Bina Shah is a writer, essayist and feminist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She runs a blog called The Feministani in which she addresses women’s issues. She is well-known in Indian publishing circles for both her fiction and nonfiction writing. Her 2010 novel Slumchild was published in India and she was one of the essayists in the anthology Brave New Words, edited by Susheila Nasta. She has also contributed to the new anthology Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia, edited by Claire Chambers.
Her newest novel Before She Sleeps, a dystopian feminist work, was praised by none other than Margaret Atwood.
Bina was scheduled to be a speaker on the literature panel at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women, but could unfortunately not make it. However, she took the time to answer questions from the moderator, Mehvash Amin, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Pakistan-based literary journal The Aleph Review. Here is their conversation.
Mehvash Amin: Bina, your writing has been translated into many languages, you write for many international papers. Please comment on the feedback that you have received internationally on your beliefs and causes that are mostly specific to South Asian women and culture, though you have certainly transcended borders.
Bina Shah: It’s very hard to be a commentator on South Asian women and culture, or Muslim women and culture, because while I am speaking many difficult truths about our status and our lack of rights, this can be weaponized against our people.
When I say weaponized, what I mean is that cultures and countries that seek to control us still, through neo-colonialist power structures, can use my writing and commentary to justify the mistreatment and discrimination of our South Asian peoples for the reason that “you oppress your women” and “your women need to be freed.” This was in fact one of the main justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan, and look where that ended up.
On the other hand, I have found tremendous commonality and solidarity with women in so many countries. South America, Central America, the African continent, the Muslim Far East Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia – and the Middle East.
When I talk about women’s rights and empowerment, it’s like I’m speaking a common language with the women in all these countries. They immediately know what I’m talking about; there’s no need to explain. We’re all on the same page now, which was not the case twenty years ago.
My writing has helped make these connections as I see my essays and articles quoted, studied, analysed and researched by other writers, journalists, academics and students. I’m happy to have contributed to a global discourse about women’s rights and to have done my share to push the agenda further than people were comfortable with when this conversation first began.
Mehvash Amin: How would you galvanize your feminist message to build closer ties between the women of India and Pakistan?
Bina Shah: My novel A Season for Martyrs about the events surrounding the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life and the history of Sindh was also published in India by Westland Books. I wanted to highlight Sindhi culture and history, which goes all the way back through the centuries to the Indus Valley Civilization. So, when we recognize this culture, we understand that we have a shared history and shared foundations.
I also mention this book because it reminds us of another thing we have in common between India and Pakistan: two women prime ministers, both assassinated. This means that there is a similar dynamic in both our countries involving women and power. And rather than thinking that it is Islam and Hinduism, the two main religions of the Subcontinent, that divides us, I want us to recognize that we share the burden of patriarchy, which I have maintained in my writing is the world’s largest religion, biggest cultural and economic system.
So, the women of Pakistan and India and the broader South Asian region must recognize that we have common history, a common oppressor, and that in both our countries women and girls are at the forefront of societal and economic change.
This is a powerful position to be in, and we are at a crossroads where we are in the process of understanding that position and what we can actually do with it. If we can collaborate with each other artistically, culturally and diplomatically, we can move in the same direction and take South Asia to a better future.