Of veiled sentiments and secluded scholars

March 28, 2021

In her new book, Kiran Nazir Ahmed explores the methodical dismissal of women digest writers to the margins of literary circles

Most books take a circuitous route in revealing their central message, leading the reader down a variety of paths before the main argument can be discerned. But not Stories with Oil Stains: The World of Women ‘Digest’ Writers in Pakistan. Kiran Nazir Ahmed’s monograph about the factors defining the world of women digest writers in Pakistan declares its central concern loud and clear on the first page. As an ethnographic account based on academic research, the target readership is clearly academia.

Ostensibly, the book focuses on the social and literary dismissal of women digest writers to the margins of literary circles, but reading it during March, around International Women’s Day, one cannot help notice the myriad ways in which these unassuming women have shaped and continue to influence debates on women rights in Pakistan.

The sub-title places a particular emphasis upon the word ‘digest’ with good reason. As Ahmed’s research confirms, women digests are placed at the lowest rung of the literary hierarchy in Pakistan. Viewed as frivolous and lowbrow fiction unworthy of mention at literary festivals, women digests nevertheless continue to be read in great numbers by women across the country. Literary critics are not the only source of scorn for these Urdu publications. Social and familial derision is bestowed on both writers and readers of the women digests. Why, though?

Women digests are one of the most widely circulated forms of publication in the country, their reach exponentially increased by lending and borrowing between relatives and friends. Sold at nominal prices, women digests are often the only form of literature accessible for those with limited incomes. These stories are no longer confined to the written word. Many women digest writers now convert their work into scripts for televised drama serials.

Yet, as this book reveals, the struggle for authenticity is a recurrent conundrum for the women who have chosen to utilise these digests as an avenue for self-expression.

Over the past couple of years, women digests have come under increasing criticism from supporters of women empowerment. Populated by stories of demure women stoically following a path of appeasement rather than confrontation in navigating familial power dynamics, the digests are accused of upholding archaic patriarchal notions of the ideal desi woman. True as that might be, the empirical research presented through Stories with Oil Stains reveals the real-life contexts that inform the writers’ worldviews. Ahmed’s revelation of regular telephonic conversations between digest and readers and the ease of communication between them is a significant insight that explains the continued demand for these digests. But, if these digests, with their subtexts of conventionality and submission, are such an obvious source of validation of the lived and felt experiences of a huge chunk of Pakistan’s female population, why are they constantly maligned by those seeking to amplify women’s voices in Pakistan?

Ahmed points the reader towards a probable answer by providing glimpses into the lives of some of the writers, and the broader socio-economic structures that circumscribe their mobilities. There is a constant reiteration of these women digests being written by and for the lower income groups. Stories with Oil Stains makes a strong argument in challenging what Ahmed refers to as the ‘liberal notions’ of womanhood, independence and agency. In times when participants’ placards at the Aurat March generate vicious divisions amongst women on digital support groups for women, it is pertinent to question whether we have been negating the truth of a large section of our population simply because it is not couched within the prevalent Western tropes of empowerment. Ahmed contends that womanhood is defined not only by its gender, but also by the systemic networks of class and race that often subsume its identity. This assumes particular relevance if one observes the clear class-based divisions in thought about the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of Aurat March slogans and demands. Is the derision of women digests then rooted in elitism that tends to favour English as the language of enlightenment in a country where barely fifty percent of the population is literate in the national language, Urdu?

Like any good academic publication, Stories with Oil Stains raises uncomfortable questions whose answers will require a more tolerant and inclusive approach cognisant of the multiple realities that inform a woman’s existence in Pakistan. Ahmed’s work is not just a timely look at the evolving literary landscape in Pakistan, but also an important example of how to conduct ethnographic research for Pakistani scholars. As such, it has the potential to be excellent reading material for students of both humanities and the social sciences. While the language and organisation might be too scholarly for the casual reader, it humanises a genre of fiction ridiculed as too simplistic to be a vehicle for female agency. The irony is that it is this unassuming, printed-on-cheap-paper literature that has provided generations of Pakistani women with an avenue for articulation of ‘private sentiments’ in a public sphere.

Stories with Oil Stains: The World of Women ‘Digest’ Writers in Pakistan Author: Kiran Nazir Ahmed

Publisher: Oxford University Press (2020)

Pages: 232

Price: Rs 795

The writer is a policy consultant and social anthropologist based in Lahore. She can be reached at zainab.altaf@gmail.com

Of veiled sentiments and secluded scholars