June 14, 2018

Of Dishes and Disappointment: Shazaf Fatima Haider's Pavlova is way too biased

(This is Review Part 1 of the Anthology titled Breakups)

I really liked Shazaf Fatima Haider’s first full-length novel, enough to have some leftover goodwill lingering on for this review. Which I think I needed, because my usual reaction to fiction that delves so deeply into the representation of religious figures is discomfort. That’s primarily because in terms of religion, the lines between valid representation and stereotyping blur so much that it’s hard to tell when the author’s personal biases are creeping in.

In this story, a young woman spends an afternoon making a decadent pavlova, delicious and sweet, but a visit from her mother with a friend in tow ruins the evening for her. Saira, our protagonist, seems like the perfect keeper – the kitchen is clean, the interior decoration is classy and refined, the dessert made to perfection. In the midst of her preparation of the coulis, her guests arrive.

She opened the door and in walked her mother, a small woman with smiling eyes, head covered with a thick scarf. Behind her was Aunty Tasneem, clad in black from head to foot. Small slits in the face revealed sharp, pointed eyes, raking Saira and her surroundings, assessing, taking stock. It was remarkable how much a niqab could highlight the eyes, and the sharpness behind them.

Now see, here’s where my disquiet creeps in. Because we have enough islamophobia in this world – and of course the image of the niqab-wearing woman is directly under attack by this threat. The assessing, judgemental look, the sharp eyes. I don’t need any more misogyny in my life, and I definitely don’t need to be reading about how religious people are more likely to be condemnatory and unforgiving. You could argue that there are people like that in this world, and you could argue that it’s just this story that represents them this way. You could even argue that the mother, smiling and clearly friendly, also has her head covered. But here’s my rebuttal: first, the dangers of the single story are many. We have enough people in this world physically and verbally attacking niqab-wearing woman for stories like this to not carry some weight. Second, the presence of Aunty Tasneem in this situation is stronger in this story, by which I mean that the mother’s obvious faithfulness is not as explicitly connected to her warm, welcoming personality. Aunty Tasneem, however, is clearly shown as hypercritical and disapproving, and using her religion to further that poison within her.

There are all kinds of people in this world: of course the disparaging female who cloaks herself in the piety of religion to spew hurtful things exists, and I know, because I’ve met her. But these people are also three dimensional: they are kind to strangers or they love gardening or they help those who are sick. The character of a woman who is shown as religious and mean, and only that, is a disservice to the current climate of fear that all Muslims live in. And make no mistake, Aunty Tasneem is consistently vicious. As soon as Saira’s mother and Aunty Tasneem settle down, the latter begins to question Saira’s life choices, most particular her lack of children – even though poor Saira explains that a car accident has not only killed her one child but rendered her incapable of conceiving. Undeterred, Aunty Tasneem uses that opportunity to hold forth about the importance of moderation as Saira’s mother, excited about the pavlova, goes for a second helping.

“Beta, don’t mind if I say something. I only tell you this out of love for you and your mother. It is the Will of Allah to grant his Momineen with family, to extend the empire of Islam. But we must make ourselves worth of His Grace. Obedience is key. As is abstinence. Only by forsaking worldly pleasures does one become a Momin.”

I’ve met countless people like these – you can’t escape them in Pakistan. People with a holier-than-thou attitude, who use the ‘I only say this for your own good’ line to lecture you endlessly about your life choices. My problem is not with the fact that this character exists; it’s that this character seems to be the only representation of Muslims within this story. And the only representation in most forms of media. We already have movies bombarding us with images of the Islamic terrorist; do we need more conservative, high-minded sermons from such versions of Islam? We do not.

Aunty did most of the reporting – how Mrs. Naseem was having a tough time with the Arabic and Mrs. Mobashir had stopped wearing lipstick and nail polish since it was haram to do so and Parveen had quarrelled with her mother over the cutting of hair, it being unIslamic and all.

Unfortunately, this stereotyping also bleeds into another equally over-used trope: that of the gossiping desi auntie. Recently my group of friends were discussing the title Trust No Aunty, and how one of my friend’s mother had pointed out the sexism inherently present in that book. It’s true though: you might know the gossiping aunties – I certainly do – but the stereotypical representation of them as doing nothing but that is such a disservice to them. It’s certainly their most irritating quality, but once you notice how heavily invested we are as a community in defining women within those boundaries, it starts to get alarming. Once again, the defense here is that women like Aunty Tasneem exist, to which I say, once again, enough with this boring pigeonholing already.

“Tell me, Saira,” the older woman asked, her voice not without malice since she knew well the answer to the question she was about to ask. “How many children do you have?”

Millions of girls all over the world are being asked this question. I myself have been subjected to it at least twice a day ever since I got married. But we need to move past stories that only tell this story. And I know for a fact that Shazaf Fatima Haider can write really well. It’s clear that her command of the language is excellent, and her flow is very controlled. I just wish she would write something better.