“Every time a woman speaks up, there’s hope”

June 11, 2023

A conversation with Moni Mohsin

“Every time a woman speaks up, there’s hope”

Moni Mohsin is a British-Pakistani writer based in London. Her works include two novels, The End of Innocence (2006) and Tender Hooks (2011), and anthologies of her newspaper columns, The Diary of a Social Butterfly (2008), The Return of the Butterfly (2014) and the recently published, Between You, Me and the Four Walls: The Social Butterfly Bulletin (2022).

Her latest novel, The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R, was recently made available to readers in Pakistan by Reverie Publishers. With its robust exchanges, incisive observations about the world of politics and social media and a contemplative exploration of the MeToo discourse, the novel showcases the author’s talent for satire at its finest.

In the conversation below, Mohsin speaks about the politics of populist leaders, the struggles women endure, the climate emergency in Pakistan and the role of social media in shaping contemporary politics. The interview was conducted in February this year via Zoom.

The News on Sunday: What is your writing routine like?

Moni Mohsin: I have to tell you that I am not one of those hugely disciplined writers. I try to get [about at least] a couple of hours of writing in. When I am working, I try to get to my computer at about 10am, then I break up for lunch and carry on till about 5pm. Then I take my dog for a walk.

TNS: Why do you write, and for whom?

MM: I write because I like telling stories; because it is a way of communicating with people; and because I derive huge pleasure from reading. I think for me the biggest thing about reading is that it makes me feel connected to a bigger world – to people. Sometimes you feel isolated. When you’re going through an experience, you might feel like you alone have gone through this; that you alone know about it, and then you read a book, particularly a novel, and you find that other people have gone through exactly the same thing. It is not worse or better or whatever. You suddenly feel that you are part of a community and somebody, you know, maybe a book which was written two hundred years earlier, has reached out and held your hand and said, “I’m with you; I understand you”. Particularly in today’s world and particularly in Pakistan, at this moment when things are so difficult and daily life is such a challenge, it is important to have a community, to have support, to reach out and to talk to people. That’s why I write. My writing has come out of my love for reading. My ideal reader is anybody who likes hearing a story and has a sense of humour.

TNS: Do you typically share your manuscripts with anyone before publication? Are there specific friends whose advice you value and trust when it comes to revisiting and refining your texts?

MM: Yeah, I do. [There are] a couple of friends. One of them is an American writer, Carla Power. She’s a close friend of mine. We look at each other’s work before we give it to our editors. I ask her, in particular, because some of my books also get published in the West. Because my work is so closely related to what is happening in Pakistan and the characters are so very Pakistani, also the language I use for the dialogue is also very Pakistani. Sometimes I wonder if they, from [what I am saying], translate across other cultures. So I give it to her [because] she can understand what I am saying. She reads a lot of my stuff. She comments on whether my work makes sense for foreign readers as well. I sometimes give my manuscripts to my sister, Jugnu Mohsin, who looks at the veracity of it. You know, on how this story would stand in Pakistan. Does it make sense? Is the story truthful? Because for me, the main concern in all my writing is that there should be a ring of truth to my work, that when people read it – in Pakistan or the West – they should be able to imagine that things like this do happen and that it is not something so bizarre that they wouldn’t believe it. It should be authentic work. That is very important for me. It should have truth to it. When you read my book, I would like you to look at it and read it and say, “Yeah, I’ve seen this, I know this, I know what she is talking about.” So the thing is that everybody’s view of reality is filtered through their own experiences and their own perceptions. And then I give it to my niece to look at it because I am aware that a lot of my readers are young people, and she is quite a lot younger than me, so I give it to her to have a look at it to see whether she thinks it has got legs [laughs], you know.

TNS: Your book, The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R, mainly focuses on the politics of populist leaders, but it’s also about the struggles women endure to succeed, particularly through the experiences of Ruby, the protagonist. Is there no hope for women in Pakistan, considering the challenges they face?

