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Why Pakistani women adore Jane Austen

Austenistan

Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen’s books are remarkably relevant to women in Pakistan today, as Moni Mohsin found when she met the sub-continental Janeites

Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen’s books are remarkably relevant to women in Pakistan today, as Moni Mohsin found when she met the sub-continental Janeites

Moni Mohsin | October/November 2017

Dressed in muslin gowns, they sip Assam tea and nibble on cucumber sandwiches. A maid refills the silver teapot while her mistress and her guests discuss the merits of Lyme Regis over Bath. Outside in the garden, trees drip from a recent shower and birds hop on a damp lawn. It could be afternoon tea in Mansfield Park, the seat of the Bertram family in Jane Austen’s novel – except that the trees are banyans, the birds are Indian hoopoes and the maid wears a shalwar kameez. This is not Northamptonshire but Lahore. Billed as an “Austentatious Tea Party” on Facebook, it is a gathering of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, JASP to its members.

Women of consequence

Laaleen Sukhera (left), the founder of JASP, with Afshan Shafi

Founded by Laaleen Sukhera, a journalist, JASP is two years old. It has chapters in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and a Facebook page with over 1,000 followers. There is just the one dress-up party annually but they meet two or three times a year to discuss all things Austen.

The members of JASP, while perhaps a tad more ardent, are not alone in their passion for Jane Austen. For the truth – universally acknowledged – is that Jane Austen is enduringly popular in Pakistan. Bookshops have whole shelves dedicated to her novels, critiques of her novels and novels inspired by her novels. Visit a DVD rental store and you will find film and tele­vision adaptations of her work. She is taught in schools and read at home. “Pride and Prejudice” has been translated into Urdu, and “Aisha”, the Bollywood adaptation of “Emma”, was watched by millions of Pakistanis. Plans are afoot to publish adaptations of all six novels with contemporary sub-continental settings. Meanwhile, “Austenistan”, a book of short stories written by members of JASP and edited by Laaleen Sukhera, has been acquired for publication.

“Austen resonates with us because Regency England is so much like today’s Pakistan,” says Sukhera, 40, a mother of three girls. “I know her books are 200 years old and set in small English county towns and villages but, really, her themes, her characters, her situations, her plots, they could have been written for us now.”

Just as Regency high society had a social season so, too, does its modern-day Pakistani counterpart. It lasts for about three months, starting in mid- December and ending mid-March, just as the weather warms up. The social activity peaks in the 20 days at the turn of the year when, like homing pigeons, expat Pakistanis flock back for the Christmas and new-year break. Those 20 days and nights are a whirl of back-to-back weddings, parties and charity balls where girls, decked out in brocade and jewels, flit before eligible suitors under the gimlet gaze of both families. It is not unusual to attend three weddings in a day to “show face” at each.

Weddings are particularly fertile hunting grounds for expat men who, having dallied in Dubai or Dallas, are ready to settle down with a “nice girl” from home. “For us, weddings serve the same function as the Bath Assembly Rooms for Catherine Morland in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and the Elliot sisters in ‘Persuasion’,” says Sukhera. “It’s where people go to promenade, to flirt and search for suitable partners.”

A traditional way of showing off wealth and standing in Pakistan, society weddings are huge, 1,000-guest affairs strung out over days, if not weeks. For the determined, they provide fail-safe opportunities to find a match. When a friend’s quiet daughter failed to attract the right proposals in Lahore, her aunt whisked the girl off to Islamabad. Drawing up a list of weddings attended by “our sort of people”, she escorted her niece to each one. Within two weeks, her niece had bagged a prize: a single man in possession of a good fortune who liked her dusky skin and demure manner enough to nudge his family into sending a marriage proposal.

As in the Bath Assembly Rooms of the 18th century, there is a social protocol that governs interaction. It is rare for a man to have the nerve to introduce himself to a pretty girl he has spotted in the crowd. Instead, he might ask a mutual friend to make the introduction, or else he will point her out to his mother or aunt. If they do not know her they will swiftly consult a friend or relation who does. Within minutes they will have the lowdown on the girl: her marital status, family background, wealth, age, education, job and reputation – whether she has been soiled by previous relationships and if so, how publicly. If her profile meets with familial approval, a meeting might be orchestrated.

