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The Upstairs Wife, by Rafia Zakaria.

September 12, 2014

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, by Rafia Zakaria.  Beacon Press (2015), Hardcover, 256 pages.


An important book weaving together the stories of three generations of a Karachi family and the troubled history of Pakistan.

Rafia Zakaria grew up in Karachi and later moved to the United States where she is a lawyer, a journalist, and an activist for peace and human rights. She writes a weekly columnist for Dawn, the major Pakistani newspaper in English, and her articles frequently appear in Aljazeera. Beacon Press, the publisher of The Upstairs Wife, calls the book a memoir, but I was unable to verify basic information such as when and where Zakaria was born and when she migrated to America. Whether or not the actual events in the book occurred to her family, her knowledge of Pakistan and of women in Islam is deep and valuable. She writes well in a style that is more journalistic than literary.

The Upstairs Wife is not a typical memoir.  Although written in first person, the familiar inner struggles and development of the narrator are absent. Zakaria is an observer, and in the parts of the book, a child not fully aware of what is happening. Going back to the time before her birth, she tells of her grandparents living in Bombay. Hoping for a better life, her grandparents and their children migrated to Karachi in 1962 and prospered there. The extended family built an impressive house where the grandparents lived and dominated the first floor, and Zakaria’s parents and sibling lived upstairs.
The character at the center of the book is Zakaria’s Aunt Amina, the “upstairs wife.” Taking a second wife had long been acceptable within Islam, but seldom actually done among Amina’s family and friends. When her husband, Sohail, brought home another wife without consulting her, she was devastated by the scandal. After returning briefly to her parents’ home, she moved into the second story of her husband’s house while the new wife lived below. Meticulously following the Islamic rule that wives be treated equally, Sohail alternated weeks between the women. The situation continued to upset Amina, who grieved for the life she had expected with a husband that was hers alone.

Along with the story of her family, Zakaria relates the history of her nation. Personal stories are sprinkled with accounts of bombings and accidents caused by both terrorists and the national military. Pakistan‘s brief history is a complex one, and one that I had never understood. When Indian Muslims came to the new nation at the time of the Partition, they were not welcomed by the Islamic groups that already lived there. The refugees or “Muhajir” clustered together and prospered despite limitations on their advancement. Tension between the groups escalated, and what might have been minor incidents turned into ethnic riots.  Simultaneously, those supporters of democracy and supporters of military rule struggled for control of the country. The rise of terrorism and the involvement of the United States in both Afghanistan and Pakistan further complicated the many-sided conflicts. Life is also interrupted by earthquakes, floods, and wars with India and for the independence of Bangladesh .

Zakaria clams that what was happening privately in her family was paralleled in the national story, but I found that claim overblown.  Some parallels are present, such as her father’s birth and the birth of Pakistan and Aunt Amina’s dramatic return to her parent’s home with the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan in the 1990s. A few times family was directly affected by political events, like the military crackdown of opposition with curfews, restrictions of  of movements, and killings of citizens in their section of Karachi.  But Aunt Amina’s distress over her husband’s polygamy is not really connected to the rise of Islam extremism as Zakaria suggests.  Neither is the rise of that extremism the only problem facing Pakistan, as Zakaria makes clear. The public chaos does not actually mirror family problems, but it pervades their story with the sheer terror of living with violence and uncertainty. Pakistani history becomes a backdrop for the family, a fear of uncertainty  that what was happening to others could at any time happen to them.  Although Zakaria does not provide the parallels she claims, her blending of private and public narratives works well because of her ability as a writer.

Defining herself as a feminist, Zakaria pays close attention to women, making this book an excellent addition to the literature on women and Islam. While critical of how women are treated in Islam, she objects to Western feminists who exhort Muslim women to reject their faith.  Rather than rhetoric about women as victims, her book provides a detailed account of the limitations that Muslim women seldom challenge. Her accounts of women’s daily lives reveal their texture and rhythm. I was struck by little things — that women could not take part in funerals and had to enter dwellings by the back door.  Zakaria’s focus on polygamy and the tension between the two wives is unique and valuable.   In addition, Zakaria includes women in telling the history of her country. We learn of the women and children killed simply because of where they lived. She discusses Benazir Bhutto as a political power and also as a woman. Without dismissing the allegations of corruption by her and her husband, she also described the concerted campaign by religious leaders to preach about the heresy of allowing a woman to rule. She tracks the desire to “purify” the nation after Bhutto’s removal with increased enforcement of rules restricting and punishing women.

I strongly recommend this book to all who care about what life is like for various Muslim women and to those who care about understanding the recent history of the Middle East and South Asia. It is an enjoyable and accessible book as well as an informative one.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2014 6:02 pm

    This sounds like an interesting read. I’m compelled by Bhutto for various reasons, so anything with her as even a minor player holds interest for me. Thanks for the review!


  1. WOMEN AND ISLAM | Me, you, and books

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