MM: I also tried to have some positive people in the book; some positive female characters, like Ruby’s friend, Farah, for instance. Farah also faces tremendous odds, but she manages to keep herself intact. It is very difficult for Pakistani women; I will be the first one to say this. It is very, very difficult. But it is not easy anywhere for them, for a start. In Pakistan, it is especially difficult, and I believe personally that over the last five, six years, it has got more difficult. Because of the [leaning] towards greater religiosity, towards greater right-wing social values and the kind of things that have happened and only women have spoken out about them and only women have protested. I mean, of course, some [right thinking] men have protested too, but it’s not things the government has taken note of itself. It’s only after women have protested and got angry and have raised a hue and cry [about it] that they have been noticed; otherwise, it has been business as usual. That’s very, very disheartening because I do [see] that in many other parts of the world, after the MeToo movement, things have become a little bit different. At least now, people think twice about sexual harassment, whereas in the past, in offices in, say, places like Berlin or places like Singapore or even Moscow, it would’ve happened, and nobody would have noticed. Now men are a little bit more careful, particularly in the West. They are very careful about how they approach a woman at workplaces etc. as well, particularly in workplaces, because they know that they could be sued for this.

TNS: But do you think this can happen in Pakistan, where people may briefly take notice of these issues but then quickly forget, resulting in no real action and leaving women in the same state of turmoil?

MM: You know, I’m watching that case with great interest – Misha Shafi’s. Her case is interesting because she took him to court, and the government came down to favour him. And recently, for example, there has been another case of a man who has been accused of domestic abuse – an actor. I am upset that these things happen, but I am encouraged by the reaction now of women because they do speak up and they don’t get cowed. I mean, many do because they are not in a position to stand up, but there are quite a lot of young women now who don’t put up and react.

TNS: During an Adab Festival session last year, you mentioned a conversation you once had with Intezar Hussain about the increasing prominence of women. Could you share a little of that exchange?

MM: What happened was that at the Karachi Literary Festival about eight or nine years ago, I was sitting next to Intezar Hussain. As you may know, he came to Pakistan after the Partition. He wasn’t a Punjabi; he wasn’t born in Lahore. He lived in Lahore, but he’d come from across the border and he had always retained a degree of objectivity. Also, because he was a writer, he was an observer as well. So he said to me that he had noticed that in the last 40 or 50 years, two different groups of people had risen in power greatly and that the rise had been quite startling. When I asked who those two [groups of] people were, he said, “Well, one is mullah…”

Now the mullah used to be a kind of a sleepy figure in a village who was a source of some humour, like “yeh khaataybohathein” and “yeh sotayrehtayhein”,but now the mullah is on the streets.

He continued, “... and the other group is women.” And I thought about it and I asked, “But how can it be because that is paradoxical.” And he laughed and said it’s not paradoxical; it’s dialectical. This is how our society, what happens here, will be determined, [i.e.] by the struggle between these two forces. Now, when I look at places like Afghanistan and Iran, I see that the fight against the mullahs is being led by women. When I see the Aurat March in Pakistan, I am reminded of his words. What is encouraging is the fact that women are speaking out, whether or not they are inspiring any structural change. These things are incremental. Every time a woman speaks out, there’s a hope that the next time it happens, there will be a slightly different reaction.

TNS: Your novel also delves into the significant role social media plays in shaping contemporary politics. How has social media influenced the current political landscape and public opinion in Pakistan?

MM: Hmm. I think the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf is a very interesting party [in that regard]. It was the first in Pakistan to harness the power of social media as a political tool. The others were left far, far behind – they looked like dinosaurs compared to the PTI. They were fantastic at doing this. They got down to it very early in the day, they understood the importance of it, and they organised themselves very early. The great thing about social media is that it can reach millions of people very quickly. When there is a media blackout in other places, like the mainstream sources of news etc., this [becomes] a very important and useful corrective. We see it in places like Iran and Afghanistan. We see it in Pakistan. We see it in Saudi Arabia. We see it all over the world. I am sure it’s happening in Russia as well. The negative side of it is that people become very enraged through it. They don’t wait to find out the facts and anybody can [post] anything and before it can be verified, the news is out to about five/ ten million people. Particularly with Twitter, it is such a short format that you can’t give much nuance; you can’t give much detail. So people just express an opinion, and other people take it as a fact. There’s no fact-checking and there is no responsibility. Also, people can have a hundred different avatars, and you never know who’s behind this. You don’t know who that person is. A man could be posing as a woman, and he could be writing to Aurat March saying, “Well, I disagree with them, and as a woman, I don’t think these women represent me, etc.”

