October 15 was celebrated as the International Day for Rural Women across the world. It made me ponder the state of Siraiki women. I shared an audio inshaya (essay narrative), “Zaal” (woman in Siraiki) by the famous Siraiki writer Abdul Basit Bhatti on the Taj Langah Siraiki Archive on October 10, 2021.
In this narrative, Bhatti has discussed the role of women in the Siraiki vusaib. His major concern seems to be matrimonial issues and how an arranged marriage creates a problem not only for parents but also for girls who have to adapt to the traditions of their in-laws. The discussion is based on how women make the life of a man ‘complicated’ in one way or the other. In general, husbands think that the beauty of women is lost after marriage, and the nature of a relationship changes despite the efforts from the families of the bride and the groom.
Despite emphasising the sensitivity of the matrimonial union, Bhatti sounds resentful about the complications of marriage, seeing men and women as binary opposites. Someone responded critically to this inshaya on the archive page and critiqued the expression for its “misogynistic” approaches and for being biased towards voicing the patriarchal dimension of the Siraiki culture, although this may not have been the direct intention of the author/narrator.
That response made me ponder the state of the Siraiki women who are marginalised in both urban and rural spaces within the Siraiki vusaib. Despite the argument that women dominate men in the Siraiki culture, this inshaya reflects the voice of a male literary icon who defines the role of women in his society; the audience is also male amused by the nature of his subtle argument. I wondered what the nature of the argument would be if a woman had to write an inshaya titled “Juan” (man in Siraiki) from her perspective as a woman. Would her response be accepted by men? Would she receive the same appreciation as enjoyed by the male writer from his largely male audience?
In general, the social, literary, and political discourse within the Siraiki vusaib thrives on either a micro presence or the invisibility of women from the public sphere. This lack of acknowledgement is evident even in the Sufistic discourse in the region where only the male Sufi poets and spiritual symbols become the icons of the Siraiki identity and culture, whereas, historically, there is evidence of the existence of female spiritual icons. The famous Bibi Jawindi’s tomb is located in Uch Sharif; researchers would find her shrine highlighted as one of the five monuments from Uch, which are also listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The other well-known name is Bibi Pak Daman (d. 1295) or Bibi Rasti who was the mother of Sufi saint, Rukn-e-Alam, a disciple of Bahauddin Zakariya (1170-1262).
The same may also apply to the rural women contributing towards the rich artistry reflecting in their traditional mirror work, hand embroidery, and block printing, which is purchased at a minimal cost from them and sold expensively in urban boutiques. They end up being treated as cheap labour not just by the urban capitalist culture in Pakistan but also by local Siraiki traders.
While some people may say that the plight of women across Pakistan is the same, I think it is more convoluted within the Siraiki vusaib mainly due to the absence of women from literary and public discourses. Despite educating their daughters, sisters and wives, most families are hesitant to allow them a public presence, preventing them from becoming writers, artists, activists, or intellectuals, and unless they belong to a privileged class, not allowing them to contribute towards creating history and culture.
I find the absence of women and scarcity of literary and artistic voices from the Siraiki public sphere problematic. This is what I identify as the threefold marginality of Siraiki women (or trimit): women belonging to a third world country; their marginality as belonging to the region where the struggle of identity, and democratic and political representation is problematic; and worst of all, as women marginalised by male counterparts belonging to their own community.
The literary domain in the Siriaki region remains problematic where despite the presence of several female writers they remain a victim of exclusion imposed upon them mainly by male writers. We rarely attend their book launches while in the literary festivals like Mehray Wala, annually organised by Ashiq Buzdar, a senior resistance poet and author of Asan Qaidi Takht Lahore Dy, do not extend the invitation to Siraiki women writers whose works are treated as second grade expression.
Women writers rarely avail the privilege of being mentored unlike their male counterparts who actively engage with their contemporaries. Despite a long list of female writers, such as Mussarat Kalanchvi, Sheema Syal, Iqbal Bano, Bint-e-Ahmedani, Suraya Qureshi, and Bahar-un-Nisa Bahar, their works have neither been celebrated nor sufficiently acknowledged within or beyond the Siraiki literary domain.
In the current scenario, it may take years for women to be recognised, let alone be emancipated in the Siraiki culture until they create a community that works towards this goal.