Tehmina Durrani: A Champion of Women’s Empowerment in Pakistan

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Tehmina Durrani arrests worldwide attention immediately after the publication of her first novel Blasphemy. Her second novel My Feudal Lord exposes the miserable position of a woman pitted against the patriarchal background of Muslim society in Pakistan. This novel won Italy’s Marissa Bellasario prize. Tehmina’s last biographical novel on the life of Abdul Sattar Edhi is A Mirror to the Blind. Tehmina in her first two novels, Blasphemy and My Feudal Lord champions women’s empowerment both in private and civic life. Basudeb profiles the new woman of Pakistan, in the special feature on International , exclusively in Different Truths.

From the dawn of the modern civilisation, patriarchy continues to preside over the society. The west experiences a number of revolutionising and epoch-making events of far-reaching importance, e. g, the European Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, democratic values in family as well as in public life and above all, the cross-currents of philosophical writings. The popularity and acceptance of the concept of woman’s empowerment in society as well as in family was a social as well as political phenomenon in the West during the last two centuries. The founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, dreamt of an industrially developed modern democratic Pakistan and he “knew that the Muslim masses were too ignorant to be fully aware of their interests and too content to follow their pirs and landlord”. But the subsequent political heads instead of following Jinnah’s path implanted dictatorship in Pakistan since the mid-fifties and harboured no democratic reforms. Local war-lords and jagirdars were allowed to grow and the feudal structure to flourish. Indeed, some democratic-minded political leaders understood that the intermediary role played by the war-lords, jagirdars, Sufi Saints and other religious operators between the British government and  the poverty stricken, illiterate  masses during the  colonial rule had lost its contemporary relevance in postcolonial Pakistan but owing to their  political compulsions, they could not go ahead with their mission.

The South Asian region starts experiencing a new global phenomenon during the last quarter of the preceding century – the impact of which Pakistan hardly escapes. This is the impact of the information technology explosion, market economy and consequently consumerism. The world becomes ever tinier than the world of the past. The impact of the emergence of India as the world’s largest democracy on Pakistan is also formidable. Various constitutional changes on the floor of the Indian Parliament legitimising human rights and democratic norms make the Pakistani rulers shaky. Series of military coup in Pakistan deprives the people of democratic values in social and political life. No democratic reforms from the top to the grassroots of village administration took place, in Pakistan, since its formation, on August 14, 1947.

But, Pakistan gives birth to a few intellectuals and creative writers, who with a view to emancipating their nation from the shackles of religious fundamentalism, illiteracy and prejudices become vocal and decide to use their mite to build up a new Pakistan. Tehmina Durrani is one of those few writers in Pakistan, who in Blasphemy delineates the decay and degeneration of a Sufi saint, who is a Pir and the head of a shrine, located in the southern part of Pakistan. The Pir makes his wife a victim of his sexual savagery. The first person narrator is the wife of the Pir, who is the Sufi-hero in the novel. He is a lecher, a wolf wearing a veneer of sainthood, practicing passionately the depraved dissipation.

Heer, the heroine of the novel had to marry the Pir, who was her mother’s choice. The Pir was an influential person in the Pakistani society. The serious problems in her life cropped up after she went to her husband’s house. Every night after the dinner she had to attend to her husband for complying with his sexual savagery, no matter whether she could withstand the game in the process of sexual communion with her husband. During the month of Ramadan, Heer came to know that she was again pregnant and her husband was informed of it. The moment the Pir knew it he asked her to abort the child.  Heer was a devout Muslim, who realised the hollowness and the bankrupt ness of the Shrine-myth. She wondered how a holy man like her husband had followed the holy dictate of fasting during the month of Ramadan with a conclusion of sin, i.e., his instructions to his wife to terminate her pregnancy.

Ultimately circumstances led her to believe that the shrine-head practiced another religion, not the religion of Islam. The most gruesome and obnoxious occasion approached Heer’s  life, one  night, at the end of summer when all the female members slept on charpais (string cots) in the middle of the courtyard and Pir Sain came out from the adjacent room, bent upon his daughter, Guppi, who was in sleep and took her to his own room. After few seconds, Heer heard Guppi screaming and found her coming out of his room stumbling. To save her daughter from her devilish father she decided to send an orphan girl Yathimri, who was changing her bodily shape with the growth of her age, to the unholy fire of Pir Sain’s lust. She thought, “Child rape was a lesser evil than incest.” Heer since then went on sending Yathimri every night to her husband’s fire of hell and thus kept Guppi away from her diabolical father. This was not the end of her ordeal.

