This article focuses on girls and women perceived as deviant, difficult, or different by their communities in rural Punjab, even as it pluralizes and historicizes performances of rebellious, unruly selves. Specifically, the paper uses fieldwork interactions with girls who enjoyed wanderings in out-of-bound spaces, women who claimed a position of authority as headmistresses in village schools, and women who troubled the social imaginary through their acts of intimidation and involvement in local politics in order to examine defiance of gendered norms within the context of material, structural, and discursive realities framing individual lives. The analysis illustrates how regional differences among various parts of Punjab, and hierarchies based on class, kinship, and religion within regions, demarcated the contours, scope, and consequences of women's deviance and unruliness. While the research participants' agency remained constrained by the violence in and around their lives as well as, in certain cases, their own complicity with hierarchical relations and masculinist discourses, the accounts and performances of deviance highlight the heterogeneity of rural Punjabi women's experiences, debunking the myth of passive Muslim women, and asserting the imperative for nuanced, in-depth understandings of women's negotiations of power relations.
Keywords: resistance, Pakistani women, qualitative research
Framing the Project
"She just keeps coming back (2). We take her back to her in-laws' home. I wake up in the morning, and who is sleeping in the courtyard outside? Maharani jee (3)." The members of the research team, including myself, followed the direction of Salma's (4) accusatory finger. The subject of the tirade, a very thin young woman most likely in her late teens, appeared oblivious to our gaze and to Salma's words. She was lying on a cot, her eyes closed, and her neck supported by newspaper rolled into a pillow. Her dopatta, the long scarf usually worn across their chests or on their heads by women in Punjab, lay on her side.
Salma spoke again, so our eyes moved back to her face. This time, however, Salma looked helpless rather than angry.
"I just don't know what to do with her. She really is harmless, you know. She is not a badmaash (5), only stubborn and very attached to our two children. Sometimes I wish we could lock her up. I raised her after my mother-in-law died ten years ago ... God, O God, why did you make her so hard to control?"
In a few minutes, we found ourselves taking leave of Salma, who had become focused on getting Neelam off the cot to help her cook. Although Salma promised that she would talk to us later in the week, we were not able to coordinate our schedules before we left their village, one of our sites in Central Punjab for the 2001 Pakistan Poverty Assessment (6). Other people in the village did talk about Najma's family: some were sympathetic; others mocked Neelam's odd behavior, as well as the inability of her family to curb her rebellion.
This article focuses on "hard to control" women and girls I came across during fieldwork in rural Pakistan in the context of a World Bank funded study (7). More specifically, I write about five women and two girls deemed difficult to discipline, disorderly, or deviant, by communities I visited in rural parts of Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan in terms of population and land size (8). My "data" on Neelam remains scant--I never saw her with her eyes open, yet this piece on uncontrollable girls and women in rural Punjab owes its genesis to the brief fieldwork encounter described above.
My project here spilled out of a research endeavor that centered heavily on economics, even though our ethnographic orientation contextualized household income and expenditure within stratified rural communities. It was the very emphasis on defining the normative, including the imperative to locate gender norms, which vividly brought to light the women and girls who did defy those norms in one way or the other. Additionally, our adjustment to women's work schedules, their conversational styles, and the distractions posed by neighbors and extended family members freely walking in and out of the interview context generated the possibility for this paper. The opening vignette exemplifies the methodological and representational approach in this piece of writing. As I primarily write about and from within key field encounters, eschewing a neat summing-up of women's lived realities, I seek simultaneously to convey the vitality and complexity of the women at the heart of this paper, and the impossibility of ever capturing the multi-layeredness of their lives and agency.
The conception of agency underpinning my analysis of unruliness draws from poststructuralist feminist notions of gendered identity as "enforced cultural performance, compelled by compulsory heterosexuality" (Jagger, 2008, p. 20-21)), and of subjectivity, the experience of being a self, as discontinuous, dynamic, and relational, contingent on the impact of multi-leveled power relations in a context (9). From such a perspective, the sustained enactment of gender is vulnerable to interruption or disruption, carrying within itself the potential for its failure, and the potential for an agency whereby norms are defied or resisted, generating spaces where possibilities arise to challenge the oppression and violence generated by compulsory heterosexuality.
