Babaism in Punjabi literature

March 7, 2021

Examining manifestations and ramifications of patriarchy in Punjabi literature

Punjabi literature is a-flood with babaism. It is a slave to tradition. Whose tradition is it after all? It’s a tradition of babas’ own. To me, a writer affirming patriarchal values and promoting those in his writings, is a manifestation of babaism in Punjabi literature.

We all know that our society is drenched in patriarchal culture. Yet, I hardly hear of any gatherings organised by Punjabi writers to discuss the subject. There are ample opportunities meanwhile to read and discuss Punjabi classical poets. We should also look at present day issues and present day writings.

The truth is, except for the works of some malamati sufi poets, Punjabi literature is full of babaism. This baba is a feudal lord in the guise of a pir. He considers women to be lesser than him, tries to weaken them and exploits them. On the inside, he is afraid of them. The baba is not prejudiced against women alone; he considers all underprivileged people, workers and minority citizens to be inferior. A prejudiced mind casts a prejudiced glance at everything around it.

There are three major forms of babaism in Punjabi literature. These may manifest together in a work or separately.

Blaming the victim:

Whenever something goes wrong somewhere in our society, women are held responsible for it, even when they are the actual victims. In case of a divorce or childlessness, the woman involved must pay the existential and societal costs. She is made to endure humiliation and blamed for it. Too often a rape survivor is re-victimised at the investigation and prosecution stages and blamed for her oppressor’s offence.

Manzoor Jhalla’s song laggi walian noon neend nahin aandi (those in love can’t sleep) was playing on radio when my mother passed by. She said, “Manzoor Jhalla really is a Jhalla (stupid). He is blaming the one who ended up losing all that she had.” It was then that I began reading Sassi Punnu afresh.

In pointing a finger at Sassi, Jhalla’s purpose is to exonerate Punnu’s brothers. He thus blames this tragedy on Sassi, knowing that the audience will readily agree, at least in the Punjab.

Jhalla casts doubt on Sassi’s love. Next, he aggrandises Zulekha, Heer and Sohni, and goes on to invoke the crow-pheasant, peacock and crane. In the end, he says, forget about Sassi and the world and “listen to Jhalla in matters of love.” He puts down Sassi for his nonsense wisdom moves on. Jhalla does not acknowledge that people can be different and that some people may indeed fall asleep in similar situations. He feigns ignorance and uses deception. He deceives us into believing that had Sassi stayed awake, Punnu’s brothers would not have taken him away. But how could she, a woman, have prevailed over men of his family once they were bent upon something? Thus Jhalla wraps his deception in his apparent ignorance, insults Sassi and hands his audience this terrible assault on women in the form of a song about love.

It seems that when Jhalla wrote this song, he was displeased with a woman and wanted desperately to chastise her. In his zeal, he forgot that it was Sassi who died first.

Jhalla is as stone-hearted thus as Punnu’s brothers who took him away on the night of his union with Sassi. He brings against Sassi a charge that was not laid down by Shah Abdul Lateef Bhittai. This is how babaism works; it normalises abuse of woman.

Jhalla (1929-1973) is not alone in this attitude. Peelu (1563-1606) did the same in Mirza Saheban by putting words in the mouths of Mirza’s mother, sisters and Vanjhal in support of babaism. Just as all women may hear the word ‘whore’ to describe them, the following saying by Peelu is heard and tolerated by most middle- and lower-class Punjabi women:

(charrhday Mirzay Khan nu, Vanjhal denda matt

Bhitt ranna di dosti, khuri jinhan de matt)

Oppressors’ narrative:

Hearing stories about women from men is like relying on imperialists’ account of their subjects and masters’ description of their slaves; it means that we are steeped in a patriarchal culture.

The problem is that the narrator himself belongs to the group that exploits women. His interests, individual as well as collective, are tied to that group. In most cases, he can neither represent women’s interests nor defend them.

