By Fauzia Rafique
Libros Liberated, Surrey, 2010
A Vancouver-based South Asian Canadian writer of fiction and poetry, Fauzia Rafique captures the essence of patriarchy in her novel Skeena. The narrative, in fact, encompasses both the universality of patriarchal violence and the specificity of violence against women in Pakistan.
The story spans thirty years of existence of a Muslim woman named Skeena. Here the protagonist narrates her life history – from 1971 to 2001 – thereby lending an autobiographical touch to this fictional text. The novel is divided into four sections; each segment touches upon the various forms of violence introduced into Skeena’s life. The narrative focuses on Skeena’s interactions with her family, friends and community, and her observations about numerous aspects of social oppression such as patriarchy, religious fanaticism, immigration, racism, class distinction, war, etc.
The first section of the novel titled “The Inner Yard” opens with the image of a young Skeena finishing her homework which involves memorizing the phrase ‘thank you’ to store it in her vocabulary. The young protagonist is, in fact, continually and rigorously instilled with the code of femininity by the older women of her family. Obedience and submissiveness are required as feminine attributes within the socio-cultural ideology of Skeena’s community; however, Skeena is forbidden to demonstrate such qualities in front of lower castes and classes, thus throwing light on the hypocrisy and oppressiveness associated with social binaries. Rafique has, in effect, skillfully woven the complexities, contradictions, brutality and duplicity of various social practices into her narrative.
Since childhood Skeena is forced to witness the brutal consequences of the Islamic teaching propagated by a maulvi: “Good women are obedient to men” (41). According to him, physical violence is decreed by God as an apt punishment for women who attempt to transgress social conventions. The maulvi’s ideology – which he states to be authorized by religion – encourages village men to view violence as an essential factor which cements the male’s position of power within his community. Skeena witnesses several instances of violence inflicted on women often leading to the loss of their lives. For instance, a village youth named Gamu is not held accountable for his act of brutally murdering a woman because he is his mother’s only son. The lascivious Munshi’s marriage to young women of different ethnicities is lauded by Skeena’s community for he forces these Kafir women to accept Islam as their religion. Skeena’s best friend Nooro, a victim of the custom of dowry, is beaten severely by her female in-laws for daring to suck on a piece of lemon without their permission. All these instances instil a sense of determination within Skeena to attempt to transcend and overcome the violence-ridden social standards.
The second section of the novel aptly titled “Wild Elephant” shows Skeena entering her youth with an ambitious mind to challenge the injustices of society. Her family raises numerous objections to her plans. Skeena desires to attain a law degree but her mother and brother forbid her to enroll in any kind of co-educational institution. Her dream of participating in Asian Games for her college female hockey team is shattered for the mullahs issue a fatwa that it is “obscene” for women to enter any such sport (182). Skeena is prohibited by her mother from joining politics and advised to concentrate on learning her marital duties.
However, her association with a young Muslim woman activist named Ruffo proves a catalyst for Skeena’s breaking away from the shackles of societal conventions.
Ruffo drinks, smokes, and does not view woman’s virginity as being a requisite for matrimony. Her blatant disregard for narrow-minded social practices influences Skeena to oppose the patriarchal laws laid down by her mother. After Skeena is caught by the police for attending secret political conferences, her mother banishes her to their village, placing her under the servants’ surveillance. But this exile is not enough to suppress Skeena’s fighting spirit. She threatens violence to save Jeeno – wrongly accused of adultery by a maulvi – from the wrath of the villagers. Skeena thus ends up becoming the antithesis of the woman her community wants her to be.
In her introduction, Fauzia Rafique reveals that the name ‘Skeena’ has diverse meanings in different languages namely the “spirit of tranquility” in Arabic, the “indwelling feminine face of divinity” in Hebrew, and the “River of Mists” in Nisga people’s language. Skeena’s mother has raised her according to the values and qualities represented in her forename. But Skeena ruins all her mother’s efforts to cultivate her into an ideal patriarchal feminine figure. Skeena is self-aware, insightful, rational and empathetic to other women’s experiences of violence. She is aware that social biases are anathema to progress and she strives to rise above them. She is, in fact, the “wild elephant” threatening to trample the socially constructed patriarchal values promoted by her family. However, Rafique avoids turning her protagonist into a feminist revolutionary. The author keeps her writing realistic by showing Skeena being forced to surrender to familial pressure and married off against her will to her Canadian groom, a doctor named Ihtesham.
