April 24, 2016

On Female Agency: is Pakistani chick lit paving the way for strong female characters?

Ask a number of people whether they believe chick lit (or to use a term considered less disparaging, women’s literature) is a genre that caters to both genders and they’ll admit that they believe it’s a field for female readers only. The need to have an urgent conversation about such implications aside, if the genre is seen as catering to a readership solely consisting of women, it goes to say that one should pay attention to the kind of female characters being presented in such genres.

In Pakistan, chick lit is easy enough to find in dramas and in literature written in Urdu. In literature written using the English language, however, there are very few purely romance-driven stories. By and large there is a tendency to concentrate on terrorism, 9/11, terrorism, religion, terrorism, politics, and did I mention terrorism? But a few authors have tried to break away from the mold and produce light-hearted banter, cheesy dialogues, angst-filled separations and bouts of uncertainty cured by a happily ever after. Prominent among these are the novels Karachi, You’re Killing Me! by Saba Imtiaz and How It Happened by Shazaf Fatima Haider.

If a genre is seen as catering to a readership solely consisting of women, it goes to say that one should pay attention to the kind of female characters being presented in such genres.

Both these novels are written by women, are predominantly about women, and feature issues women can relate to. But more importantly, both these books don’t try to cover this up by coating it in a veneer of serious, ‘heavy’ talk. The tone is light-hearted, the plots are funny and fast-paced, and the females are complex. And throughout these two stories, there is an almost palpable sense of opposition against a system that females don’t agree with. Imtiaz’s protagonist, a female reporter named Ayesha, expresses her frustration over how women are judged more harshly for smoking than men; in Fatima Haider’s story, the protagonist’s older sister Zeba fights for her right to marry whom she loves. In different ways and about different things, but both books provide the same impression: that of frustration with a society that judges, condemns or oppresses females for being females.

The interesting thing about both these books is that they don’t set out to be ‘Issue’ books. Both Imtiaz and Fatima Haider employ tones that are in no way didactic or moralizing, but their females are funny, smart and above all, show a remarkable amount of agency. In Imtiaz’s conclusion to the romance in Karachi, You’re Killing Me! it is the heroine who runs after the guy she loves for the dramatic airport love confession. Fatima Haider takes this a step further in How It Happened by setting up a matriarchal family, with the younger generation’s ideas of love marriages pitted against her grandmother’s strict adherence to the sanctity of arranged marriages.

Throughout these two stories, there is an almost palpable sense of opposition against a system that females don’t agree with. 

What works right or well or is acceptable in both these stories is beside the point. One can spend lots of time and ink arguing over what religion or society allows and doesn’t allow, and what’s damaging or wrong in both these stories. Because at the end of the day, these stories are one within a vast sea of perspectives, and their limited nature just goes to show how important it is that more authors start to dabble in this genre, that more books that are light and witty and entertaining take on issues that are actually really, really important to discuss.

There are obvious differences between Fatima Haider and Imtiaz’s handling of particular issues, but what it comes down to is the fact that within these books, women make choices and then stand by them. The females in these books are not only smart or funny or successful, they can also be petty and vain and selfish and a mixture of all of the above. The plots in these stories rest on the shoulders of these complex, interesting females, and that’s what makes them worth reading.