“Every time a woman speaks up, there’s hope”

You know when people used to say, “Oh, I read this in the newspaper.” That meant that it was verified… There was also a stick: somebody could sue you for slander if you got it wrong. On Facebook, WhatsApp groups and on Twitter, there is no such thing.

TNS: And it has become toxic.

MM: Yes! And the reason is that we don’t have to stand face-to-face with somebody and say these things. One could be a total loser sitting in one’s room, feeling great power in bringing people down, you know? Or one could be somebody who’s been paid to do this. People world over do this all the time, pretending to be ordinary citizens. There are no checks. You don’t know who the person is. You don’t know if they’ve been paid to do this. You don’t know that this is their job. For example, how Trump used Twitter, etc., to derail the democratic process in America. He tried to have the election thrown out. We also know that during the Brexit, there was a lot of Russian tampering. There was a lot of fake news; there was a lot of manipulation of the news. Facebook was implicated in it. There was a plot hatched and executed to bring about these [changes], and people didn’t know that they were being played. They don’t know that they are being manipulated. You know when people used to say, “Oh, I read this in the newspaper.” That meant that it was verified. That a reporter had gone out, done some research and then submitted this report and that an editor had vetted it and it had been through many [rounds of editing]. There was also a stick: somebody could sue you for slander if you got it wrong. On Facebook, WhatsApp groups, on Twitter, there is no such thing.

TNS: Now that The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R is finally available in Pakistan, what kind of responses have you been receiving from the readers?

MM: So far, it has all been positive. But I’m braced for negative responses as well. What really upsets me or saddens me is when people respond to it without reading it. Sometimes what happens is that people disagree with my work, and then when I ask which bit of my work they disagree with, they can’t tell. [This often happens] because you’re writing in English [and] people will just decide that they don’t like you. Or if you’re writing about a subject like populism that they don’t want you to write about, they’ll get upset with your book.

TNS: This novel delves into both political and social commentary, addressing class dynamics and a patriarchal society’s influence on women from different backgrounds. It’s quite a departure from your Butterfly books, still maintaining your signature political satire but with less humour. Did your experience of writing this novel differ from your previous works?

MM: My first book was a novel called The End of Innocence. It predated the Butterfly books. I started the Diary of a Social Butterfly columns in the late ’90s, in fact, but for a newspaper. I hadn’t [compiled] them in a book. SoThe End of Innocence is also a serious book, a social commentary, and it is set in 1971 against the backdrop of the war in Bangladesh. So that was again about how so much of what happens to you in Pakistan, in fact anywhere in the world, is determined by your class. I attended a talk recently about Kamila Shamsie’s book, The Best of Friends; last year actually. A female journalist from Sudan was interviewing Kamila. At one point, she mentioned that one of the friends in the book is better off financially and economically than the other, comes from a slightly [better] socio-economic class, and ‘has class immunity.’

I was thinking about that, too, when I wrote this book. The way your life and the experiences you have are determined by your class and the kind of choices you make are affected by your economic considerations, your social considerations, the amount of social [capital] you have, the kind of background you come from etc. But I also wanted to posit that it doesn’t mean that you are without any kind of personal agency. You do have personal agency. The characters, Farah and Ruby, come from the same kind of social background, but they make different choices. They both go through hell because they are living in a patriarchal system; and they want to have their say; and they want to expose things; they want to make a difference; and they want to bring about social change. The book is actually about how [insidious] the process is. A lot of people, I’m sure, still believe that the religious parties mean well; a lot of people believed that Brexit was going to bring about great economic prosperity; and a lot of people believed that the PTI was going to protect the rights of women. However, every time we had a women’s protection bill, Imran Khan voted against it. They’ve seen that a vast majority of his cabinet was either handed over from Musharraf’s side or poached from the PML-N or the PPP, but they were no longer corrupt because now they were with Imran.

TNS: What was the catalyst for writing this book?