Building on Mahmood (2005)'s concern with the interiority of the subject, I explore the relationship between desires and performance as it unfolded within the research situation. Embodied behavior, for instance, the use of the dopatta in specific ways (covering the head, draping the shoulders, or as in Neelam's story above, just thrown on the side), or, the refusal to stay within sanctioned spaces and roles, is vital to the discussion in the paper. Nevertheless, the interviews and conversations also represent spaces of reflection, introspection, and negotiation, what Besio (2005) sees as auto-ethnographic exercises, whereby research participants examined, albeit incompletely, their own motivations and desires even as they located themselves in particular fields of power. Of course, my presence as a researcher associated with the development industry, a "modern" (10) woman visiting from the "government" city, Islamabad, mediated the performances as rebellious, deviant selves as well as the knowledge production about deviance.
Writings on Pakistani women in general, feminist and otherwise, in academic and advocacy quarters, have tended to delineate the impact of anti-women laws and development policies (for instance, Khan, 2006; Mumtaz, 2009). While these studies have been timely and compelling, rural Pakistani women in particular are cast as disadvantaged, striving to continually meet basic needs in spaces characterized by totalizing feudal structures and religious discourses (see Zubair, 2001 for an alternative conceptualization). The present study aims to implode these monolithic representations by attending to the heterogeneity and contradictions of women's desires, experiences, and performances of selves within the specificity of their life circumstances and social locations. Women's words and performances illustrate how their agency is constrained and enabled through identities made available through religion, kinship/caste, (11) land other markers of difference, including socioeconomic class (12), and household means of livelihood.
Unlike radical feminist celebrations of women's resistance (see Sempruch, 2004), I complicate the celebration of individual women's unruliness by grounding my accounts within material and discursive realities distinctive to the spaces and times in which their lives unfold. I am particularly concerned with how postcoloniality--the persistence of colonial violence and structures into the present and the collusion of nation-building agendas with neo-colonial processes--is embodied, manifested, and contested, within gendered contexts of specific geographies and relationships. Place, including women's physical, residential, and socioeconomic locations in their villages, and the particular location of their villages within Punjab, emerges as a salient theme in this investigation of the nature and scope of agency as well as attempts to order or govern unruly bodies (13).
The differential relationships (14) of Southern, Central, and Northern Punjab to colonial and post-independence centers of power have translated into different paths to modernization with profound implications for women's relationships to space, their economic status, and their access to healthcare, education, and the rule of law. (15) Reshaped by the colonial development of the canal-based irrigation system, Central Punjab, especially, became home to increasingly affluent politically active landlords and progressively poorer sharecroppers and small farmers. Post-independence, Central Punjab has continued to be at the center of Pakistani electoral politics, paradoxically characterized by a fragmentation of local community structures intensified through post-Partition population transfers, and an acute sense of caste-based loyalty. Despite the persistence of socioeconomic disparities, compared to both Southern and Northern Punjab, it is more "developed" with better roads, more functional schools, and more accessible basic healthcare (Chaudhry, 2009). Interestingly, however, it is the rain-fed Northern Punjab, where peoples' livelihoods are not mostly dependent on agriculture, and relatively free of feudal constraints, where poverty indicators seem to be the lowest (Arif and Ahmad, 2001). Southern Punjab remains the least developed part of Punjab, exemplifying the continuation of a colonial mode of control that predates the commercialization of agriculture in the 1800s: the landlords in Southern Punjab receive state patronage in exchange for keeping the masses in check (Chaudhry, 2008a).
The narrative and analysis in the next section illustrate how regional differences, and caste and class based hierarchies within the regions, demarcate the contours, scope, and consequences of women's deviance and unruliness. The sub-section titles, "Flowers," "Queens," and "Goons" are organizational strategies to juxtapose and examine comparable vignettes from the field rather than categories of analysis. The final section shares parting ruminations.
Unruly Girls And Women In Rural Punjab
"The old women say she is allahlok (16), and so sensitive. This child is like a lotus growing in a swamp. How do I protect her?" Farzana's mother sighed as she showed Nadia, my research assistant, and I the objects her daughter had made out of date-palm leaves and water-reeds. "She was sick a few months ago with a fever that would not go away. She worries about her father's TB. She made herself get well so she can continue to go and collect the reeds from the riverbank. Without her he would not have the money to buy Paracetamol (17)."
"We do the best we can," Farzana's sister-in-law, her brother's wife, sounded defensive as she cut off the older woman, "We can not keep on doing X-rays. It is a simple matter of priorities. My father-in-law is old, and my children are young. This household has only one real earning member, my husband. The little land we have does not give us enough. He (the husband) also works as a laborer. You tell us should we nurture the young or save the old? Anyway, Farzana should not be wandering around by herself. She is not a child anymore. People talk and her brother is embarrassed by this waywardness."
Quite unperturbed by her sister-in-law's callous …