‘How can you not know what I mean? We were raised to be married’

Arranged marriages and the domestic life of a married Pakistani woman.

A bride signing her marriage papers, Islamically known as the ‘Nikkah’.

Tahira and Shehzad’s relationship began from an arranged marriage set by their families. Tahira had only ‘met him once before’,1 when it was finalised, which, in 1970s Pakistan, would have been a common practice. Across South Asia, marriage is held in high regard, and are seen as sacred unions between a man, woman, and their families. Arranged marriages are the traditional route, although in the 21st century this has somewhat changed. Yet they should not be confused with forced marriages, in which consent from the bride and groom to be, is not considered.

Sadly, a Pakistani society would look down on women who are in their late twenties and unmarried, whilst for men this is not the case. Although this cannot be true for every Pakistani household, when talking about different time periods, the  70s would have been a challenging time for them. You could say that arranged marriages are the norm of South Asian societies.

Now Tahira and Shehzad’s marriage, is not a representation of how all arranged marriages turn out. Some work well, my own parents had an arranged marriage and they’re still going strong! However, Tahira struggles when living with her new husband…

The Dowry.

What is a dowry? A dowry is when the bride brings: money, cars, a property, land, or gold, from her maternal home, to her husband and in-laws. It is the groom and his family who benefit from this payment and may even demand higher amounts. Socially and culturally a bride’s family is expected to pay the amount they ask for, even if it is out of their budget. However, this practice is now becoming less popular amongst Pakistanis, especially those who are Muslim, as Islam looks down on dowries. Instead, women are entitled to a ‘mahr’, in which the husband must give some amount of money etc, to what he sees fit, as a gift which is hers to keep.

But why do some give dowry?

The amount a bride brings with her, determines how comfortable her life ahead will be. For instance, when Shehzad gets angry at Tahira’s family, he says: ‘“you humiliated me with a second-hand television, with an inadequate dowry”’.2 Even though Tahira’s family had given them the best they could, for Shehzad and his family, it was not enough. The fact that he felt ‘humiliated’, conveys how it is to do with the concept of upholding respect in a social circle, when being part of the middle/upper class.

By her in laws being unsatisfied by her dowry, this become the reason for Tahira being mistreated. Her mother-in-law Shireen builds into patriarchal stereotypes of the roles of men and women, in which the man is the breadwinner, whilst the woman is a housewife. She tells her son that: “dulhan is not accepting her brother’s death in the proper manner. It’s so unseemly this neglect of her family. You shouldn’t have to make your own tea. It’s a disgrace”’.3 Dulhan is the urdu term for bride, and after Tahira’s brother passes away, Shireen disagrees with how she is mourning. Again, like Shehzad, who was humiliated by the dowry, Shireen believes it to be embarrassing that Tahira is not in the kitchen, making something as simple as a cup of tea. She constantly taunts Tahira with degrading phrases like: ‘“you still haven’t lost the weight you put on when Saira was born”’.4 After freshly giving birth, Tahira is fat-shamed for not having a skinny figure, even though she has just experienced immense pain.

Many state that ‘the literature on arranged marriages among South Asian women has focused on […] main themes – [such as] the practice of dowry’. 5 Indeed, Abbas focuses on dowry, and through Tahira, represents how because of it she is emotionally abused, even though Shireen herself selected Tahira for her son.

Shehzad’s misogyny.

Misogyny refers to the hatred towards women and the belief that they are lesser than men. Shehzad adopts these views against Tahira, when he gifts her a book titled Heavenly Ornaments. The book dictates the rules a wife must follow to serve her husband. Believe it or not, this book exists!

Shehzad believes that through this, ‘he would teach her to behave with propriety that was pure in intention as well as behaviour. Yes. He would purify her in thought as well as deed’.6 Teach her to behave properly? Purify her thoughts? Such phrases convey how Shehzad fits well into a patriarchy, by seeking to belittle and control his wife. To save her marriage, Tahira goes forward with accepting this gift.

Tahira reads passages like: ‘‘The Prophet has said that had he ordered women to bow to anyone other than God, it would have been to their husbands’’. 7 It seems like Shehzad’s book has manipulated what Islam says, to downsize the role of a wife, into being solely to satisfy a man’s needs. Whilst it is true that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, quoted how wives should respect their husbands, he also stated that husbands should do the same, as shown in the image on the left. Hence, how Shehzad degrades his wife, is wrongful in the eyes of Islam.

He further displays his idea of a dutiful wife, when he claims: ‘wasn’t it her duty to make things smoother for him, […] to know his desires before he knew them himself?’.8 Now, although Abbas discusses that she ‘didn’t want The Empty Room to become part of the oppressed brown woman narrative in the West’,9 which is why she first published it in Asia. Through Shehzad’s personality as a character, it is evident that Tahira is an oppressed woman. However, those of South Asian background, are able to understand the situations Tahira is placed in, whilst the Western gaze may view them by building into stereotypes of a all Pakistani men as suppressing their wives.