“Expat guys can go to weddings in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, checking out 100 girls in a single two-week trip,” grimaces Sukhera. Only 50 years ago, suitors like these – self-made men with successful careers in banking in London or information technology in San Francisco – did not exist. In that, they are the modern equivalents of Sir Thomas Bertram of “Mansfield Park”, who owes his considerable fortune and exalted place in society to his business interests in Antigua.

For all their apparent tranquillity, Austen’s books were written in a time of social and economic change. The Industrial Revolution, colonial expansion and the Napoleonic wars were transforming English lives. There was unprecedented internal migration from the country to cities, and new fortunes were being made in the colonies and armed forces. Social attitudes had to adapt to keep abreast of economic developments. Brief but telling glimpses of that societal change are found in Austen’s works. When, in “Persuasion”, Captain Wentworth, a junior naval officer, asks for Anne Elliot’s hand in marriage, Sir Walter Elliot, her snooty father, dismisses his suit as being unworthy of a baronet’s daughter. But when he returns from the wars a rich and decorated officer, Sir Walter – who has suffered a decline in his own fortunes – finds him eminently eligible.

“At our tea parties we talk a lot about how similar our circumstances are to the characters in Austen’s books,” says Sukhera. ‘”How old values are eroding, how new people are coming up.”

Pakistan, too, has undergone much change in the last 30 years. While Austen’s England had its Napoleonic wars, Pakistan has suffered the blowback from the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan. As with most wars, it has proved extremely lucrative for some. Generals own multiple flats in central London, sugar and textile mills, as well as prime real estate and agricultural land in Pakistan. As people move to cities in search of economic opportunity, industrial urban centres like Karachi, Sialkot, Lahore and Faisalabad have doubled in size over the past two decades. Although nowhere near the scale of wealth that was pouring into England from its colonial empire in the 18th century, remittances sent home by workers in the Middle East and the West have transformed Pakistan’s economy, kick-starting a consumerist boom. Where hand-printed chintz and fine Indian muslins were all the rage in Regency England, Swiss voiles and French chiffons are the fabrics of choice for Pakistani ladies-who-lunch. The nouveaux riches, their money generated from consumer goods and construction as well as politics, have displaced the old landed elites.

As Mehr Husain, an ardent JASP member, comments: “There was a time when land-owning families of the Punjab only married among themselves. They knew each other’s family trees intimately and were really particular about caste and bloodlines. Now, as long as you’re loaded, no one asks any questions.”

Faiza Khan, editorial director of Bloomsbury India, a Pakistani and an Austen devotee, agrees that Austen’s appeal lies in her relevance to Pakistani society now. “Social values have moved on in the West. The conventional drivers of an Austen plot – the obstacles to marriage like discrepancies in class and wealth, the disapproval of parents, the compromising behaviour of your ghastly family – disappeared long ago. All those old tropes like the Unmarried Daughter, the Repressive Father, the Poor Relation seem quaint now. Whereas I, an unmarried daughter, have Mrs Bennet sitting in the next room, dropping hints about some acquaintance or other being ‘a nice boy’.”

Pakistan, like Austen’s England, is a place without safety nets. Life for the poor is tough, the welfare state is non-existent and those who slip out of the middle classes have far to fall. Families are therefore of vital importance. And at the heart of every Austen novel, too, is a family – big or small, vulgar or respectable, chaotic or controlling. As Pakistanis often quip: “We have only two institutions left: the family and the military.” The family offers not just economic protection but also identity. Your social standing and financial prospects are gauged not so much by your abilities as by your family’s position.

The same was true in Austen’s time. Harriet Smith, a pleasant girl of unknown parentage in “Emma”, cannot expect to make an advantageous marriage. Without a family to locate her in society, she is a nobody.