Mostly it is men who are telling stories of women. The problem with this is that the narrator belongs to the group that exploits women. His interest, individual as well as collective, are tied to that group. In most cases he can neither represent women’s interests nor defend them. So, when a male writer, for example, deals with what is basically an issue of men exploiting women and children causing them lifelong suffering, he assigns the responsibility to women and moves on.

Incest and sexual abuse are entrenched forms of sexual exploitation of women and children mostly by men. A couple of years ago there was a play staged on the subject in Surrey by Sahara Services Society. It was written by poet Ajmer Rode and titled Mailay Hath (tainted hands). It was a super hit. The Punjabi community appreciated it in particular. It had a father, a mother, a daughter and an uncle. However, at the end, both the uncle and the father were gone without any resolution. On stage, the mother and the daughter stood by themselves to deal with the impact and the trauma of sexual abuse. This is how they deal with it: they light a fire and then there is a ritual whereby the daughter forgives the perpetrator in order to spare herself further victimisation.

It had to be a box office hit as Baba Ajmer had ensured that men were saved by the bell. The issue was not allowed to be mentioned beyond the nuclear family, the abuser did not face any repercussions. A crime was committed and the criminal remained unpunished. What is the message to the women and children who might face similar abuse? The message is that it is indeed a bad thing but if it happens to you, but if it does be discreet and let go of “anger and vengefulness” and “forgive” the criminal. Telling anyone else about it amounts to maligning yourself and your family. Of course, not telling anyone means that the criminal is free to abuse more women and children.

If this is not what was the writer intended, then why did men in the play not take responsibility? Why did the perpetrator not get punished? Does the writer suggest that moving, or being sent away, from one place to another is adequate punishment for the sexual abuser. This is the same ‘punishment’ some dioceses have been found to have imposed on corrupt priests - transfer. New place, new people and a new lease to corrupt innocent people.

Why did the two women not walk out instead? Why did we not see the men on stage doing a ritual to figure out how to stop men from committing this demeaning abuse of women and children? Why were the two women not shown using counselling or other support services for survivors of sexual abuse? Why were the women left to themselves to deal with the crime committed by a man?

This, indeed, is babaism: unpack a complex and sensitive issue like sexual abuse, resolve it in the interest of the male and hand it back to the community.

False writings:

A couple of years ago, a collection of short stories was published in the Punjab. The writer maligned some of Punjab’s best known women artists, including Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and Shaista Habib, and they were unable to respond to the attack.

However, the attack was so low that it was hard for people who knew those women to not object. They demanded that the writer apologise and withdraw the story. The writer and some of his supporters took exception to the demand. There was no apology and the story was not withdrawn. Because of babaism in Punjabi literature, the writer was not reprimanded, and is still invited to literary events as an intellectual.

The basic issue:

There are many more forms of babaism in Punjabi literature and we need to know and recognise all of those to rid ourselves of the patriarchal prejudices. Some important lessons came out while confronting the third form of babaism, and might help us fight it.

The compiler of the short stories collection and some of his supporters were continuing to uphold abuse as literature until similar abuse was hurled at ‘their women’. That upset the clique. One wonders why this was not okay.

Of course, attacking the ‘other man’s women’ to avenge one’s own is a man’s weapon. It raises the same question with another victim: how can this be justified?

As in ‘honour’ killings, on both sides, it is women take men’s abuse.

The Feminist Collective saved the day by taking a couple of important actions. Their members disrupted one of the book launch events, made a mural inspired by Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and did postering at some places in Lahore.

Later, an all-woman email conversation came about where it was decided to form an advocacy group to create and run a website where the works of progressive women writers and artists are compiled, curated, and published. A resolution was made to encourage more research on and translations of women’s work and to confront misogynist writings and art to stop abuse of woman in Punjabi culture, art and literature.

The way forward remains the same. If this project is supported by women and their organisations, something strong and beautiful is sure to emerge.

Award-winning author of Keerru and Skeena, Fauzia Rafique is a Punjabi Canadian novelist, poet and arts organiser living in Surrey, British Columbia. Visit her blog for more information:

Babaism in Punjabi literature