By Taha Kehar
Tue, 04, 24

Can a man produce a fictional account from the perspective of a woman without being crippled by the male gaze?


Can a man produce a fictional account from the perspective of a woman without being crippled by the male gaze? As a male author who writes novels where women feature as protagonists, I find it difficult to evade this question. Over the years, this question has served as a creative lodestar, prompting me to recognise the importance of ethical considerations to a literary text.

Any effort to faithfully capture the experiences of women in fiction would prove to be hollow if it carries anti-feminist hues. Patriarchal structures have undermined women for centuries and fiction cannot become yet another site for this form of subjugation. Most men tend to overlook the complex negotiations women have to make on a regular basis to survive the onslaughts of patriarchy. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that male fiction writers are accused of portraying the struggles of women in a weak, ineffectual manner.

A few years ago, writer Whitney Reynolds challenged the women who follow her on Twitter (now renamed X) to describe themselves as male authors would. The results of this experiment were a scathing indictment of how men fail to authentically portray female characters. If this social media exercise is anything to go by, men don’t look beyond superficial considerations when they write about women. Instead, many of them seem to forget the power of empathy and ultimately produce testosterone-fuelled narratives that do little more than ‘mansplain’. It is difficult to gauge whether these trends can be attributed to a sheer lack of knowledge about women or an unwillingness to look beyond their narrow purview.

When I began writing the first draft of the novel that eventually became Typically Tanya, I made a conscious effort to rid my narrative of any unwarranted testosterone-driven energy. The protagonist of my novel was a 20-something female journalist in Karachi who was fiercely intelligent, carefree and unapologetic about her choices - the antithesis of the cookie-cutter women we encounter on melodramatic television soaps. I didn’t want Tanya to come across as a caricature or a symbol of perfection and unbridled desire. On the contrary, she had to emerge as a full-blooded personality with a network of challenges that made her undeniably human. At the same time, I couldn’t risk allowing her to be perceived as a product of my ‘male imagination’. Mercifully, I was spared the ordeal of writing about Tanya from a myopic view.

On a muggy night in September 2016, Tanya entered my mind as I was about to finish an exhausting shift that involved vetting stories about street crimes in Peshawar and a drama-choked provincial assembly session. She had a genuine and relatable complaint: “I can’t trust these Careem chauffeurs.” The first words that a character says to an author are either revelatory or deceptive. Tanya’s first words opened a portal to an intricate world that I could only access from a distance on account of an unavoidable technicality. Undeterred, I decided to peel the layers of mystery surrounding Tanya and learn more about her.

I opened a Word file and typed out Tanya’s words. Over the next few weeks, I used her first words as a take-off point for her story. However, the narrative was entirely in the first-person perspective. I had no way of gauging whether my own observations and biases were spilling into the voice of a fictional character. It seemed unfair to claim that her voice was in any way representative of the young women journalists I’d encountered in Karachi. Her savage humour, candour and carefree demeanour raised concerns about the authenticity of the character, if not her likeability.

Assailed by doubts, I decided to eschew the first-person narrative and opt for a third-person omniscient narrator. The aim of this tactic was to allow Tanya’s story to appear objective and reduce any chances of my own voice overpowering hers.

I soon realised that the omniscient narrator did more damage to Tanya’s story. While Tanya was witty and quirky, my narrator was a recalcitrant bore. At times, he (yes, I gave the narrator a gender) was like a voyeur who observed Tanya’s every move and presented her story in a rather unimaginative fashion. I couldn’t trust the judgment of the omniscient narrator as it diminished Tanya’s voice. If I allowed Tanya’s voice to be suppressed, the novel would lose its sheen.

By deciding to shift back to the first-person narrative perspective, I learnt the crucial difference between writing from a woman’s perspective and writing about women. The former requires rare insight into a character’s motivations while the latter is a mechanical exercise that doesn’t always result in a candid portrayal of women’s experiences and challenges.

As I continued to write Tanya’s story, I was obsessed with concerns about whether Tanya was anything like the young women I’d met in the newsroom. From the outset, I was aware that Tanya was a composite - an amalgam of some of the women I’d worked with. However, I didn’t want to solely rely on my own observations, especially if they stood the danger of being flawed. Driven by a desire for course-correction, I decided to talk to some of the women journalists I knew, about Tanya’s quirks and antics to gauge their response. When I told them that the novel was about her small battles in the newsroom and romantic escapades, they were ecstatic. When I told them that she belonged to the privileged set, and had bold opinions about people and politics, they were skeptical, but encouraging. When I told them that she could be snarky and somewhat crass, they fell silent, visibly afraid that I would use them as my muse.

In the months that it took me to write the first draft, these reactions were the compass that directed me as to how far I could go to make Tanya come across as realistic. Months later, when my book reached my agents and editors at publishing houses, they thought a woman had sent them a manuscript. I could have asked for no greater compliment.

As the book made its journey into the world, I wondered if any subliminal blunders had seeped into Tanya’s character. Fortunately, reviewers - who were invariably women - were satisfied with the final product. But, even so, I still question whether I was able to uphold ethical standards while writing about Tanya from a first-person narrative perspective. I often wonder if I’d doubt my instincts to such an extent if I was writing from a man’s perspective.

No Funeral for Nazia, my new novel, also features a diverse array of women characters. Unlike Typically Tanya, it is narrated from the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator. This was a deliberate decision, prompted by the requirements of the narrative. Even then, I had to be conscious of suppressing any traces of the male gaze. An omniscient narrator, though objective and all-knowing, is equally capable of mischief and needs to be reined in.

The writer is the author of ‘Typically Tania’ and ‘No Funeral for Nazia’. He can be reached at