to the speakers in the marble-tiled meeting room of the hotel, I wondered if they had thought about the present day versions of myself, the girls who loved to read and to write and who had not been allowed to attend.
At the same time I realize that questions about women’s empowerment, about change and optimism, are tricky ones for any Pakistani or Muslim woman to tackle. As the speakers pointed out, a torrent of stereotypes immediately goes to work the moment the words are uttered: the Pakistani woman as an oppressed, veiled apparition languishing in a backward culture, mistreated by an inegalitarian religion, her hapless condition an excuse for military interventions and all the rest. In the face of all this, some defensiveness is inevitable and forgivable.