Aysha Baqir shows how ‘They suck honour from us like marrow from the bone’


Reviewed by Koi Kye Lee

Pakistan Independence Day Special

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Title: Beyond the Fields

Author: Aysha Baqir

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish (2019)

Beyond the Fields is an impressive and poignant debut novel from the Pakistani writer, Aysha Baqir, who also founded the Kaarvans Crafts Foundation to provide business development and market-focused training for women in her country.

Baqir centres her narrative around grief and family bond and then expands into a macrocosm of larger issues. The story starts with a young teenage girl’s harrowing life changing journey from a remote village in Punjab to the big city of Lahore. It was Zara’a first trip out of her remote village in Bahawalpur, a district in Southern Punjab. She has a mission to complete — she needs to rescue her twin. Born to a poor, landless farmer, Zara was inseparable from her twin sister, Tara, and their elder brother Omer.

Growing up in a village, Zara and Tara are already at a disadvantage in life. Living in an agrarian society, where acres of land are controlled by big land owners, the girls are not allowed to go to school unlike their brother Omer. They are also not allowed to pursue dreams which will give them independence as their fate is determined by their parents, especially their father, whom they refer to as ‘Abba’.

As children, Zara and Tara were allowed to play outside of their house, but restrictions are put on them when they turn twelve. No longer given permission to roam the fields, the twins learned how to cook and manage a household from their mother. Unlike Tara who cooks and does the household chores meticulously and to perfection, Zara dreams of going to school and secretly goes through her brother’s schoolbooks. The images in his books transport her to another world — one filled with hopes and dreams.

Their mother — whom they refer to as ‘Amma’ — praises Tara, the prettier and fairer skin twin, for her ability to listen to instructions and carry out chores dutifully, while Zara often invites their mother’s wrath. Zara refuses to conform to traditional gender norms and questions why boys and girls are treated differently. Jealous of Omer who could go to school, Zara pleads with him to teach her how to read and write — a little secret that their mother finds out eventually.

However, their lives change dramatically one afternoon over a harmless game of hide-and-seek in the wheat fields controlled by the landlord. Tara, the golden child, is kidnapped and raped. A dishonoured daughter, Tara is married off by her parents in haste with the aid of close relatives as they fear the shame that would rain upon their family should the villagers find out. But the union was called into question when a newspaper clipping brings certain issues to limelight.

That the story begins with Zara’s journey to Lahore in a cramped bus that segregates men and women into two different compartments is a powerful statement of the author’s intent. The telling slowly navigates around important global issues such as gender, identity, child marriage, equality and a woman’s honour in countries such as Pakistan.

At the heart of this story is how the less fortunate and poor families cope with shame, how daughters are married off once their parents deem that they are “ready”, and how cruel society becomes to those who become victims of rape or prostitution. Without being judgemental, Baqir discusses difficult topics that beleaguer Pakistan brilliantly through the eyes of a young teenage girl. There are quiet moments of reflection of the past and present as Zara embarks on her journey to end the nightmare her family has to endure, especially Tara’s.

Zara’s indefatigable quest for justice and to bring her sister home upon learning the truth reflects how women or society is capable of challenging the patriarchal system for equality. Baqir’s novel is gripping yet heartbreaking as the characters go through hardship and tragedies that alter their lives. The book gives a glimpse of Pakistan’s martial law and social turmoil including the ‘Hudood Ordinances’ that justified adultery and fornication as offences punishable by whipping, amputation and stoning. While this draws in the reader into the setting and context of the story, more explanation could have been given on ‘zina’ (illegal sexual intercourse) and the Islamic law.

Beyond the Fields succeeds in using the political uncertainty in Pakistan including traditions that disempower women to its advantage. Some of the most powerful and memorable lines from the book state the case clearly. “Men encase our honour in a glass showcase, and then shatter it with rocks. They put us under burkas and then strip us. What kind of justice is that? They suck honour from us like marrow from the bone to strengthen their power, their name. Why don’t they look for honour within themselves?” It makes readers question and think about the importance of empowerment — and that honour and respect should be given by both men and women.

Baqir’s knowledge on Pakistan’s political and social landscape is good, but an appendix could have been added as international readers may not understand some of the Punjabi words or slang that have been used in the book. With a simple plot and critical themes, Beyond the Fields is a riveting read reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. The strength of this novel is that it renders empathy in the readers. Love, anger, grief, and hatred simultaneously draw one deep into the telling.

 

Koi Kye Lee is a senior journalist with an appetite for current affairs and politics. She has worked in both Malaysia and Singapore. Her first fiction was published in Write Out Loud, a compilation of short stories by young Malaysian writers.

 

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