Shivangi Rudra/ Corporeal and Gendered Existence: A Critical Analysis of The Pakistani Bride

Shivangi Rudra,  Ph.D. Student, Reg. No. 11/081

Supervised by: Dr J.P. Aggarwal

Co-guide: Dr Anjali Srivastava


In the post-colonial fiction of Bapsi Sidhwa female body has been used as tool to take revenge from their antagonists. In the patriarchal society of Pakistan women are sexually oppressed as men are considered superiors to women. Many poets and novelists of Pakistan have depicted the plight of women. Kishwar Naheed has written many poems to highlight the sufferings of women who are treated as the “other” in Muslim community. Bapsi Sidhwa is a prominent novelist of post-colonial era and her novels The Pakistani Bride and Cracking India are cries against a society where women are allowed little recognition as individuals, where they exist and are defined in relation to men to whom they belong. Pakistani society is patriarchal, repressive, oppressive giving privileges to men and its harsh treatment of women, justified in the name of cultural traditions and religion. In this society men are born with respect, dignity and worth whereas women have been treated as marginalized. Men are considered as individuals and women are thought of as bodies. Therefore, when a woman walks out into the public she is always made conscious of her body by the looks she receives from total strangers. Throughout her life a woman’s body is subjected to scrutiny, at home by the father and brother, and outside by strangers. The novel The Pakistani Bride (1983) is examined in this research paper to expose patriarchy’s use of culture and religion as powerful tools to establish its hegemonic control over the bodies of women. Questions of female objectification, socio-religious positioning are the main focus and efforts are made to depict the corporeal and gendered existence of Sidhwa’s women.

Keywords: Female body, marginalization, sexual oppression, patriarchal society.

Bapsi Sidhwa is a Pakistani Parsi woman novelist. Her family has settled in Pakistan after Partition of India. The authenticity of Bapsi Sidhwa’s work is evident in her experience in Karachi, and Lahore where she continues to live. Her family, the Bhandaras, a leading business family of Lahore for generations, had migrated there in the last century. So Bapsi Sidhwa belongs to the third generation of Parsi settlers in North Indian cities and was reared on tales both, fictional and otherwise, on the entrepreneurial skills of the elders of her community. It is interesting to note that Bapsi Sidhwa is a powerful feminist voice from Pakistan who launched a crusade against the conventional patriarchy of Pakistan. Her novels The Pakistani Bride (1983) and Cracking India (1988) explore some of these social issues such as marriage, sexual commodification and victimization of women in Pakistani society. P.R. Singh in his book Bapsi Sidhwa (2005) points out that Sidhwa’s female characters in their fictional world exhibit similar characteristics to Sidhwa in real life, “rebellion is not in their nature. The Pakistani Bride takes the discussion of female sexuality to a more domestic level combining the issues of veiling, marriage and women exchanged as tradable commodities in the feudal and tribal set up of a mountainous tribe. The novel offers a deeper analysis of male domination over female sexuality (body) especially through marriage as Zaitoon’s marriage, her sexual awakening and consequent escape from the murderous tribe of her husband. The plot of the novel highlights the biased and gender discriminating attitudes towards female sexuality.

Neluka Silva in her article Shameless Women: Repression and Resistance in We Sinful Women (2003) observes that Bapsi Sidhwa has focused all her novels on female body in Pakistani society:

Writing about the body, breaking down its taboos, and soliciting individual freedom and self-realization by women, for women, has a clear political imperative within a landscape of religio-social repression and patriarchal authority, since the body is simultaneously a surface on which social law, morality values, and lived experiences are inscribed. Meanings are carved into and out of bodies. (34)

Katie Conboy (1997) et al in their edition Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory similarly highlight the social significance of women’s bodies:

Indeed there is a tension between women’s lived bodily experiences and the cultural meaning inscribed on the female body that always mediate those experiences. Historically women have been determined by their bodies: their individual awakenings and actions their pleasure and their pain compete with representations of the female body in larger social frameworks. (1)