MM: There were actually two things that started me thinking about it. One was the Harvey Weinstein case that happened in 2016, and then how Trump was rising. Do you remember that comment Trump made about women? A lot of white Republican women came out in support of Trump and said, “Oh, he didn’t mean all these things.”So all these things were going through my mind. For example, in the case of Harvey Weinstein, people used to joke about it; somebody even made a joke about it at the Oscars. Everybody knew about it, and yet he was allowed to get away with it. And I was thinking to myself that if something like this were to happen in Pakistan where a man who everybody knew had done all this, would it be in the entertainment industry? Then I thought the entertainment industry was not big enough or not powerful enough, although those cases have happened since then. Women have accused men of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. And I thought, well, if it was the size of Bollywood, then I could write about somebody like maybe Amitabh Bachan. But I thought in Pakistan; it’d have to be in politics. I thought about Clinton, and I thought about Monica Lewinsky. And I thought there’s that case that happened. And somehow or the other, Clinton still emerged as a statesman after that [even though he did face impeachment]. But Monica Lewinsky was destroyed completely while she was, in some ways, the innocent party. She was young; she was naïve; he had all the power, and there was a complete asymmetry of power. In this case also, Ruby doesn’t have power, and the other person does. She does say [at one point], “I wasn’t [unwilling].” But Farah comes out and says, “Who had the power?” And that’s important to remember. Anyway, I was thinking about what my male protagonist could be like, and again I thought of Trump, and I’m sorry to say, I also thought of Imran Khan. And then I thought about what kind of background he [the protagonist] would have, and I thought maybe he could have an entertainment background. I thought about how big Amitabh Bachan was in the 1980s and ’70s and what a strong influence he had on people’s minds.

TNS: Did you have these characters in mind when you first conceived the idea for this book, or did the novel’s structure evolve gradually?

MM: I am not one of the writers who plans everything in advance; there is a [saying] that some people know exactly where the book is going to start and where it is going to end. I am one of the writers who abide by this image that you are in a car at night, and you’re travelling, and you can see only what your headlights show you. So you can see that much of the book ahead of you. And you go through to that point, and then the headlights show you a bit more and then a bit more. It’s a journey, right? For me, it’s like that. The characters emerge as you write. Initially, the ending of this novel was different from what it is now. But then, as I told you, I wanted things to be as truthful as possible. And then I thought to myself, would that ever happen in Pakistan? Would women be able to take down a very powerful man? And I thought it wouldn’t happen. And that kind of happy ending would make the whole book seem inauthentic.

TNS: Over the last decade, populist leaders have gained significant prominence globally. In light of this rise in populism, how hopeful are you about the state of the world?

MM: I think populism will go away on its own. The thing that really, really scares me is the environmental crisis. It’s been happening for a long, long time, but now it has reached a tipping point. And Pakistan paid such a huge price last year. I was in Pakistan last year in February and the weather was so beautiful, and I was so happy. I said to my husband, who is from Karachi and who used to loathe coming to Lahore in December and January, I said,“This is it, this is what it’s like, see the sunshine, see how lovely it is.” And then, March 15 came, and the temperature went up to 40 degrees Celsius. Even in Britain, last year it was 40 degrees, and nobody has ever seen that temperature in Britain, and they don’t know what to do. For about three months, there was no rain, and the grass actually burnt in front of my eyes. I have a small garden, and I have some flowers, and they actually burnt away because you are not allowed to water them because you are conserving water. In the short term, of course, the rise of populism is very, very concerning. Because look at all these… that we call authoritarian figures have done to the world.

TNS: Are there any issues or themes you want to engage with in your fiction but haven’t yet?

MM: I’m writing a book set in London, and it is about desis in London. It is about, you know, trying to bridge differences. It’s about a young Pakistani woman who is living in Britain and only hangs out with Pakistanis etc., because that is all she has known so far, and she does not want to engage with the bigger world or the place she finds herself in. Eventually, when she makes friends with a [white] woman, she begins to understand the society and a bigger world opens up to her. Sometimes when I am in Pakistan, I feel that because no government has been able to offer any meaningful change, any meaningful economic prosperity, to ordinary people, all they can offer is nationalism and more religion. Because of that, people become quite more and more insular. The nationalism story is one where everybody else is to be blamed but yourself, and you know you’re told constantly that you’re so well-off, you’re doing so amazing because you have this wonderful country. It is like patriotism on steroids, you know? And I often find that because of that, there is a disinclination to engage with the rest of the world, to understand the rest of the world, to understand your place in the world, to understand how other people view you, how to engage and reach out to the rest of the world, how to make your country a place people might want to come to; where you have some degree of communication and understanding. That’s the new thing I am going to be writing about.

The interviewer is a staff member

“Every time a woman speaks up, there’s hope”