In the Pakistani city of Sargodha in 2007, i was launching the Punjabi edition of my novel ‘Skeena’, and had just heard some wonderful things about it, and also the very best review called ‘Peerni’ from a poet/educationist. Questions followed, and the first person wanted to know who my favourite novelists were. Easy, i thought, and began my SalmanRushdie-MargaretAtwood-ToniMorrison-LindaHogan bit.
‘Salman Rushdie, Marga…’ I could not finish the first name of the second novelist because five six people (actually men) had risen from different locations of that small hall, and they were all speaking at the same time.
I stopped to listen.
‘What kind of Muslim are you that you are taking the name of that Murtid (apostate)?’ An outraged man asked.
My answer was as unbelievable as the question, ‘i am a human before being a Muslim’.
At this, the hall became more restless, and the local organizer and my publisher were there on both my sides.
‘The question period is over’, someone said.
I was led away, and out the side door. The event ended.
There’s some good news that may not be available later in this post. Out of the 55-60 (or 45-50) people present there, i was supported in private by two women and a man of Christian descent who were working with a local human rights organization.
Together, we were reminded of Ayub Masih, arrested for blasphemy in 1996, and tortured, for suggesting to his Muslim neighbour to read ‘The Satanic Verses’ before going against it, and for showing preference for Christianity over Islam. After years of international lobbying while he was being tortured in prison, in 2002 he was acquitted and taken away from Pakistan. The extent of torture suffered by Ayub Masih led John Joseph (1932–1998), the then Roman Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, to commit suicide in protest against the cruel treatment of Pakistan’s minorities by it’s Muslim governments.
Back at the rest house i found an uncompromising silent stance from my companions that said it’s FINAL that Salman Rushdie has insulted the Prophet and he deserves to be punished; this isn’t up for discussion, Bibi, and it doesn’t matter if Iran has withdrawn the fatwa or not. My publisher gave the most elegant response. He said, ‘It’s not what he wrote, it’s what people associate with it. You know that it’s a sensitive issue to mention that name here’.
Sure, i knew, i had removed it from the Punjabi edition of ‘Skeena’. I knew it to be a sensitive issue in the general social environment but this was not a general ‘public’ gathering. Most people attending Skeena launches were left-leaning or progressive writers, artists, activists and journalists. I didn’t think it would be such a taboo with this set of people. The silencing, but more so, the sense of endangering other people felt oppressive but we were leaving in the morning.
Look what happened to me
We travelled back to Lahore, and i went to my family. When i was asked how did it go in Sargodha, i said, ‘look what happened to me…’ and began to tell my story, but before i could finish, the senior member of my family squirmed in his chair and then asked in a voice angrier than i had ever heard, ‘How could you take that name?’ For some reason, i was again not expecting it. Discussion became hot, and when it came to religion and religiosity, my respected elder told me to not ‘play smart’ with them, but to answer one simple question: do i believe in god or not. I said not. And that was the first time i was asked to leave a forever loving home. I did (but not for long). What puzzles me is that for those two family members, this was no ‘news’, they knew for many years that i don’t believe in god, i don’t practice religion, and that i think it’s influence suppresses the life force of people especially women, making them willing slaves to oppressive living conditions and/or to the interests of extreme religious groups. It is in my poems and stories; the character Skeena in the novel then being launched, denounces Islam at the end. So, why was i asked to leave after this discussion and not any time before? That name, perhaps.
While meeting a Punjabi poet and author at an event in Lahore, the ‘how could you?’ came up. I asked him ‘Can’t we even say what we think? We are not insisting that others be convinced’. The person just looked at me, no discussion.
Later, in an informal and warm home environment, i was asked by a group of friends to furnish them with the ‘why’ of mentioning ‘that name’. By that time, i had realized that it was not taking ‘that name’ that had appeared so unbelievable of me to all my progressive friends but it was it’s projection in a positive affirmative role that was causing the problem. From the sincere attention being paid to me over fine whiskey and golden garda, i felt that i needed to provide a reason, a justification, some rationale for what was being seen as my indiscretion, oversight, mistake. But while presenting my case to my enlightened writer, artist, activist friends in the room, i was not allowed to question the withdrawn guilty verdict given by a dead extreme religious leader. Challenging.
‘He is a very interesting storyteller’, I said, and that to me clearly expressed my involved experience of reading fiction by Salman Rushdie.
The faces stared at me in silence.
This was definitely not enough. Okay, ‘the master of magic realism, a world renowned author, he got the Booker of Bookers’, i said.
The faces remained unchanged.
So, i took a pause and began to roll a joint. For me, reading is to enjoy the story and the way someone told it, without analyzing or categorizing or rationalizing my likings and dislikings. But at that point, i was required to actually think why i like Salman Rushdie’s novels. It was difficult when their themes could not be mentioned so i couldn’t say ‘i like the fun way he integrates religion with the story’; and especially, when his being an interesting storyteller, the master user of magic realism, the Booker-winning world-renowned author, were all deemed insufficient. Am i expected to find something that the world has yet not found? To save my face that inexplicably was lost in the eyes of my friends, i had to come up with something. So i decided to share another factor that increases my level of comfort with it.
‘There’s no male nostalgia in his narrative’, i said.
This did draw some interest, and i was asked to elaborate on it.