The novel The Pakistani Bride (1983) is examined in this research paper to expose patriarchy’s use of culture and religion as powerful tools to establish its hegemonic control over the bodies of women. Questions of female objectification, socio-religious positioning are the main focus and efforts are made to depict the corporeal and gendered existence of Sidhwa’s women. Nobody can deny the truth that existence of a woman living in a Pakistan society in one hand is valorized as the symbol of piety, purity, love and honour. But on the other hand, her body is defiled, and tortured in the name of morality, religion and tradition. When a woman walks in the streets of Lahore or Karachi in covered clothes, she feels as if she is walking naked as the leering hungry eyes of men watch her hips, breasts and vagina. The novels of Bapsi Sidhwa depict the perpetual struggle of women against sexism, gender discrimination and bodily abuses. Spivak argues that the body of woman makes continuous appearance in theory but often as a surface which is pulled and pushed to win ideological wars:

Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject constitution and object- formation, the figure of woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shattering that is the displaced figuration of the “ third World woman” caught between tradition and modernization, culturalism and development (304)

Feminists such as Mohanty, Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia believe in “crossing of boundaries” Turner, Scott and Morgan have made sociological explorations of the body of woman and the contemporary cultural studies have focused on the explorations of body and sexuality It is an established patriarchal assumption that intellectual pursuits are a male legacy, women are for reproduction, their bodies are disruptive and volatile and they need constant surveillance and control by men. In his book Volatile Bodies, Grosz observes that “women are somewhat more biological, more corporeal and more natural.” (14). But men “appear to possess a body but not be a body”. The historical justification of women as a weaker sex is based on the reproduction functionality of the female body:

. Women have been objectified and alienated as social subjects partly through the denigration and containment of the female body…patriarchal conceptions of the body that have served to establish an identity for women in essentialist, ahistorical and universal terms.( xiv)

Men are characterized as naturally strong, active, rational and dominating while women are seen as passive, emotional, impulsive, foolish and talkative. In the social structure men are positioned at the centre as subjects, possess power whereas women are marginalized as mere objects in social, political, economical and religious discourses. Simon de Beauvoir drew a distinction between “gender” and “sex”, postulating the body to be a historical construct:

In actuality, the relation of the sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as it is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general: whereas woman represents only the negative defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.” (Quoted in Currie and Raoul 2)

Foucault’s theory of bio-power took a centralized role in the feminist projects of the 1980s and 90s. Elizabeth Grosz wrote Volatile Bodies, Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity (1990), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993), Excitable Speech: A Politics of Performance (1997).Butler observed thus:” There is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body.”

The novels of Bapsi Sidhwa are peopled by women, all her novels are feministic explorations of the gendered existence of Pakistan women depicting her concern for female sexuality, agency and resistance. Indeed, the novels of Bapsi Sidhwa raised the feminist concerns related to the female body. Bapsi Sidhwa dared to touch the issues of female sexuality, sexual differences, and gender conflict and identity politics. The novels of Sidhwa highlight the role of various institutions of Pakistan, the role of oppressive patriarchal system that objectify and engender the bodies of women of Pakistan. Her novels depict that by absorbing oppressive patriarchal structures, women suffer male discrimination and oppression as a natural course of action. In Discipline and Punishment (1978), Foucault argued that instead of using violent and coercive means to control individuals, modern societies rely on systematic self-surveillance and correction. This is achieved through the organization of institutions and practices and categories of knowledge what he calls” docile bodies”.Sidhwa highlights how patriarchal institutions in Pakistan coerce women and exploit them sexually and politically. They exercise control over woman’s body to promote religion and morality. Like a red thread through all the novels runs the image of the female body. There are many scenes and situations in Pakistani Bride (1982) where the image of the female body is the most powerful symbol. The image of the female body is the key to Sidhwa’s feminist project. The voice of feminism is prominent in the novels of Bapsi Sidhwa. Third World Women are depicted as victims of male domination who treat woman’s body as a salable commodity. Postcolonial fiction portrays the injustice, oppression, and exploitation by the colonizers and how the lives of women were doubly affected by the process of colonizing”

. Bapsi Sidhwa has portrayed the traumatic lives of Pakistani women under the imposing role of religious, social, and economic parameters. These roles are partly traditional and partly modern day realities that women face. They are bound and restrained by the chain of customs and tradition, constantly developing and changing. They are also possessed by the demons of the social taboos which are man-made to control the lives of the women. The plots of the novels deal with the situations depicting the colonization of the body of women. The postcolonial men re-colonized the bodies and minds of their women as a reaction and in an effort to preserve their cultural values.