“The Pakistani way”, muses Mina Malik Hussain, another JASP member and full-time mother, “is all about family. You are constantly thinking about the edifice of, the honour of, the benefit of. It’s like a company and everyone is supposed to do their bit.”

As General Tilney of “Northanger Abbey” would no doubt agree, marriage is a means of cementing alliances with families of equal if not higher standing. It is therefore too important a decision to be left to the whims of inexperienced youngsters. Arranged marriages – agreements reached between families with little or no consultation with the boy and girl involved – place preservation of bloodlines, status and property over compatibility. Hence the huge popularity of marriage between cousins in Pakistan; more than half the population is married to the offspring of uncles or aunts.

“This whole cousin-marriage thing,” observes Sukhera, “people in the West find it so weird now. But Austen didn’t. Her novels are full of it. Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are first cousins. Mr Collins and Elizabeth Bennet are also related, as are Mr Darcy and Miss de Bourgh. See what I mean about us and Regency England?”

Parental efforts at matchmaking in Austen’s books chime with the experience of Pakistani readers. They may not warm to the wealthy, superior Lady Catherine de Bourgh – but they certainly understand her desire for a marriage between her daughter, Anne, and her nephew, Mr Darcy. After all, what could be more natural than the marriage of two cousins, equally wealthy, equally high born, and the noble heirs of two great estates, Rosings and Pemberley? And knowing all too well the social opprobrium attached to spinsters, they sympathise with Mrs Bennet’s efforts to find wealthy suitors for her unmarried daughters. “You know,” jokes Sukhera, “I used to identify with Lizzie Bennet but now, with three daughters of my own, I’ll probably morph into Mrs Bennet.”

“I love Austen”, she continues, “because like us, she’s all about reputation, she’s all about face, she’s all about status. We know that everything we do or say reflects on our families.” A constant refrain in Pakistan to remind wayward children of their duty to keep the family name pristine is: “Just think! What will people say?” Despite the huge population, social circles are small and incestuous. Like Austen’s characters, their members are constantly scrutinising and judging each other. As Mr Bennet remarks in “Pride and Prejudice”: “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?”

As in Austen, there are different rules for different strata of society. “If you are an heiress from a powerful family, you can bend the rules,” says Sukhera. “You can rock up to a party on your own and stagger home at five in the morning, without destroying your reputation or bringing shame to your family but if you’re not, you can’t. People are much more judgmental about those who are not rich.” She pauses for a moment, “A bit like Emma, who can make her own rules because she’s rich. But Fanny Price, because she’s a poor relation, doesn’t have that privilege.”

As everyone knows in Pakistan, a girl must marry while in the full flower of her youth, or else be consigned to “the left behinds”. When I was in my late 20s, my single state was the source of much anxiety for my mother and my aunts. As a family friend told me: “If you don’t hurry up and marry you won’t be on any old shelf, you’ll be on the continental shelf.” Like Anne Elliot, Austen’s left behind in “Persuasion”, I was then 27 – and most of my friends were married with a child or two. I was advised not to be “too choosy” or to leave it too late or I would “get set in my ways” and not be able to mould myself to the wishes of my husband’s family. When, at 32, I announced to my family that I was getting married there was relief all round. But the cherry on my marital cake was that my husband-to-be was (entirely by accident) of the right caste. “It’s a miracle, I tell you, a miracle,” sighed my aunt.

Chai Society

JASP members Mina Malik Hussain (left) with Mehr Husain at the annual dress-up tea party in Lahore

“The gender inequality portrayed in Jane Austen’s books,” says Mehr Husain, “reminds me so much of our own.” The daughter of a landowner from the Punjab, Husain was educated in London. Now married with two children she lives in Lahore. Her parents are cousins who had an arranged marriage, but Husain is not related to her husband.

