By Ernest Dempsey
30 July 2010, Pakistan. In our childhood, we were amazed to look at the rainbow, the multi-colored arch embellishing the horizon after rain. Still more fascinating was the myth that if someone happened to pass under this colorful bridge of nature, his/her sex will change – girls would become guys and vice versa. Some boys would even stop chasing rainbows for fear of turning into girls (social inferiority of genders could be sensed even at a very young age). But in grown-up lives, a number of women in my own traditional Pakhtoon societies practically became men without having to cross the rainbow. Whether it was a matter of choice or necessity, or how much of each of these, can be judged from the following real-life stories of some of these exceptional Pakhtoon women.
Zarine Khan: In most Pakhtoon families, women are usually considered the gentle sex, one that cowers from acts of violence. But what happens when the long-held value of revenge calls while no man is there in the family to take the gun? This happened to a widow named Zarina Bibi who came from a farmer family in Malakand (Northern Pakistan) back in the late 1960s. Zarina’s only son, about 19 years old then, was killed in a fight between young men of the village. With no apologies from, or reconciliation with, the killer’s side, the love of her dead son and the social urge for avenging blood pressed hard on Zarina who soon decided what she had to do. She swore two things: not to remarry, and to avenge her son’s blood at any cost. Next thing she did she none else than dressing up in her late husband’s clothes and wearing his gun around her waist. She was no more the widow Zarina but her male rebirth “Zarine Khan”.
Zarine quickly took all the social roles defining a man in her society: wearing men’s clothes, cutting her hair short as men did, carrying a gun (a symbol of virility as well as enmity toward offenders), striding like men in men’s shoes in the main market area and greeting men with a firm handshake, not talking to women (except acquaintances), and continuing to work in the fields but without a veil. She also sat in ‘hujras’ (meeting place for men of the community) and took part in discussions over the affairs of the village. Apart from all that, she pursued her mission of revenge.
Till late in the evening, Zarine stalked the killer of her son, who apparently was nonchalant to the news of her victim’s mother sworn to revenge upon him. Perhaps, he couldn’t think of a woman being up to the bloody task of taking someone’s life. Carried in his manly swagger, he didn’t know that the wounded mother of her victim lurked in the bushes by the river bank which by he often passed in the evening while going home. Then one evening, it happened. Zarine, from an ambush, spotted him and shot at him with the gun. The first two shots were missed but the third hit him. He fell down, wounded. Zarien approached and, from a safe distance, ran the final, fatal bullet through him. The mission was complete.
Following the killing, Zarine escaped to Karachi city in Sind province to live with her brother and thus be out of the range of her potential killers, the kin of her gun’s victim. She sold vegetables in market to earn her own living in the city. Still, she visited her native village off and on to take a look at her land, while carrying a gun.
Zarine was accepted as a man by her society. Women of the village idolized her as an example of strength and determination and men respected her as they did any other man on grounds of equality.
Bloagayi: While her original name is not known, her nick “Bolagayi” means “simpleton”. Bolagayi was born in a lower middle family to a shopkeeper. Her parents had no male children and she was the youngest of her sisters. According to superstition, common in her society at that time, if the youngest daughter was continually dressed as a boy, the next child was likely to be a male. And so Bolagayi was dressed like a boy in her childhood in the hope of getting an actual boy born into the family. With this came Bolagayi’s enthusiasm for male sports and she played with boys sports that were considered tough (including soccer) or sheer “boy-games” (e.g. marbles). In the company of boys, she also became bold and used to take physical fights with them.
Raising Bolagayi like a boy didn’t render her parents’ expectations come true. No more children were born to the couple while the daughters kept leaving the house after marriage (to live at the husband’s house as per custom). The inevitable had been seen and was finally put into practice: Bolagayi was sworn as a virgin forever. In effect, it meant that she would not get married like normal girls but take care of the family business (run the shop) and stay home to look after her parents.
Already used to the donning male guise, Bolagayi now permanently adopted the male appearance. She ran the shop, met men as other men did, and served her parents as a son would do. Accepting her male social role, people did not propose her for marriage. She was left alone after her parents died, and she carried on like a man on her own. A nephew of hers, though, regularly visited her, as she aged, to look after her in case she needed help of any sort. Bolagayi finally allowed her nephew and his wife to come and live with her. She let them inherit her house and property and, at round 2001, died peacefully in her natal home.
Saeeda Bibi: Born in a rich family of high social class, Saeeda was an exceptionally beautiful girl. Both for her beauty and her prospective share in family’s assets, she was on the list of many noble families that wanted to take her into marriage. Marriage proposals kept coming for her as routinely as the sun rises every morning. But her beauty was not the only quality unique to her person – she also was the only child of her parents. And this meant that anyone marrying her would become the prospective owner of the family assets. The family had to be very careful in choosing their heir.
What was also must to remember was the fact that if her parents died within her life, while she remained unmarried, her male cousins would inherit the property. Bteween the Scylla and charibdys of greedy suitors and sneaking cousins, there was but one way to secure the family’s wealth, i.e. by becoming a man. And before long, Saeeda became a sworn virgin. While she adopted the role of a man to save family property from falling into others’ hands, Saeeda did not go the extent of transforming her guise like Zarina and Bolagayi. She did look after her family business like a man would do in the society.
After her parents’ death, Saeeda was left alone. She is old now, aged at around 70, and in control of all her family’s property. She lives with her extended family as an elderly man would do, well respected and looked after.
These are only a few of the stories learnt about unusual Pakhtoon women who leapt up to fill in the social void left empty by absence of men in one or another circumstance. Though deprived of living the life a normal woman would do, these women won the respect by successfully playing the social roles they took in their lives. Not literally crossing the rainbow, they did color their existence with the vital human quality of courage.
Ernest Dempsey is a freelance writer based in Pakistan.