F. Scott Fitzgerald states:

‘That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong’. 10

This anthropological approach means that literature allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of others to find a mode of commonality, and understand their experiences more. Abbas allows us to understand the struggles Pakistani women face, through abusive arranged marriages. One feels sorrow for Tahira who is bounded to Shehzad, and unable to leave due to what society teaches. It may be set in the past, but till this day, many Pakistani women experience hardships in their marriages, arranged for them.

[1] Sadia Abbas, The Empty Room (Zubaan Publishers, 2018), 7.

[2] Abbas, The Empty Room, 124.

[3] Ibid., 311.

[4] Ibid., 197.

[5] Raksha Pande, “I arranged my own marriage’: arranged marriages and post-colonial feminism,” Gender, Place and Culture 22:2 (2014), 174.

[6] Abbas, The Empty Room, 22.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid., 92.

[9] Sadia Abbas, interviewed by Shireen Quadri, “‘I wanted to understand how women live with misogynistic values’: Sadia Abbas on ‘The Empty Room’,” Scroll.in, Jan 21, 2020.

[10] Micaela English, “The Best F. Scott Fitzgerald Quotes,” Town&Country, Sep 8, 2017.

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

The Empty Room by Pakistani writer Sadia Abbas

Whilst reading The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas, I found myself annotating and jotting down the many thoughts it provoked in my mind. This led me to create a blog which contained my ideas around what Abbas touches on through her novel, and to explore the significance of them. I believe that it is important to almost dissect a novel as we read it, to understand the deeper meaning behind what is written.

The blog is mainly aimed at young adults who are studying Pakistani Literature in English, or who are more specifically looking at Abbas’s novel. This is the reason why the posts will include secondary theory, which will be useful for academic students. However, those who seek to learn more about Pakistani literature, may find this blog equally as useful as it provides a detailed insight into Abbas’s novel, which I believe is a good addition to the world of Pakistani literature. The novel also touches on a variety of different topics, which are portrayed in many other Pakistani novels.

Sadia Abbas is a Pakistani writer, based in the USA, yet was born and raised in Pakistan and Singapore. Growing up, she faced a dominant patriarchy in her family whereby the men had ownership over the women and limited them. However, Abbas broke the rules of the patriarchy by being the first person in her family to marry a non-Pakistani, and also the first person to endure a divorce. Marrying outside of one’s culture, and divorce, are both issues which, till date, are looked down upon by many South Asian families.

Sadia Abbas

Abbas completed a PhD in English Literature from Brown University, and now teaches at Rutgers University, within the English department. She wrote At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament, a monograph about the ‘new Islam’ following the Rushdie affair in 1988, to the attacks of 9/11. The Empty Room was her debut novel which was published in 2018, by Zubaan Books, an independent publishing house based in New Delhi, India.

In fact, as Zubaan states on their website:

‘‘Zubaan’ is a Hindustani word meaning tongue, voice or language. It is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to ‘women’s talk’, or ‘gossip’ – generally for women who talk too much! We are proud to reclaim the term on behalf of all those whose voices are silenced or marginalized by the mainstream, and will continue to be heard no matter others say’. 1

Thus, this publishing house focuses on fiction by South Asian women, like Abbas, written on the experiences of South Asian women. The Empty Room, is one such a novel which follows the life of the female protagonist Tahira, who undergoes an arranged marriage with Shehzad. The novel is set amongst the politics of Karachi in the 1970s, and touches many subjects around familial life in Pakistan, marriage, and a woman’s role. Tahira is a painter who is suppressed by her in-laws and husband. She is almost unable to escape her married life and faces many losses and grief. The novel was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2019, showing its literary merit in the world of contemporary Pakistani literature.

The overlapping themes are what I will be examining and focusing on through the different blog posts. Each post focuses on a different theme present in The Empty Room.

The posts are as follows:

  • How can you not know what I mean? We were raised to be married’. Arranged marriages and the domestic life of a married Pakistani woman.
  • How the Political affects the Personal.
  • Tahira: The Artist.
  • A Concluding Page.
  • Bibliography.

When discussing these themes of: Arranged marriages, political vs person freedom, and the presence of art, I will be conveying how the following characters are situated within each theme:

  • Tahira (Protagonist)
  • Shehzad (Husband)
  • Shireen (Mother in law)
  • Waseem (Brother) Safdar (his friend)

Indeed, themes in literary novels are important as they are the leading thoughts and dominant ideas within the plotline. Thus, my reason for structuring the blog around themes in the novel, is so that the reader is provided with a wide idea of the issues that are present in a Pakistani society, as explored by the author. Now you might be asking, why would I want to read this blog? Well by the end, I hope that you as a reader, will have enough knowledge of the novel, through the analysed quotes and explanations. I also aim to encourage you to indulge in your own thinking, about the ideas I have explored, and build on them. If you are someone who is not familiar with Pakistani literature, then this blog should provide you with a detailed insight into what it has to offer, before you leave to explore more novels.

[1] “About,” About Zubaan, Zubaan Books, accessed April 27, 2020, https://zubaanbooks.com/ .