Image Credit: Gulf News

The book club has been an outlet for locals in Peshawar to have progressive and insightful discussions, but co-founder Sidra Amin would like more women to attend.

Sidra Amin, co-founder of the Peshawar Book Club, feels there is a particular stereotype about Peshawar within Pakistan that sees people there as being backward and not very progressive. However having attended book club meetings in other parts of the country, she feels it does not reflect the truth.

“I did notice a huge difference [in] how conversations happen in Peshawar and how they happen in Islamabad, Karachi or Lahore, because I feel like they take it very casually, they don’t want to stick to the book,” she says. “For people in Peshawar the entire conversation has evolved to such a great level. It’s very progressive. It’s very insightful and it reflects so much on how far we have come.”

The club started in 2016 after a friend proposed the idea. Peshawar had been a city badly affected by conflict. Although the security situation had by then drastically improved, Amin felt at the time there were not enough recreational spaces for people.

The first book chosen by the book club was The 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. Around ten people turned-up for that meeting. Amin says although the event was a success, the people who came did not like the book. Among the reasons was a feeling it had taken bits and pieces from Sufism to suit the western audience.

“It was a popular book and [we assumed] people in Peshawar wouldn’t have read anything beyond that. That was a stereotype on our part,” she says.

Since then the club has picked from a range of fiction including historical, dystopian, feminist and South Asian. It has included books both in English and Urdu.

Only readers allowed

The club has a strict policy requiring attendees to read the book before the meeting. She recalls one “problematic” person back in 2018 who would come to meetings without reading the book.

“We allow one or two observers, people who haven’t read the book, they can join in and for the next time they can read the book. This particular person wouldn’t read the book at all, but he would keep coming in,” he says.

The situation got more serious when this person made a remark at one meeting which Amin describes as “hate speech” regarding people who were moderately religious or believed in women equality. He was asked to leave.

While the club is open to free speech, there are limits. “When we get 30 people, there will be only one or two people who would disagree to what we are saying. Others agree, and we make sure we give everybody a chance to express their opinion,” she says.

Last year the club introduced a fees of Rupees 500 to encourage only serious readers to attend. There is also a vetting process which includes people being asked to provide their social media handles. Amin does a background check before letting them attend.

“That has improved our membership a lot in ways that all the people who come in to the book meetup now have read the book. So we don’t usually get any spectators,” she says.

She mentions one meeting a few months back where they discussed Orlando by Virginia Wolf, a book that brought out themes such as gender fluidity, time travel and Orientalism. She recalls the discussion was so engaging it extended to four and a half hours.

“I had to end it then because obviously we can’t just sit and discuss the book all day,” she says.

More women, please

Amin would like more women to attend the meetings, complaining often most of the people who turn-up are men. Amin says she has been unable to figure out the reasons why.

“That’s been a failure on my part,” she says. “I don’t know [whether] I’ve been unable to market it that way or get people who are interested, or is it cultural?” She says there might be issues around mobility too with women not being able to come out of their homes as easily as men.

There are two or three other book clubs in Peshawar that cover topics like business, politics or philiosophy, but Amin says she has not seen any women attending these meetings.

“I haven’t seen any women in these clubs,” she says. “For me, it’s very important. It’s like a breathing space now that so many book clubs are appearing. I also feel like maybe I have to keep mine open so some day when women want to join, it’s already there. And for the women who are already coming in, it’s already there.”

Some months ago Amin moved to Islamabad. She still travels to Peshawar over the weekends to visit family and have book meetings once a month on a Sunday. However she has also started a book club in Islamabad.

“I feel like it would take time for us to build a community in Islamabad because we just started so we don’t get the same sort of discussion or audience like we do in Peshawar, even the number of audience, but hopefully that would change over time,” she says.

Safety first

Last month in March she had to postpone the book meeting twice. The first time it was because of the “Aurat March” (Women’s march) in Pakistan. “There was so much hatred against Aurat March, I thought it would be better that we do ours a little later in March.”

She waited for the situation to calm down. “I don’t know people who come into the book club,” she says. “I am also a bit scared sometimes of any creep coming inside our meet-up or anything because you can’t literally stop people from joining and that has never happened in the past three or four years, but I just wanted to be sure because this time we had so much hatred. I didn’t want to do a book that would be even generally a little bit controversial for us.”

However with the spread of coronavirus and the lockdown which followed, she has now decided on holding online meetings.

Amin says the book club has had a strong influence on her life and she wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world.

“I usually get into debates with my family who say that this is like such a scandalous thing, you are going out [to book meet-ups], what do you get out of it? [They say] there are no certificates, this is not going on your CV. This is not related to your work … But then I have to sit down with them. I have to tell them that for so many of us there are many hobbies or passions that we want to work on, and for me that is book reading.”

— Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.