Cutting Free: The
Extraordinary Memoir of a Pakistani Woman
Cutting free from what? In a woman's autobiography, it will not be too difficult to hazard a guess: from male bondage, undoubtedly. Earlier books in this genre, notably Tehmina Durrani's My Feudal Lord and most recently, Asra Nomani's Standing Alone in Mecca, recount injustices meted out to women by the Islamic patriarchy, their shame of living in an Islamic society and their strength to overcome it.
This book also gives an account of male abuse: all three of Salma's husbands are cut from the same cloth as Durrani's Ghulam Mustafa Khar. Her first husband is exploitative of his wife's privileged position in society as the daughter of Syed Akhtar Husain, a Pakistani diplomat; the second is an arrogant nawab; and the third, a cricketer, is inherently temperamental and brutal. Another similarity between these books is the woman's capacity for candid disclosure and confession.
Like Durrani and Nomani before her, Ahmed talks openly about her childhood, adolescence, marriages and her subsequent position as an entrepreneur and a member of the Pakistani Muslim League. With it, she exposes the hypocrisy of Islamic customs, the cronyism of Pakistani politics and, of course, the accompanying gender bias.
But first, a word about autobiography: to speak frankly and boldly about one's life is a means of confronting the ghosts of an earlier period and cleaning up festering wounds. It is an emotional recapturing of the past, bringing to life people and places long buried in the mind. The book is Salma Ahmed's cathartic work, a release from bondage. She breaks her silence with a series of flashbacks from her pampered and charmed childhood, involving her parents, siblings and a host of other relatives.
At a young age, Salma marries Fazil Janjua, a marriage which is a trap from the very outset, possibly because Fazil expects her to 'amuse' one of his friends, but also, one concludes, because his position in life does not offer the extravaganza Salma is used to. While married to him, Salma recounts her affair with Cheemi, for whom she eventually leaves her first husband and son and with whom she has an endless honeymoon in Europe, enjoying ballets, races, operas and theatres, following the pattern of the lives of women of leisure.
But soon, she sees his dark side when he punishes her for dancing with another man. "Cheemi dragged me by my hair to my room. He took out a pair of scissors as I looked on faint with fear. Taking hold of my hair, he started cutting it. I thought that he would not only chop off my hair, but perhaps, also my nose, which is the traditional way of treating a woman who is supposed to have sinned."
Amidst her liaisons and
marriages, Salma commits the cardinal sin of neglecting her many
children. Her confession that she wants to place her son from Fazil at
an adoption centre is shocking. However, she sends him to his father and
does not see him for three years. She packs off her other son from her
second marriage to her parents in Tunisia in order to be with Saeed
Her other misdemeanour is her inability to give up a good life. Correspondingly, the autobiography is littered with words like 'opulence', 'extravagance' and 'luxury', which seem indispensable for her existence. Salma's honeymoon with Cheemi is 'extravagant', she lives the most 'fabulous and opulent lifestyle' in Tehran, she is excited to be travelling well and dining in glamorous restaurants. The book would have been predictable were it not for Salma's eventual initiative in setting up her own factory in the course of her third failed marriage.
Later, she blossoms into one of Pakistan's earliest woman entrepreneurs and goes on to receive the Priyadarshini award. She pioneers the ship-breaking industry in Pakistan and thus, becomes the first woman in the world to do so. She goes on to have a successful political career as a parliamentarian and her account bears witness to her political experiences with Zia-ul-Haq, who assumed sweeping powers by rejecting the National Assembly.
It is customary for those at the top to face their exile alone. Being a woman in power is much worse as woman's strength is often mocked and scorned by men and women alike. Their marriages are most certainly doomed as men become insecure in the presence of successful women. Comparisons are always drawn between the choices they make: whether career over marriage was a good option.
As Pakistani TV personality Mahreen Khan says: "A single woman is always eyed with a certain amount of curiosity. I could have just announced that I had won the Nobel Prize, but it would not matter. 'When are you getting married', they would still ask."
Although the reasons for Salma's failed marriages is unclear and the violence of her husbands inexplicable, her story is simple and straightforward. It carries a message for Pakistani women to learn from the struggles of professionals like her and change society for the better by fighting for their rights.