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The seven leading ladies of Sindh and their contemporaries
On Wikipedia, the article for Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai boasts a quote by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, regarding Latif as a "direct emanation of Rumi’s spirituality in South Asia."
Verily the poet, scholar and above all Sufi, has earned a number of accolades. But one that interests me the most (and which according to me is the neglected child among his praises) is Latif’s contribution to the woman of Sindh.
He was writing in a society more patriarchal than the present day Indian subcontinent (and as any woman of the land can tell you, patriarchy runs in the veins of the society today, so it clearly was no picnic back then) and yet chose to have seven heroines rather than heroes; the Seven queens of Latif.
The recent turn of popular culture towards realism, where even the leading ladies aren’t immune to vices, and stories hardly ever end in “happily ever after” is interesting and intriguing. Be it the raw, primitive almost animalistic struggle of “The Game of Thrones” or the more demure in-family politics of “Downton Abbey” there is a realistic depth in the modern day stories (excluding “Twilight” and “Fifty shades of Grey” of course.)
It is therefore a call for appreciation when one realizes that Latif had presented this complexity in his work as early as the 1700s. From queen Lilan who lets another woman share her husband’s bed for diamonds to the innocent Sorath who is burnt under the Satti tradition because of the crime of another. There was poetry and there was realism, and the combination gave Sindh rich folktales and women who became representative Sindh. These ladies came from contrasting situations, but shared one quality; they were all to an extent women of the land. As he writes in Sur Marvi,
“When ‘Be’ was not yet said,
Nor was there flesh-bone, scheme or plan
When Adam had not yet received his form,
Was not yet man,
Then my relationship began, my recognition too.”
But as I sat across a relative during a recent visit to Pakistan, I realized that the Sindh of modern day is not the same as the one Latif was writing about. She exclaimed with absolute resolution that the Sindhi woman is not only “lazy”, but also “dimwitted” and “absolutely useless” compared to her counterparts from different cultural backgrounds (might I point out here that as far as heritage is concerned, this lady would be classified as Sindhi herself, meaning her ancestral roots lay in the Pakistani province of Sindh.) Her proof for this assumption was the simple fact that all the Sindhi women she had come across of late had fit this description.
Let me first attempt to provide some details about who exactly these women might have been. They would definitely have to be social, because said relative-of-mine came across them at popular dinner parties. They would also have to be moneyed, because the ladies frequenting these parties more often than not have money to burn, before, during and after the party itself. Lastly they would have to have time, because these parties start at dinner, but go on into late hours of the night.
This sounds like a woman many of us might have come across (belonging to Sindhi family myself, I certainly have). She is the wife, daughter, sister of the landlord, politician, entrepreneur and any other man who happens to be minting money.
But can this description fit every Sindhi woman?
By 2002, over 15 million of Sindh’s 30 million population was below poverty line. It can thus be argued that while the woman who socializes and burns money is very much a Sindhi, but she represents less than half of the women of Sindh.
By 2010, it was pointed out that 50 percent of Sindh’s population is situated in rural Sindh , implying that a majority of the women in Sindh haven’t had the opportunity of urban life, let alone the opportunity to enjoy frivolous luxuries.
This information provides a sharp contradiction for the pre-mentioned image. The woman of this rural land cannot be “lazy” in the urban sense of the word, because to put it crudely, she has no one to cleanup after her. She cannot be called “useless” as by 2010 it was approximated that 30 percent of the GDP of Sindh belongs to the rural areas, where women have worked on the land since the time of Latif himself. She cannot be called a “halfwit” as to quote Jean Piaget, “intelligence is an adaptation…” In times of cruel adversity, the rural woman of Sindh has adapted, and survived, which credits her intelligence.
The ladies based on whom my relative was criticizing the archetypical Sindhi lady, can than be called a small part of a wealthy minority.
Who, then, is representative of the Sindhi woman?
The rural woman of Sindh is the vast hardworking and often suffering majority; the urban woman with abundant time and money is a privileged minority, and perhaps both are equivalently Sindhi. And then there is the less vivid but very much relevant middle-class woman. In modern day, women from urban Sindhi families have stepped out of the house and into the school and eventually the workplace. This is not an epidemic (unfortunately) but it is an increasing reality. I myself would be classified into this type of a woman.
These very different women are perhaps all equivalently Sindhi.
Or maybe not. In Latif’s poetry, the essence of belonging to a place is patriotism, and patriotism is a difficult thing to measure. Latif presented this patriotism through Marvi, who preferred her land to worldly luxuries.
But to measure the extent of such patriotism within a community is probably impossible, one can only speculate. And based on very biased first hand experiences, I’m speculating that the urban woman is entwined in material success and luxury, while the rural woman faces material deprivation; the former chooses to ignore patriotism for the want of something worldly, the latter cannot appreciate patriotism because of the absence of something worldly.