According to sharia inheritance law, Husain’s brothers will receive twice her share of their father’s property. Still, Husain is fortunate. Fobbed off with a dowry in the form of jewellery and clothes, or a car and some cash that the husband immediately claims, most women do not receive any of their fathers’ real assets like land or real estate or shares in a family business. And in traditional Sunni families, if a man has no male children, like Mr Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”, his property will pass on to his nearest male relative – in Mr Bennet’s case to Mr Collins. Even today many daughters of wealthy fathers receive nothing at all.

“It’s a bit like the Dashwood sisters, in ‘Sense and Sensibility’,” says Husain wryly, “who got thrown out of their home after their father died and their half brother inherited the estate. That kind of inequality is so common here.” A writer and stand-up comedian, she has been a mould-breaker in her family. “I’m Catherine Morland from ‘Northanger Abbey’,” she says, “a tomboy with a vivid imagination. My mother told me I had to grow my hair long if I ever wanted to get married. I was also told I had to choose a safe, respectable profession like banking or teaching. But I did my own thing.”

Journalists, academics, bankers, entrepreneurs, the members of JASP could not be more different from the Dashwood sisters who had no options other than marriage. But they are keenly aware that most women in Pakistan are not as privileged. While increasing numbers of women are joining the workforce in larger cities, salaried jobs for women are rare in provincial towns, let alone in rural communities.

“They have no access to money except through marriage or inheritance,” sighs Husain. “Like Austen’s heroines. But, even though they don’t have many choices, Austen’s heroines don’t marry losers like Mr Collins, or cads like Wickham. I like that.”

It is as much a sign of the times as an indication of Austen’s own proclivities that Elizabeth Bennet spurns her mother’s wishes and ignores Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s threats in order to marry the man she loves. Similar changes are afoot in Pakistan. While in villages and small towns old customs prevail, in the cities, particularly for the middle and upper classes, new ideas are being embraced. Increasing numbers of educated, urban people are rejecting arranged matches for what is commonly known as “love marriages”. They meet through work, at parties or even through social media and take it from there. Though living together before marriage is still taboo, most love marriages are preceded by a period of dating, a comparatively recent phenomenon that still shocks conservative circles, as it would no doubt have horrified Lady Catherine.

As in Austen’s novels, a satisfactory ending for a girl is still one that results in a wedding but that wedding can wait a little longer than it did when I was of marriageable age. My niece, an actress and writer, is 30 and happily single. Her married female friends didn’t tie the knot until their late 20s, and the younger members of JASP assure me that it’s perfectly okay to be single in your mid-30s with a “kick-ass career”.

And while all of Austen’s novels end with the assumption that the hero and heroine will live happily every after, that is not the case with privileged young Pakistanis today. Just 40 years ago, divorce was unthinkable, so great was the shame. A girl’s mother would often whisper in her daughter’s ear on the eve of her wedding: “Remember, only your corpse can return to this house.” If a girl’s marriage turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, she had, like poor Mrs Price in “Mansfield Park”, to shut up and “cope up” as they say in Lahore.

These days, says Sukhera, “we don’t stay in unhappy marriages all our lives. We compromise a lot, but when it’s time to walk, we do. Even parents, if they see that their daughter is suffering, will say, ‘are you sure you want to continue with this?’ No one judges you any more for quitting a marriage.” Unless a divorced woman is independently wealthy, she will have little option but to return to the family home, with her children, to be supported by her parents. But she will be warmly welcomed. So common is the practice that it has its own terminology. “She’s back home” is shorthand for: she’s divorced and now living in her father’s house once more.

“Persuasion”, Austen’s late, quiet novel about second chances, offers particular hope to second timers. Anne Elliot, an ageing spinster who foolishly turned down Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage when she was young and pretty, is given the opportunity to rectify her mistake when he returns from sea. As many young Pakistani women discover soon after divorcing, they need not spend the rest of their lives as lonely singles. The field is littered with divorced men. But some, as one JASP member put it, “have baggage, like children and stuff…”

Sukhera finds Jane Austen’s books consoling. “The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. There is great comfort in that.” But surely the same can be said for Dickens, Trollope and the Brontes?

