Take it from journalist Ayesha Khan, 28, single and desperately seeking: "Karachi is a city where it’s easier to hire an assassin than meet an attractive, intelligent, normal single man." Ayesha, a reporter whose life is a blur of bomb blasts, canned beverages, chili chips and cigarettes, is the Bridget Jones-ish leading lady of Saba Imtiaz’s novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me! She dreams of a scoop that will rock the world, earning truckloads of dollars and of course finding that elusive man.
Until that happens, however, she remains the classic overworked, underpaid hack and is largely dependent for succour on the most reliable man in her life, her bootlegger.
Slice of life
As Imtiaz says, Ayesha is representative of "a certain kind of Pakistani woman who is able to make her own choices in her own small space: in the job she chooses, the people she socialises with, the man she picks".
Faiza Sultan Khan, columnist and Editor-at-Large at Random House (publishers of the book), remarks, "The book reminded me of my own life in Karachi in many ways. While the book was hilarious, it covered a lot of fairly serious subject matter with an enviable lightness of touch and had a great deal more depth than the average romantic comedy."
Moni Mohsin, a writer whom Imtiaz greatly admires, agrees. "The book talks to a generation of young Pakistanis in their twenties who are coming into their own. It is on many levels a social comment and revelation about women’s place in Pakistani society. It has been an eye-opener for all those who think of [all] Pakistani women as going round in burkas."
Mohsin’s own book, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, is a sparkling entertainer and sharp social commentary on the lives of the rich. The ideas for it often came from the odd line heard or overheard, she says. "Like someone talking casually about a servant child who went to the bazaar and didn’t come back. Or a woman saying, ‘Oh, poor people really enjoy sex.’"
Indeed, award-winning author Kamila Shamsie believes there’s a "mini-trend in Pakistan’s satirical writing, which you see from writers such as Moni Mohsin, Maha Khan-Phillips and Saba Imtiaz".
Satire blooms inevitably in dire times and Mohsin says she uses the butterfly (a wealthy socialite) to "touch on deeply felt issues for women in our society: sexual frustration, dealing with in-laws and pressure to produce a child".
She continues: "I’ve also used her to discuss matters such as terrorism and fundamentalism. She’s very aware of the ‘bearded weirdos’ [strident fundamentalists] but she’s not going to change her lifestyle, she’s not going to wear a hijab, but simply just keep her life going."
Fatima Bhutto, whose first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, was published last year, has a more overt espousal of the cause: "Women are the heart of my novel. It’s about how they suffer and struggle and face betrayal constantly. Literature gives you the space to talk about these issues; it forces you to pay attention to them, to have a certain compassion."
Imtiaz sees it differently. "As a journalist, I write about all sorts of issues for people of all genders, so I don’t think I wanted to write about issues facing women, because I have the freedom to do that in any case. If they’re there in the book, it’s because it is part of the character’s life, not because of some set agenda."
However, Imtiaz has issues with the label "women’s writing" itself and "women writers often being lumped together for their gender, not for the genre or the quality of their work".
Khan remarks, "Women tend to write about what interests them, which I expect is the same approach taken by men."
She speaks for all readers when she says, "As a writer and as a reader, all I want is a cracking plot and oodles of style."
Says Shamsie, "Women are more likely to be bit-players in the works by a lot of male writers, while women tend to write about both men and women."
Her books, which have deep political undertones and historical underpinnings, certainly do not fall within the parameters of what is popularly considered women’s writing. Burnt Shadows, which was short-listed for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction, was a political thriller that took in the bombing of Nagasaki and partition of India.
Shamsie, one of Pakistan’s literary stars, says, "Patriarchy works its way through all aspects of society, including publishing. As long as it exists, I think there does need to be a conversation about how women writers are marketed differently, reviewed differently, and how their concerns are often dismissed as domestic — this is true everywhere in the world."