They told me I don’t know how to write satire, I just copy the men: Pakistani Bestselling author Bina Shah
The state of affairs for women in Pakistan remains a globally debated issues. What’s the situation on the ground? How unsafe are women? Is there a gag on discussing gender challenges? In our effort to understand the realities, we are speaking to a pure-bred Pakistani woman who is a published author, a globally sought after columnist and a role model for literary aficionados. Bina Shah – political thinker by day, satire maestro by night, and entertainer 24×7– has defied the odds. In this special chat with Binjal Shah for SheThePeople.Tv, she spills it all – about the roadblocks that littered and deterred her pursuit, the men that questioned, the country that doubted – but the spirit that overcame it all.
Pakistan seems like an unlikely ecosystem to concoct a woman achiever as yourself. Care to bust some myths about your homeland, from your own experience?
Pakistan has a reputation for being extremely conservative, yet Pakistani women themselves are very progressive. They want careers and autonomy and even a little bit of financial independence, but they want to combine that with family duties and responsibilities. Since the beginning of Pakistan’s existence, we’ve heard about exceptional women who forged ahead in careers and were role models for other Pakistani women. Today, those women are becoming less of an exception and more of a norm. I know Pakistani businesswomen, a doctor who was a brigadier in the Army, corporate lawyers, entrepreneurs and so much more. It’s a spectrum where some women are all the way on the empowered end of the scale and others at the completely disempowered end – and most Pakistani women fit in somewhere along the way.
Having said that, did any ideological roadblocks litter or deter your journey?
I managed to forge a career that is so unique, I could call the shots eventually. But that came after years of working for other people, in both media and academia. Those are more progressive institutions where many women have already gone before me, so I avoided many of the bigger problems that women faced before me – harassment, discrimination, hostility.
One of the strangest problems I had was when I started working in a major media house, and there wasn’t a proper toilet for women on our floor – we had to go up on to the roof to use the toilet. I later learned toilet access is a huge problem for girls trying to go to school — too many schools don’t have working toilets for girls and women teaching so it prevents them from even going.
Tell us about your experience writing a book. We’ll start at the start – what pushed you towards finally lifting the proverbial quill?
Having always loved reading, and being fascinated by writing in high school, I still wasn’t aware that I wanted to be a writer until I was in my mid-twenties, and working as an IT journalist. I started writing essays for the independent Web site Chowk (no longer online). At the same time I started working on a collection of short stories about children and animals, which was published as Animal Medicine by OUP in 2000. It was just a pure desire to write: to express myself. I was adjusting to life back in Pakistan after many years away, and it was therapeutic.
Which book is most special to you? What inspired it?
The one I’ve just recently published, A Season For Martyrs. My love for my father and our ties to Sindh, as landowners and agriculturalists going back generations who have a very strong and concrete connection to the land of this beautiful province. I wanted to write something that paid tribute to that bond, and to my father’s devotion to the soil. It’s something not many other people can understand, that connection between farmers and the land they cultivate, but I wanted to capture it, especially as landowners in Pakistan have poor reputations as “feudals” and nobody seems to care about the contributions they’ve made to the prosperity of Pakistan.
Does any of the fiction in your books, find its roots in your realities?
Depends on the fiction. In Slum Child, I was flipping the perspective that I have: as a rich, privileged Muslim woman where Christian girls and women relate to us in positions of service and servitude. I wanted to tell their story from their perspective. A Season For Martyrs told a lot of the recent history in 2007 that I lived through, up until the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I play with reality when I write in order to tell a fictional story. But everything, including fiction, is rooted in reality, even though reality is subjective for all.
You have made political satire and humor your turf – both considered to be male bastions. Did you ever sense or outright face skepticism towards your work?
Absolutely. I recently wrote a satirical article and dozens of men tweeted, “You don’t know how to write satire, you’re just copying Nadeem Farooq Piracha” – another journalist who has made satire his specialty in Pakistani media. NFP himself would never have said a word against my work – we are colleagues who respect each other! It was surprising and not surprising at the same time, sorry to say. Men are always going to protect their turf, or the turf they think belongs to another man.
Men are always going to protect their turf, or the turf they think belongs to another man- Bina Shah
Who is your favorite author and why do you admire them so?
The author I have the most affection for is Bapsi Sidhwa. She’s a mentor and a friend, and I admire not just her writing – she’s the godmother of Pakistani writing in English – but her generosity towards me and other young writers. I read The Bride when I was eleven or so and it left such an impression on me, I’ve never forgotten it. She wrote about things you didn’t expect Pakistanis to write about: love, sex, family squabbles, difficult family members. She did it with such humor and affection for her characters that I really learned a lot about writing from her work.
We like to think of the literary sphere industry as an equalizer of talents, being blind to gender. Does that tally with the real picture?
Unfortunately, women’s writing is not read as much and not published as much as men’s. Nor is it reviewed as much. This despite the fact that publishing is a field dominated by women. But it is subject to market forces, which deem that men will read men’s writing but not women’s writing, while women will read both. So sexism still lives on in the literary world.
Hypothetically, say you are a mentor to a young woman aspiring to make it in the literary world. With what advice would you guide her through every important juncture of her life and career?
Follow your instincts, commit to telling the story, have principles both in your life and in your career. Integrity is the key to success in this field but learn to define success not by how much money you make or how many copies you sell or how many people click your columns. I realized I was a successful writer only recently, when someone wrote to tell me that with my writing, I had touched their soul. How lucky we are to have the ability to touch people’s souls.