Friday, 11 December, 2009

The View from Garden City....

Just finished reading 'The View from Garden City: A Novel' by Carolyn Baugh. The novel is about a young American student's life in Cairo where she goes to study Arabic. She encounters Egyptian women and tells their tales of love, agony, pain, waiting, mothering.....the list goes on. In fact this book is more about these women than the narrator. The narrator just by being American seems to be mundane and not so exotic and the more exotic bunch (read Egyptian women) take over and fight for space in the book.

At the end of the book the author very clearly states her position. The stories of these women in no way is a reflection of Islam, rather is drawn from the tradition and culture within which these women function. Her narrating style is  gentle and she makes special effort to be non judgemental.

For a non Egyptian, the book beckoned. Being interested in Egypt ever since those history lessons long back in school, a fascination for the country grips me. When I started reading the book, I was ready for a flavour of Egypt and its foreign and exotic culture. In my eagerness I was ready with stereotype visualizations of a sexy belly dancer, smell of shesha, the hustle of a busy souq and of course those eternal pyramids shrouded in mystery. I was seeking the exotic, I found the known.

The stories of these women span emotions, relationships, experiences and   sufferings. First the positive bits-- the mother-daughter and the father-daughter relationships abound in the book, the love and care lavished on the young sometimes to the point of suffocation, over protective parents, the family support system, the humour and the rebellion. The author seamlessly weaves them into Cairo and its various landscapes, the nooks and the crannies and those inhabiting these spaces. The city provides a wonderful backdrop with its unique nuances-- the hustle, the bustle, the fights,  the colour, the smells and of course the chaos and the confusion. Now the sufferings of the women-- poverty, early marriage, the desperate pressure of marriage on young women and the eventual bowing down to a compromised loveless marriage, subsequent acceptance of the marriage as the 'ideal', female genital mutilation, inability to have children, miscarriages,  infant mortality, multiple marriages, domestic violence etc. But these women are in no way pitiful, they are feisty ladies who have long ago maneuvered the art of independence within their constricted spaces. The have the key to the mystery of being happy in the face of loss and sufferings. In their own way they scorn the Western, bemoaning their lack of caring for their young. Soon my glee of knowing about Egypt vanishes and I meet realities and oppression of my own culture.

Replace a few things here and there, take away the genital mutilation, introduce dowry deaths and Egypt gets replaced by India, Cairo becomes Delhi or Kolkata all too vividly. Suffering of women across cultures, traditions, patriarchies, religions and countries are so similar that they take one's breathe away.

These sufferings are nothing new, women have been inflicted by these for ages. In fact the more old a civilization (read patriarchy) is, more polished is its mechanisms of inflicting torture on women. Even at the risk of adding fuel to the smug sneer to those who oppose any kind of feminist thought, it is the women who perpetuate and perfect these tortures in name of tradition. To my surprise the scenario is exactly the same in Cairo. It is the mother who goes mad when the marriageable daughter is not married off, it is she who ushers in unsuitable suitors, who approves of lame men. Why you ask yourself? Why does she do it? Why is she forcing her daughter towards the same compromise that she succumbed to so many years ago? The fathers look on helplessly, fleeing their shrews of wives. Why, why are these men helpless? Are they not part of patriarchy, the ones who oil the system and lays down the sweeping dos and do nots?

I answer my own question. I think the great thing about patriarchy is that it is omnipotent, it lays down the same rules for all men, if men weaken, or grow sensitive, they automatically fall out of the system, new men are eager to take their place. And women they are the biggest catalysts in the hands of patriarchy. The work on these women start early in their lives, they are made to learn the rules, all rebellion is carefully got rid off, the victim is carefully branded as the criminal, fears of society's derision is strongly implanted. Little by little generations and generations of women are perfected by the machinery to convert younger women, to nip their rebellion, to mutilate their genitals, to need them at home, to feed them less than the sons, to withhold love and affection, to stop them from going to schools, to demand dowries, to kill women if need be for more dowries, to torture the daughter-in-law, to pressurize for a male heir, to force female infanticide................. These women, are more convincing then then men when they say ' Years ago I had to do what I am asking you to do today. This is life!'. In fact these women in my mind resemble the militia in a dictatorship. Their skills have been honed to perfection, and never having known any better alternative, they think the reality is the best option and fear that if the order of the day passes then whatever little power they have been able to accumulate over the years would slip away.

I grew up in an India where stories of dowry death were dime a dozen. Being from the east my parents would sigh with relief that such things do not happen in our part of the country. But just because Bengalis were progressive enough not to take dowries, do not mean that there is no patriarchy and its other instruments of torture like domestic violence,  torturing mother-in-law, no pressure to produce a male heir, no random violence, no rape.

Women are speaking out, taking on the mighty patriarchy...but the perfect order is far too far way. There are still millions of women being crushed...


  1. you just stole my thoughts...may be this all "tradition" of killing woman, pressurizing for male heir ( I hate this very much, why mother-in-laws ignore the scientific fact that females have nothing to do with determination of child sex.)will end only when most of the Indian women will be educated enough to know that they themselves are being their enemy. I hope the day will come when mother-in-law will love her daughter-in-law more than her son and daughter.

  2. lets hope so too....but realistically it seems a really long way off...but yes i do agree that education and economic empowerment is one step towards liberating women....also it takes ages for cultures to great example is you will see even very smart professional women accepting domestic violence cos they feel it is their due because of is a slow process....

  3. slow and steady win the race..


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