Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions
By Shazia Rahman
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834303

War and conflict, ideology, nation and nationhood, class, income and gender are central to the narratives of our world, but the links between these and the environment, natural life and climate change have become a pressing issue today.

Shazia Rahman’s timely, critical study Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions addresses the “stark ecological risks faced by many, especially the most vulnerable — non-human animals, women, children and minorities — in South Asia and around the world .”

A scholar of environmental studies at the University of Dayton in the United States, Rahman focuses on Pakistan using five incisive, multi-layered works: the films Khamosh Pani [Silent Waters] by Sabiha Sumar and Ramchand Pakistani by Mehreen Jabbar and the novels Noor by Sorayya Khan, Trespassing by Uzma Aslam Khan and Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie.

In doing so, Rahman traverses Punjab, Thar, East Pakistan and Karachi, while placing environmental challenges within a wider global context.

A scholar of environmental studies traces the links between Pakistani women’s creative works and eco-feminism

She points out that women’s attachment to the land and their sense of belonging has seldom been given the cognisance it is due in South Asia, where “poor rural women put obtaining food for the family before anything else” and “tend to have a greater knowledge of land, agriculture and plant life” than men.

The author asserts that, to use this information to advantage, women need to have greater control over land and farming than is the norm. Interdisciplinary studies, including an exploration of incisive creative works, can play an important role in highlighting and tackling the issues involved.

The analysis begins with Khamosh Pani, a film that juxtaposes images of 1979 with 1947 and “presents a feminist critique of patriarchy from an eco-cosmopolitan perspective by examining both Sikh and Muslim communities.” The portrayal of Partition’s gendered violence is embodied through the memories of Ayesha, a Muslim widow living in the same Punjabi village in Pakistan where she was born Veero, a Sikh.

The unspoken history of the violence Ayesha witnesses and endures from both communities, and the life she’s built for herself in her birthplace, reveals her deep bond with the land. In marked contrast, Ayesha’s teenage son is radicalized by the Zia era’s patriarchal, political extremism, linked to global politics and jihad and the marginalization of women and minorities. He has no interest in farming or fields.

In exploring the films, Rahman focuses on the integration of minorities in Pakistan and also addresses environmental degradation, water scarcity and food shortage. Ramchand Pakistani revolves around Pakistan’s Hindu Dalits in the Kohli community, which has lived in Thar for centuries. The Thar desert now stretches from Sindh in Pakistan to Rajasthan in India.

Eight-year-old Ramchand accidentally wanders across the border from his Pakistani village to India. He ends up in an Indian jail, as does his father, Shankar, who goes out in search of him. Ramchand’s mother, Champa, fears they are both dead and struggles to survive as a widow. Her knowledge of her growing crops on her family’s small piece of land saves her from the local landlord’s attempt to induct her into bonded labour. Rahman points out that the film opens up a new space for discussions on bioregionalism, as well as social and ecological sustainability and poverty alleviation.

The discussion on Sorayya Khan’s novel Noor addresses Pakistan’s personal and public amnesia of the 1971 conflict, as a result of which East Pakistan broke away and became an independent Bangladesh.

The events of the conflict are juxtaposed against a peaceful Islamabad of the 1990s, where the uncanny drawings of Noor, a special child, remind her mother Sajjida of the landscapes of her eastern homeland — an orphaned Sajjida had been adopted at the age of five or six by Ali, a West Pakistani army officer, and brought up in Islamabad. The unraveling of memories recreates the horror of 1971, which was preceded by 1970’s Bhola cyclone — “the worst tropical cyclone in history” — in which Sajjida’s fisherman father and her mother drowned her.

Environmental threats to traditional communities and the coast is also central to Uzma Khan’s novel Trespassing. The book is set in Karachi, Pakistan’s multi-faith, multi-ethnic commercial hub, but overtaken by ethnic and sectarian riots and the reverberations of geopolitics and global economics.

These events become a foil to the “eco-cosmopolitanism” that Rahman traces. The “inseparability” of the city and the sea, and “of humans with other non-human animals”, is central to the novel’s protagonists: Salaamat is a displaced fisherman sharing a special bond with turtles; university student Daanish collects seashells; Dia identifies with the silkworms she breeds at her mother de ella Riffat’s silk farm, while Riffat is an “ecofeminist” — a woman entrepreneur using natural, plant-derived dyes that “connects her to a 3,000-year-old tradition” in Sindh.

Through Trespassing and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, Rahman explores migration, belonging, displacement and home, but Shamsie’s novel traverses the globe as it moves from “the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, the violence of Partition in Delhi, the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001” and includes characters “displaced from Nagasaki, Delhi and Kandahar.”

Rahman also focuses on the “animalisation” of Shamsie’s characters through the frequent symbolism of birds. Significantly, this includes the Japanese-born Hiroko; she survives Nagasaki’s nuclear bombing, but finds that her kimono has fused with her back, leaving charcoal marks in the shape of three cranes. Rahman writes that “Hiroko cannot separate the violence against the people from the violence against the land because the land has become her flesh from her, as have the birds of the land.”

The portrayal of blurred boundaries between nations and nationalities, birds, animals and humans is central to Burnt Shadows. Hiroko leaves Nagasaki for Delhi to be with her German friend de ella, who is married to an Englishman. There, Hiroko meets and marries Sajjad, an Indian Muslim. At Partition, they migrate to Karachi.

In 1998, Hiroko — now widowed — is so appalled by Pakistan and India’s nuclear tests that she accepts her German/British friend’s invitation to migrate to the US. There, her multilingual son Raza and his friend, an Afghan refugee displaced from Kandahar, suddenly find themselves the objects of a prejudiced, nationalistic, post 9/11 suspicion.

Rahman comments on these “multiple wars that affect the human and non-human” and says this “demands that we consider our future politics.” Her book by Ella offers much to think about and discuss, including a greater engagement with social and ecological issues so important to Pakistan’s development and climate change.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 24th, 2022

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