After a couple of days, Pir Sain came to know that Chote Sain enjoyed the sexual union with Yathimri and this made him furious. He asked Khajji to whip his bare back in presence of all for his adultery. Chote Sain could not withstand this cruel lash and died in the hospital. Everybody knew that he died of a snakebite in the field. Pir Sain’s sexual perversity reached the climax when he invited his friends to his ‘haveli’ and forced his wife Heer to adopt the disguise of one Piyari, a whore, coming from the city and to get herself involved in the sexual mating with those strangers. This was not the end. On an invitation from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he went to the State-capital and returned home after two days with some clothes and other things for Heer, which made her offended and shy. A local Jagirdar, a friend of his, was invited to the ‘haveli’ and he ordered his wife to be in bed with him. Pir Sain’s sexual barbarity was so exemplary that during those moments of Heer’s sexual crises, the licentious fiend videotaped all situations keeping himself behind the camera. Wine and woman were his constant companion.

The recklessness and debauchery deteriorated his health. Rajaji, their only surviving son, the possible heir to the shrine, decided to marry Maharani, who was the illegitimate daughter of his own father. A war begins between the father and the son. Heer, reeling under this abject drudgery, was so desperate to get rid of her bestial husband that his death was also  to her then. She then realised that her husband was a ‘Munafiqat’ (a hypocrite). Heer was devoutly religious and decided to wage ‘Jihad’ against her husband, the enemy of Islam.

Cheel, who was appointed by Pir Sain to spy on her, was a victim of the shrine’s oppression. Her religious mission was also to the Pir and the shrine. Heer then helped Cheel to kill the Pir. Thus, Heer retaliated against her husband.

Heer felt once more religious task still to be done even after the elimination of her husband, who was a ‘Munafiqat’. She made up her mind to destroy the shrine myth, which, according to her, was a perennial source of corruptions and causes of all sufferings of the ordinary people. The empowerment of Heer enthused her even to sacrifice her  own status and reputation and to exhibit publicly those video films establishing the fact that her husband, who was a spiritual mentor  of the  people was a criminal and the institution which he ran and promoted was a source of  all sufferings to man. Rajaji, her only surviving son, who became the natural heir to the supreme spiritual position of the shrine even silenced his mother with his iron because Heer was to destroy the class interest to which he belonged.

Finally, she had to leave her husband’s ‘haveli’ and to go to the city with her brother. After one year Heer secretly visited her husband’s shrine and found a village woman paying tribute standing in front of a tomb that read, ‘HEER’

She practiced celibacy for the rest of her life.

My Feudal Lord which is a fictional autobiography shows the development of the first person narrator from a compromising housewife to a woman of empowerment — a woman who decides finally to practice celibacy. Gulam Mustafa Khar was a feudal lord, who met Tehmina in an elitist get-together in Pakistani society. Mustafa proposed and finally married Tehmina. After the marriage Tehmina found that her husband was a formidable patriarch, who considered least the marital sex as a common ground where husband and wife played for mutual pleasure – both mental and physical. Tehmina still accepted her husband because she knew that a divorced woman in Pakistani society was socially despicable and economically . She was reconciliatory in continuing her marriage with Mustafa.

Mustafa Khar was a political being and a close friend of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After the overthrow of the government of President Bhutto and the installation of the military regime by General Zia in Pakistan, the political career of Mustafa became uncertain. Mustafa and his wife then fled from Pakistan and took political asylum in England. There Tehmina was pregnant for the second time and during this pregnancy she had to go to the hospital for check-up, where a team of male doctors attended her. This check up by the male doctors injured the sexual ego of the feudal lord to whom his wife was one of his belongings like any other commodity. Even in her hospital bed, she was physically assaulted by her husband. He fiercely attacked her and threatened her saying, “Do you realise that you were examined by male doctors! Male doctors! You have humiliated me. I shall not forgive you.” The feudal lord’s sexual ego received wounds at her treatment by the team of male doctors. This was his attitude to Tehmina.

The execution of Bhutto, in 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and other compulsions in internal politics helped General Zia consolidate his power and position in the domestic politics in Pakistan. Mustafa, at this point of time, changed his political strategy; he travelled the whole of the European continent; collected support from all those in exile. At this stage of his life he appeared to be an ardent advocate of democracy in Pakistan. Tehmina was with him in London. Though she was outside the jurisdiction of the Islamic law in Pakistan, she had not the guts to stand against Mustafa because it was her spirit that conditioned itself to consider the male-head of the family as her master. The concept of woman’s empowerment was unfamiliar to Tehmina at this stage of her life. She accepted Mustafa’s bestial role on her life silently.

While Mustafa was busy in organising all those Pakistani people in exile to make his reentry into the politics of Pakistan, he also simultaneously developed an incestuous relation with Adila, Tehemina’s younger sister by establishing physical relationship with her. The Holy Koran forbids a person to develop an affair with the sister of his wife unless he severs his relationship with his wife through the Islamic process of Talaq. Tehmina in her desperation reported this to her mother. When Mustafa came to know it, he started beating her, asked her to take off her clothes; even she was not allowed to keep her bra and panties. Her prayer even to the Prophet could not help her at that moment. The gruesome situation injured her sanity. This was the extent of Mustafa’s sexual sadism.