The Pakistani Bride depicts the heart rending life story of a sixteen years old young girl Zaitoon from childhood until she escapes her ill-matched marriage. The title of the novel “Bride” is linked with all the lives of married women, Zaitoon, Afshan and Carol. In each story the role of culture, religion and patriarchy is fixed to entrap women and turn them into subservient docile bodies. Bapsi Sidhwa brings tales from the private lives of women living in their chambers where they are free to talk with their friends and relatives. The novelist depicts the contrast between the outside male world and the inside female world focusing on the theme of female sexuality, their struggles and challenges in the orthodox society. Sidhwa uses their inter-related stories to show the cruelty of the patriarchal set up, women have to pay a very heavy price when they dare to oppose the system. Body of woman is freely traded between male heads of the family to further their economic needs. Marriages are settled on the basis of economic and religious considerations, each marriage proposal must promote the economic interests and the heads don’t mind if the body is treated as a traded commodity. The main thrust of the writer is on women in marriage and on the theme of female sexuality the only possible tool to survive in a post-colonial society. The plot of the novel is based on a real story narrated to Bapsi Sidhwa by her husband Noshir who had been invited to a remote army camp in the Karakoram Mountains.

The Pakistani Bride hinges on the themes of marriage, honour, partition and the struggle of women to find a space in the male dominated society. It is pertinent to note that the theme of violence inflicted upon women’s body by the sado-masochistic, despotic attitude of men that becomes the focus of attention and epicenter of gravity. The characters of Zaitoon, Carol and Shehnaz illustrate that in the oppressive patriarchal structure of Pakistan, women fail to gain their individual identity like men and are bound to suffer oppression, physical torture and alienation. She is always the “Other”, marginalized, defined in terms of lack and her only role is reproduction. A woman in control of her body without the support of man is a source of panic and anxiety in the rigid society of Pakistan. Sidhwa gives a very clear description of the discrimination practiced against the women behind the four walls of the house. The house is divided into separate portions for female and male members of the society.

The plot of the novel revolves around a young girl, Zaitoon, and a tribal man named Qasim who rescues her from a train attack as Muslim refugees cross the border into the newly partitioned Pakistan. Qasim and Zaitoon spend the following years in Lahore where they befriend Nikka and Miriam, a childless couple. As Zaitoon matures into a young woman Qasim decides to marry her into his tribe, to his nephew called Sakhi. The plot thus remains dynamic as Qasim, a Kohistani tribal, travels back and forth between Lahore and his tribe settled along the River Indus in Kohistan. It is recorded in history that “the whole area of Kohistan is notorious in North Pakistan for its anarchy, its violence and danger, its lethal conflicts both within and without” (.xi). Afshan is a tribal girl who is given as compensation to Qasim’s father for a loan that Afshan’s father was unable to pay. Qasim’s father knows that Resham Khan’s virginal daughter is far more valuable than any amount of money that Resham khan owes him:

Resham Khan was promised as his daughter! The sturdy, middle aged tribesman knew just how generous the offer was. Any girl- and he had made sure that this one was able bodied-was worth more than the loan due. (7).

So he becomes the sole proprietor of her body and he is free to dispose of Afshan as he deems fit. He awards Afshan to his son as if he was distributing some spoils of war. The same situation rises in the later part of the novel when Major Mushtaq thinks about Zaitoon who is about to be married by her father to a man from his tribe. She would give birth to many children who would bring economic prosperity in the family. In this cultural set up woman was valuable like cows, sheep and other tradable goods. Woman’s body is conceived as a very valuable property of male heads and this theme is the main focus of Bapsi Sidhwa in the novel. In the same way the marriage of Zaitoon to Sakhi, is recognized by Qasim as a symbolic return to his roots, a price he is most willing to pay: “It grieved to leave her, but it had to be. Her marriage to Sakhi would consummate an old fervent longing. Through their children she would be one with his blood.”(166) when he finalizes Zaitoon’s marriage, he does not think of the future of his daughter who is used to sophisticated culture of Lahore. She is handed to a tribal husband bound to suffer endless agony. He does not consult his daughter or Mariam and takes the fateful decision independently. The entire scene shows the marginalized status of women in Pakistan society. Qasim and Sakhi’s father are engaged in heated discussion over the issue of marriage and Zaitoon stands in the window like a silent spectator waiting for the trader who will take her:

Nikka was talking to Qasim…. They seemed to be arguing, and Qasim looked hard and cold….Then a strange thing happened….Mariam, only with a chadar over her head instead of burkha came out and sat down with men.(92)

The status of Zaitoon is that of an outsider, she is “other” in the social set up and has no say in the marriage proposal, she is a silent watcher, the positioning of Zaitoon in this scene is symbolical of the passive status of woman: “ Should she go down? She desperately wanted to discover what this was all about…She fidgeted, but stayed upstairs, waiting (93).Mariam vehemently protests against Qasim who is marrying his daughter for money into an alien culture, she remarked that she and her husband were willing to pay him more for Zaitoon. In a desperate attempt to keep Zaitoon, she asks Qasim to marry her with her husband. Nikka was like a father figure to Zaitoon but Mariam protested thus puncturing cultural idealism and hypocrisy of Pakistan society:

Mariam felt the chill impact of his fury and an anguished stab of futility broke her voice. She continued in a crazed whisper: Why not merry her to my husband here? Yes I’ll welcome her, look after. We have no children and she’ll be my daughter. She will bear Nikka’s daughters and sons.” (94)

At this stage Zaitoon is helpless. She cannot tell her father Qasim that she does not want to leave Lahore. Even Miriam`s all efforts to change his mind are in vain. It is personal misfortune of Zaitoon that she has no voice of her own.

Brother Qasim,” she coaxed, “how can a girl, brought up in Lahore, educated — how can she be happy in the mountains? Tribal ways are different, you don’t know how changed you are” And as rancor settled on Qasim’s compressed lips, she continued in a rising passion, “They are savages. Brutish, uncouth, and ignorant! She will be miserable among them. Don’t you see?”

How dare you,” he said. “You’ve never been there! You don’t understand a thing. I have given my word! I know Zaitoon will be happy. The matter should end.”

The transaction exposes the position of a woman as nothing more than a “bargaining commodity”. The wish of the girl is never important, not at the time of settlement of the agreement nor at the time of Nikah’ “Thrice she was asked if she would accept Qasim, the son of Arbab, as her husband and thrice an old aunt murmured ‘yes’ on her behalf”(.8).

She had been thinking that her groom was very young but she had thought that he would be, like herself, at least fifteen. She began to laugh, while tears of disappointment slid down her cheeks. She laughed uncontrollably and Qasim stung to the quick, rushed for the door”.(10).

The scene depicts the way the institution of marriage is manipulated and exploited to give legal sanctions to men who abuse women’s personal freedom and body. When Afshan is married to Qasim, the son of Arbab, it is not she who accepts him verbally rather an old aunt: “Thrice she was asked if she would accept Qasim … as her husband and thrice an old aunt murmured ‘Yes’ on her behalf” (.8).   Qasim meets Zaitoon in the train. The Sikh militants attack the train before it crosses the border into Lahore. Qasim survives the attack and rescues Zaitoon but her parents are killed.

Sakhi is the man who believes in power politics. He knows no language of love and sympathy. He believes that it is only through violence and suppression that Zaitoon can be made a domesticated pet. He inflicts pain on Zaitoon – physically, psychologically and sexually. The physical violence perpetrated on her depicts his savage and brutish nature. Foucault observes that “disciplinary powers may be “de-institutionalized,” they are easily adapted into methods of control that can be used within families” (211) Foucault remarks that “disciplines […] bring into play the power relations […] as discreetly as possible,” through similarity to expected romantic and/or caring behaviors (220).

Zaitoon decides to flee from this concentration camp because she is unable to bear the physical and psychological torture: “She knew that in flight lay her only hope of survival” (186). After she escapes for emancipation rather survival, she suffers a lot. We see how Sakhi and his clansmen hunt for her as she has broken the tribal, barbaric and authoritative code of conduct. Sidhwa wants the readers to watch the misery, torture and suffering that Zaitoon undergoes. Empty stomach, she tries to emancipate herself from the clutches of brutal and savage code. She is also raped by a couple of beasts from Cheerkul (223). Zaitoon’s struggle for emancipation from the patriarchal oppression comes to an end when Mushtaq finds her half-dead and half-alive and takes her to his camp. He persuades Sakhi and his clansmen that Zaitoon is dead. On hearing this “Missri Khan’s massive shoulders straightened. He thrust his chest forward and his head rose high. It was as if a breeze had cleared the poisonous air suffocating them and has wafted an intolerable burden from their shoulders”.  (224)

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