‘Sometimes, i find strong male nostalgia in a story, plot, characters or underlying themes where for example, in a seemingly ‘equitable’ or ‘humanitarian’ theme environment suddenly you are confronted with the author’s desire to revert to a time with values that were, among other things, way more advantageous to men. The inconsistency is usually shocking enough to throw me out of it. But i am never confronted with that in Salman Rushdie’s novels; family, status, tradition, religion, nothing is held sacred’.
My friends appeared relieved. I had provided them with something unique to me, like a damaged leg or a crooked eye or some other disability, that had caused me to like the work of a Murtid. My offence was forgiveable because i had committed it under the understandable ‘influence’ of being a woman, an acknowledged aggrieved interest group. At that point, though Lal Masjid had happened the previous year, supporting women’s rights in Lahore was not that risky.
Extreme religious mindset
From Sargodha on, almost everyone i met had a similar response. Firm refusal to discuss the fatwa, The Satanic Verses or Salman Rushdie; and, a ‘betrayed’ outrageous persona saying ‘how could you?’. The last aspect involving the element of endangering my communities was the hardest to take because the fear, of course, was real. This same stance with unimportant variations was taken by people across the board; people who did not know each other to have developed the same positions by exchanging views. Also, out of nine cities, Hyderabad was the only place where religion was mentioned (by a leading Sindhi nationalist) in the context of Skeena, a novel that explores the negative impact of Islam on women. Can’t forget the chill that also did descend on my ‘social’ life.
Back in Canada, in 2009-10, i found Salman Rushdie’s (old) wall on Facebbok, it presented the most blatant written expression of the ‘nature’ of religious extremism- what it creates out of people. The unreason, intolerance, violence, bigotry, threats, and the filthiest verbal abuse- it was all there. I am glad that the owners began to confront this abuse, ended it, and developed a new page (Sir Salman Rushdie Fans), but i hope that the old page is archived somewhere for record.
In 2011, with an escalation in blasphemy killings in Pakistan, i became more and more involved with the movement against religious extremism. During that time, i realized that the blasphemy case against Salman Rushdie is crucial in fighting the mindset that supports the concept of anti-blasphemy in Muslim contexts. Though there are, and were, other Muslim authors accused of blasphemy but none gained this kind of Pan-Islamic exposure or became so central to the fight for freedom of expression around the world. For reasons, The Satanic Verses is one of the very few things where all major sects of Muslims find agreement: a purposefully created rallying item that can bring together all shades of Muslims in a ready condition to follow the Extremists’ agenda. It reminded me of the ease with which a progressive gathering of aware people in Sargodha turned into the voice of divine-ordained conservative intolerance. Something in that name?
A Harem and a Whorehouse
Something in that name hits a nerve where others fail. That nerve connects to a Harem and a Whorehouse. The Prophet’s exalted Harem is projected by the blaspheming author as a lecherous Whorehouse via the abuse of the names(!) of Pak BibiyaN, the Pure Respected Women, the Mothers of the Believers. Names again, so what may be hidden in these 11 names, i wonder, if not the ‘honour’ of a family. A family that over 1.6 billion Muslims (or about 23% of the world population) look up to and strive to follow.
Salman Rushdie can not be pardoned because the Muslim family structure must provide complete control to men over women, ‘harem is the cradle of Islam’, and Muslim men are reared on the idea of having the power to have multiple wives. The Prophet had 11 at the same time (13 in all), but the followers are allowed only four at a time. The promise of whatever number of hooris in the afterlife, and at least a mini-harem in this life, is at the heart of Muslim male psyche. And why not, it gives them decisive and absolute advantage over women, and so on all systemic structures, sanctioned by the Divine and duly practised by His Messenger. This is the family value that keeps the ultimate control of Muslim men over the persons and properties of their women, wives, daughters, sisters, mothers.
Imagine, the audacity of a Muslim male who tries to destroy the sanctity of that multiple-wife dream with ridicule, shattering that multiple-hoori promise by making fun of it. Salman Rushdie has attacked the very basis of this main method of societal control, the sacredness and the validity of the harem that assures Muslim men and women that having many wives is morally correct and religiously desirable. And even if most Muslim men don’t have multiple wives, they always can; it’s about what you are worth in relation to each other. In that case, how can i, a woman, even argue with a man bringing a second, third or a fourth wife, especially if he can ‘afford’ it and can keep ‘justice’ between them! What a creepy mind that thought of marrying women to ‘help’ them out, and that introduced the idea of keeping ‘justice’ between them- thirteen marriages in one lifetime, 11 at the same time, includes a child-bride! O’ what a disgusting family and what perverted sex life for a sanctified role model of 1.2 billion people!
To be honest, when i read The Satanic Verses, i felt that the author had made a successful fictional attempt to improve the living conditions of some women characters by moving their worthy names from one oppressive institution to another, less, oppressive institution. Instead of always having a ratio of 11 to 1 in a Harem, the women may have it 1 to 1 in a Whorehouse, at least in the most often-occurring situations. In place of being dependent on one man for the scocio-economic and psycho-emotional well being of 11, they can make their own money and take their own decisions while enjoying all the benefits of self-respecting working women. Most of all, the possibility, the mere possibility, of having a choice where they may refuse a client while they can’t refuse a husband, especially the one heading the most sacred Muslim family unit: ‘M’s 11’.
To explore the connection between that Sacred Exalted Harem and the Whorehouse in The Satanic Verses is a compelling call to sanity for Muslims. And the question i like to pitch is this: What is the difference between a Harem and a Whorehouse?
This came up while reading ‘Joseph Anton: a Memoir by Salman Rushdie’.