But the devil had no hesitation to kneel down before Tehmina when he was in need of her help. She knew that her husband was broadminded, democratic and a supporter of the underdog, in his public life, but, in his private life, he was a patriarch, denying all rights to his wife and maintaining an incestuous relationship with his sister-in- law. For the first time, she started thinking with sense what happened to a faithful woman if her husband committed to incest. She was in two minds as to whether she would continue her relationship with her husband or not. On the onehand, she was sure that Mustafa Khar would never cease to make blueprints of torture; on the other hand, his zeal to return to Pakistan and to transform the feudal society in Pakistan into a modern democratic and industrially developed one roused a lofty ideal hidden within the depths of her mind.

Mustafa then decided to return to Pakistan. His purpose was to make himself relevant to the fluid political scenario in Pakistan. The moment they landed in the airport, Mustafa was arrested by the police. Tehmina, being the wife of Mustafa, the former Governor of Punjab, arrested the attention of the press as well as the public. Mustafa was sent behind the bar. Tehmina time to time visited him in the jail. At this stage of his life, Mustafa, the Machiavellian, felt that Tehmina was the only person whom he could only bank and who could help him release from the jail by initiating meaningful talks with the military junta of Pakistan. An event took place this time when Mustafa was in jail and Tehmina was moving from door to door of the high officials of the military government of Pakistan like unmitigated storm for his release. This event was an eye-opener for Tehmina. On the occasion of Mustafa’s birthday on the August 2, 1987, Tehmina along with her children secured permission from the jail-authority to meet him. Tehmina was recovering gradually from the surgery she underwent. Even the stitches were not removed from her body. The boor took Tehmina alone to his prison cell and pounced upon her to love to her though she repeatedly said she was unfit physically. This was an event that made her understand that her husband was incorrigible and susceptible to no change in his attitude to life. She understood he was a hypocrite.

Tehmina’s contact with some cricket stars in the ‘haveli’ of Salahuddin expedited the process of transformation in her attitude to gender discrimination, which was rampant in Pakistani society.

For the first time in her life, she found that those gentlemen did not rise when she entered Salahuddin’s house. In the milieu of the feudal society man is gallant to woman. Tehmina used for the first time in her life peeped into the horizon beyond the feudal world.  Her upbringing in an atmosphere of feudal society did not match the atmosphere of Salahuddin’s ‘haveli’. Afterwards she met a good number of cricket stars, and felt no hesitation from the either side in interactions.

The person in Tehmina, free from the shadow of her husband, finally foregrounded herself. Her exposure beyond the horizon of the world of Mustafa — the world where she had to confine herself from the day of her marriage made her aware for the first time of the crisis of her self-identity. She learnt how to assert herself in life. She made relationship with some people around her independently .She reached the gateway to freedom.

Mustafa’s repeated appeal to Tehmina not to terminate their marriage was intersected by his carefully constructed image of his own self as a visionary and a statesman. This was perhaps Mustafa’s strategy to soften Tehmina’s mind and to make her an instrument of his release from the jail. Ultimately he succeeded in his game plan. Tehmina   met and persuaded the chief of the Inter Service Intelligence in Pakistan for his release. General Zia died in an air crash on the August 17, 1988. Ghulam Ishaq Khan assumed the office of the Army General of Pakistan and announced the date for general election for the return to democracy. Mustafa, the imprisoned Lion of Punjab, decided to contest in the election. He was naturally released from the jail. In the election campaign, Tehmina moved from place to place of his constituency like storms and campaigned for his victory. Mustafa Khar, former Governor of Punjab, once again won the heart of the people. Banners after banners with the following proclamation: ‘Lioness – Congratulations.’

You have succeeded in freeing the Lion were found everywhere. Mustafa won two National Assembly seats with a thumping majority. He revived his illicit relationship with Adila. The political importance of Tehmina in his life was over. He became then free. Moreover, her political image, her growing popularity among the press-people and the masses, her articulated gesture in   political circle, all became his eye-sore. She then became redundant in his political career.  He decided to dump her in his domesticity. During this period of her life, Mustafa one day tried to be intimate with her. His attempt to make love to her made her nauseated.

In a closed Muslim society like Pakistan, a woman has no right to write a revealing the innermost realities of her life. Tehmina made up her mind to write an autobiography and to establish herself independently in life. She decided to practice celibacy. It was her empowerment that led her to undertake this task of writing an autobiography. She stood up and broke the silence. She is the new woman, who represents the modern Pakistan.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photos from the internet.

#IWD2017 #BeBoldForChange # #WomanEmpowerment #WomanEmporwermentInPakistan #TehminaDurrani

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy's View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti