On resilient women

February 16, 2020

Sana Munir focuses on women who continue to display bravery within the existing exploitative social systems

While she sang songs about him being the bravest soldier in the land, she outsized him in valour, spirit and selflessness”, Murad realises about his wife Summi. A young Hazara mother whose quiet determination perseveres not only through rural labour, but also the psychological landmine of a community terrorised by sectarian and ethnic genocide.

Sana Munir’s debut book Unfettered Wings is a collection of short stories which celebrate the diversity and depth of the female experience in Pakistan. Each story, titled with a woman’s name has been intricately crafted and layered with imagery, multiple realities and characters. These women are police officers, housewives, doctors, mothers and daughters hailing from all parts of the country. Drawing from their professions, labour and relationships, Munir takes her readers from Summi’s hay covered courtyard in Balochistan, to Maria’s marbled mansion in Gulberg, to Reema’s last days in an Alzheimer’s facility.

Despite being written off in a passive tone, the women from Munir’s imagination are anything but. Rather they represent the vibrancy and complexity of female experience navigating and negotiating various relationships and situations they encounter in their patriarchal surroundings.

The first story sets the tone for the kind of complex – and at times subverted – settings, which Munir expertly builds throughout. It starts at partition. Subtitled as ‘an unforgettable monsoon in 1947’ it sets the separation of nations, precisely where it mattered and affected the most; in the family. With painful irony, she portrays the naivety of a people who thought of it as “going on a family vacation”. Especially through Farida the child protagonist, whose imagination could only paint fireworks in trains, when her elders spoke of burning carriages. Carefully weaved within descriptions of her grandfather and father’s stoicism, the author offers relief from the magnitude of 1947, with interruptions from Farida’s fears of showing up with a shaved head in Lahore.

Equally well crafted is Reema’s tale, stretched over eight decades, yet held hostage by childhood trauma. Munir once again doesn’t just lay-out a woman’s memories of sexual assault. Rather she places them along with the details of Christmas feasts and special newspaper editions, enriching and expanding how a young Christian woman’s life is affected and shaped by trauma. Innately, through Reema’s older realisations, Munir is exploring the inherent need for closure that women find among themselves. Justice and closure for Reema, do not involve her oppressor, rather it focuses on her relationship with Nargis her mother and her daughters and daughters-in-law. Reema’s dying regret is the silence and isolation of women who suffer, and those who watch them suffer. Leaving behind a powerful message of giving expression to, rather than feigning ignorance of survivors of sexual assault.

More assertive is Nazia, a victim of domestic abuse who finds the strength, despite a lack of support, to get a divorce and raise her child as a single mother. She is navigating poverty, motherhood, the family court system and a new chance at love once the societal image of respectability and acceptability have shattered for her. Nazia’s realities are shaped by the societal stereotyping her mother and neighbours subject her to and the legal loopholes. As a domestic violence victim, she is compelled to see her abuser twice a month, via family court custody mandate. Yet her practical nature and a strong sense of self, never let her see herself as a victim. Never does she conform to society, system or love – in the shape of Imran, a new suitor. She is determined to forge her own way in her own time.

Through these stories, the valour and spirit that Munir depicts are not radical. She is not describing an attainable future where female agency plays a larger role in subverting exploitative systems, rather she focuses on the bravery and will these women are displaying within existing structures. Whether it be Zainab, mothering a daughter with learning disabilities in Islamabad while remembering her own mother’s disdain for daughters, or Meera an unmarried old professor still brimming with ideas on how to change the world yet caught in a nationalistic struggle to simultaneously hate and live with India. Then there is Habiba, the beauty, whose kindness, bravery and innocence are juxtaposed with the cruelty and pettiness of tribal culture. The collection maintains a steady flow from one story to another, without compromising the individuality of each tale. By doing so, Munir fills the literary void in need of authentic narratives and lived experiences of women from the sub-continent.

In a time where the South Asian woman’s narrative is hijacked by either Islamophobic western right-wingers or eastern hyper-nationalists, to assert the variance of female experiences and choices is an imperative feat for Munir to achieve. 

Unfettered Wings

Author: Sana Munir

Publisher: Rupa & Co India

Pages: 224

Price: Rs595

The writer is a staff member

On resilient women: Sana Munir’s book Unfettered Wings celebrates female experience in Pakistan