The next chapter of Skeena’s life comprises her nine-year marriage marked by domestic violence. Ihtesham basically relegates her to the position of a servant in their home. Moreover, he uses her to vent his sadistic impulses. Skeena’s mother-in-law is characterized as a “foul-mouthed, mean, selfish, and ruthless woman” (129). She too is a patriarchal subject who maintains her dominant status in the household by allowing her son to be physically abusive to his spouse. “Mumie Jee” deliberately creates conflict between the married couple by accusing Skeena of having illicit relations with one of their male acquaintances. However, she ignores her son’s extramarital affairs. The dynamics within Ihtesham’s family shows how patriarchy constitutes both men and women who would always associate themselves with different forms of violence to maintain control over others. Rafique also delves into the psyche of the victim of domestic violence. Despite witnessing violence throughout her young life, Skeena has never been a direct recipient of it until her marriage to Ihtesham. Moreover, her being an immigrant in Canada adds to her sense of detachment and passive stance towards violence. But once she manages to escape her marital home and reach a women’s shelter, her association with other battered women instills a sense of independence in her. She leaves behind her elitist notions such as viewing any form of help from women rescue centers as charity and despising menial jobs. With a broadened perspective Skeena relocates to Surrey, British Columbia.
The last section of this book focuses on Skeena’s quest for transcendence which involves her struggle to dissociate from the numerous social identities imposed on her. Living in Surrey as a divorced woman, Skeena comes across new people who pose a new set of challenges to her. She is forced to endure a dead-end job. Her boyfriend named Iqbal Singh comes off as emotionally abusive in his attempts to dissuade her from living an independent life. Moreover, she faces the brunt of racism when news of ‘twin towers destruction by Muslim terrorists’ hits the global media. Skeena is shunned by her close friends. She is put under police surveillance based on the past facts of her attending political meetings with Ruffo in Lahore as well as her persistent interest in women political activists. However, this “house arrest” has a different outcome than the previous two.
The novel ends with Skeena escaping from her apartment by jumping off the balcony with the notion “I have no history, I have no biography, I have no name” (206). The last chapter entitled “Teasing the Awake” shows Skeena facing hardships in her new environment but finally daring to take the first step in challenging patriarchal ideology. Skeena realizes that her social identification as an educated Muslim woman makes her the target of criticism and violence. Despite losing every relationship to different forms of violence, Skeena tries to disentangle herself from fear and oppression forced upon her by her biological, racial and socio-cultural history. The novel thus ends on a positive note.
Skeena can be viewed as Rafique’s detailed examination of patriarchy and the manner in which it operates in society. The author successfully captures those nuances of violence undergone by third world women which are often overlooked within the stream of feminism. Rafique puts forth various feminist realizations through Skeena’s perspective such as “it is difficult to fight for human rights when they are usurped by divinity” (182). Passive existence is often viewed as woman’s sole means to escape from violence. Indeed the fear of evoking the wrath of society forces most women to accept their own oppression. Moreover, most victims of violence are not able to cultivate the feeling of tolerance in their treatment of others. For instance, Skeena befriends a lesbian couple named Maggie who is a Jew, and Joyni, a Christian, in Surrey. But these differences that set them apart from social norms as well as from each other do not deter them from judging Skeena as their enemy after the terrorist attacks on America. Skeena is forced to battle the ideologies that hold men as being superior to women. Her brother, her husband Ihtesham, and her boyfriend Iqbal Singh (Gamu’s new persona to escape his past as a murderer) are all staunch followers of patriarchal ideology. Several scenes in the novel, in fact, shed light on the position of third world woman caught between the dogmas of their ethnicity and biology.
The novel makes it clear that the boom in technology and the rise of global media have not been successful in broadening the socio-cultural perspective. Instead these innovations may really be leading to an increase in insularity and violence. The novel takes a well-informed view of the way contemporary socio-political events have impacted women. Skeena’s interaction with women belonging to different ethnicities reflects the conflicting views that have arisen between Western feminist theory and third world feminism. For instance, there is a sense of impatience, lack of understanding, disdain, and frustration within the Canadian white women over Skeena’s failure to pull herself away from her cultural ties.
Rafique displays real authorial skills by managing to save her fictional work from turning into a sermon on feminism. She has been successful in uniting various contemporary topics of interest and presenting them in the form of an expansive, emotive, well-paced and realistic fictional work.
South Asian Ensemble
A Peer-reviewed Canadian Quarterly of Arts, Literature and Culture
Vol. 3, Number 4, Autumn 2011 &
Vol. 4, Number 1, Winter 2012