“I cried my eyes out when I read the Brontes,” she says, “but there is too much turmoil in their world for me. What with bomb blasts and killings every other day, I have enough drama in my daily life without getting another dose in my reading.”

Austen is kind to her heroines. They may have flawed judgment or be uppity or self-absorbed or unrestrained in their emotions, but as long as they learn from their mistakes, Austen doesn’t abandon them. “Just because you’ve been naughty and had an affair doesn’t mean you have to be crushed by a train,” sniffs Sukhera. “Silly Lydia shames her family by eloping with Wickham in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ but she doesn’t pay by being killed for honour.”

Outside Pakistan’s more enlightened, urban circles, the consequences for her would have been dire. Polygamy is legal in Pakistan, domestic violence is rife and “honour” killings – whereby women are murdered by their fathers, brothers or uncles for bringing shame to their honour through “transgressive” behaviour, which can be anything from laughing loudly in public to falling in love – are depressingly common. Recently the Punjab government tabled a bill for the protection of women against violence. Around 30 religious groups, including mainstream political parties, threatened to bring down the democratically elected government if the bill was not revoked. Giving women protective legal rights, they thundered, was tantamount to the promotion of obscenity. Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, made up largely of bearded clerics, released an official statement permitting men to “lightly beat” their wives.

Austen’s heroes would never sink that low. “Darcy, Captain Wentworth, Colonel Brandon, Mr Knightley, they’re romantic and sexy yet they’re also sensitive and kind,” sighs Sukhera. “Just look at Henry Tilney. He even knows how to shop. I mean when did you last meet a straight man who knew what to buy a woman other than perfume? He’s so witty and laid back and playful. As for Mr Darcy – there never was and never will be a hero like him.”

What, in particular, is Mr Darcy’s appeal?

“He’s not afraid to admit he’s made mistakes,” says Sukhera. “And he’s super into her. He goes to all that effort to protect Lydia’s reputation so that Lizzie doesn’t suffer.”

“Pemberley helps,” adds Husain dryly.

“And his parents are dead,” says Sukhera. “So no interfering in-laws.”

For the last dress-up party, Husain had planned a regency gown in sprigged cotton. She explained it all in painstaking detail to her Punjabi tailor: tight, high bodice, long flowing skirt, small puffy sleeves. Accustomed to making shalwar kameezes, he nodded, making detailed notes. When she went to collect the dress she discovered it was knee length; he’d assumed she’d wear it over the voluminous, trouser-like shalwar and so made it kameez length. Afshan Shafi wore a purple gown and her light brown hair in an updo braided with pearls. She was late for the party because she had been stopped en route at a police checkpoint and her car subjected to a prolonged examination. When she put her head out of the window and enquired in fluent Urdu as to why there was a delay, a policeman explained in polite English: “Because, Madam, you are foreigner.”

Getting away from the trials of life in today’s Pakistan is part of the point. “I like coming to these gatherings,” said Mina Malik Hussain, a mother of four very young children. “It gives me a chance to enter the world of Jane Austen and, briefly, to escape the demands of my own. I like the clothes, the conversation, the company.” While there is the undeniable aspect of escape, these tea parties are not gossip sessions; there is an agenda of discussion that is adhered to strictly.

“We discuss any- and everything to do with Jane Austen,” says Laaleen Sukhera. “Our favourite mean girl in her books, our favourite cad, our favourite mother, the role of money, of sex, of families, her choice of locations. Austen celebrates life, there is pursuit of love and laughter and joy in her books and yet she’s thoughtful and wise. And her sassy one liners! They’re the best. For a brief while, she helps us forget our messy divorces, our broken homes, our demanding jobs, our anxieties about our children, our fears for our security. It is not easy being a woman in a patriarchal society like ours.”

Or, as Faiza Khan says, “We love Austen so much because she can deliver a happy ending we can believe in spite of seeing the world just as it is with all its unfairness and pettiness and exploitation and cruelty. She redresses the wrongs of her society on paper because that is all she or any of us can hope to do.” 

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