Flowers, Queens, and Goons: Unruly Women in Rural Pakistan

Article excerpt

Abstract

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. …