Updated Jan 11, 2017 01:45pm

Stalked, patronised, dismissed: On being a woman writer in Pakistan (it’s often the same in India)

Three years ago I was invited to discuss my novel on arranged marriages at a cultural centre in Karachi. In the crowd was a middle aged gentleman impatiently drumming his fingers on a briefcase. After the Q&A he approached and laid open a large folder, overflowing with newspaper clippings, written notes and photographs.

He told me proudly that his parents were part-German and that in many ways, his family had lived a life of epic proportions – the details of which he had assembled. He then handed them over to me and announced that he had deemed me worthy of writing this epic.

I would be given some time to do the “writing-shiting” and then he would see if my piece was good enough for publication. (I’m assuming the task to get it published was also to fall on my grateful shoulders.) When I declined his generous offer, he scowled and walked away, making a comment about women writers and their inflated egos.

I remember this person keenly, not just because of his black ring binder and silver moustache, nor because his attempt to bludgeon me was terribly funny. I remember him because this one encounter seemed to encapsulate all the attitudes I encountered as a woman writing in Pakistan.

I was once talking to a Man Writer (I shall call him that because it sounds just as ridiculous as Woman Writer), bemoaning the number of people who had asked me for a free signed copy of my novel How It Happened. He was somewhat perplexed because this was not a request he often came across. It makes sense though. When a man writes, it’s a career, when a woman writes, it’s a hobby. One is serious, the other is not.

To be a woman writer is to be ready to receive several back-handed compliments.

“Oh, you wrote a book? So nice that you’re finding the time to do something creative.”

“So fantastic that you wrote a book? Does anyone read it?”

“Wow. You wrote a book. Does it sell? Has it made you any money? How much? Exactly how much?”

”Salam ma’am. I love your novel. Can you tell me where I can download a free PDF copy?”

Intruded on

I soon learned that a woman’s personal life as well as her writing becomes fair game for all. And this is done most unapologetically. The first question I was invariably asked in interviews was whether I was married. And when I dithered about the issue, people got more and more curious.

The truth is I deliberately hid my divorce from the larger public. I was conscious that my marital status was relevant to how the book would be received – and this is a problem that all women face. Had people known that I was divorced, the comedy of manners I had attempted to write would be called the rant of a mad brown woman.

And then there was this one television interview where I forgot to tell the talk show host that I didn’t want details of my personal life to be discussed. Pretty soon I was being grilled over which of the men in the book was based on my ex-husband. It was vulgar, this intrusion in what purported to be a literary interview.

Stalked relentlessly

This desire to invade the personal also manifested itself in the form of a lot of online and real life harassment, which is common to all women, not just writers. My earliest fan mail comprised benign messages such as “Hello dear, you are gorgeous,” and “Wow you’re so beautiful, I need a prescription – my heart is stopping.”

Then a man-reader told me how much he enjoyed my novel and would I marry him? When I politely declined, he sent me a picture of his penis and a “fuck you” in capital letters. I blocked him and he created three different accounts to send me pictures of the same tedious penis.

Stalkers in real life were harder to deal with. I was dreadfully uncomfortable when a famous painter bought 300 copies of my novel at a literary festival and made me distribute them to his friends. And then he showed up at my house. And then left me about 100 missed calls a day – leaving messages that I was young and naïve and that he would help me find myself. This was the not so funny part of being published, this insidious attempt to appropriate my body through my writing.

Mansplained at

To be a woman writer is to be mansplained at every turn. I was told by a local man-agent that novels about love and arranged marriages were done to death and that I should find another, more “sexy” topic because that was what publishers were looking for. (This, of course, was in a political atmosphere where honour killings were rife and a famous morning talk-show host was chasing hand-holding couples out of parks and shaming them on public television.)

Or the man writer who, at a literary gathering at a poet’s house, said that it was harder for him to complete his novel than it was for me to finish mine. “If I also wrote about family weddings I’d churn out a book a year,” he laughed.

And then a man-bookseller told me that my novel wouldn’t sell because I was an unknown, so he would only order 50 copies to begin with. I arranged a meeting and tried to get him him to take me seriously.

But again I was told that while my excitement was sweet, it was misplaced. Only when I promised to purchase any extra copies myself so that his store would not incur a loss, he ordered 50 more copies.

And when these were sold out in five minutes at my book launch, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said “Haan, we seem to have underestimated you. Would you mind doing a free reading for children at our store next month?” (The book being read, I might add, was not mine.)

And what of the book?

What rankles most, however, is that very little attention is given to the writing itself. Our work is simply not reviewed enough or given the kind of attention that it deserves, primarily because it is relegated to the trivialised category of “women’s writing” that is usually considered unimportant.

Case in point: In a recent article on Qurratulain Hyder, M Asadduddin says that there is nothing “feminine” about Hyder’s works because her preoccupations have been epic, common and universal. So there you go. A woman has to write unlike a woman to be taken seriously. Or, she must negate her identity (only to have it vulgarly exposed as was the case with Ellena Ferrante), or pretend to be a man (like George Eliot and so many others did.) Otherwise, chances that she will be taken seriously are slim at best.


Shazaf Fatima Haider is the author the novel of How It Happened.

This article, originally published at Scroll.in, has been reproduced with permission.

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Comments (28) Closed



Yumna Jan 11, 2017 01:05pm

I had the privilege of meeting you in person at t2f. You are a truly genuine person and it pained me to read this. A society that doesn't treasure its thinkers, writers, activists, can simply not progress.

Ambi Jan 11, 2017 01:23pm

Heartfelt. I EMPATHISE with you completely.

Ibrahim Jan 11, 2017 01:43pm

it pained me to read this

deepu Jan 11, 2017 01:44pm

I think its high time that you need to come out of this obsession with India !

gary Jan 11, 2017 02:07pm

@Yumna The state of film industry in Pakistan is in decline. The article explains the causes.

umer Jan 11, 2017 02:18pm

”Salam ma’am. I love your novel. Can you tell me where I can download a free PDF copy?”

I don't see how this is specific to Woman writer. Any writer can get this ridiculous request.

Asif Hafeez Jan 11, 2017 02:24pm

EXCELLENT

saqib Jan 11, 2017 02:24pm

every writer has to go through a struggling irrespective of his gender. This practice of using the 'woman card' is gender bias itself

Parvez Jan 11, 2017 03:46pm

I thought ' How it happened ' was just brilliant and have been waiting for another book from you.....but nothing. Please don't follow the example of Harper Lee because if you do I won't be around to read it.

Abbas Jan 11, 2017 04:36pm

this is too painful to read

Vijay B. Jan 11, 2017 04:53pm

Dear Ms, Haider: read your article, it was indeed painful to read some of the bad experiences you were faced with and had to live with. I know that writing , rewriting, editing and getting it published is an arduous task and for having successfully done that, you have all my respect. The world has changed and women have successfully done almost everything men can do or have done. I have four very accomplished sisters and I do not consider them any less than myself in any way I think every accomplishment should be evaluated on its own merit wothout regards to gender, color , ethnic origin or race of the author or performer.You have my best wishes for all your future endeavors in the literary field and life in general., and I hope things will be less arduous the next time around.

Tamilsrlvan Jan 11, 2017 06:39pm

Agree with Deepu.

Vinod Narang Jan 11, 2017 07:08pm

Miss Haider after reading this article I can say that you have more guts then most Pakistani or Indian women. I do not think you should care about what Pakistani men think about you or your writing, this is only a start for you and hard work and dedication never goes to waste. Hopefully one of Pakistan's drama makers read your novel and ask you to write a script for them. All the best

Requiescat Jan 11, 2017 07:19pm

The important message to take away is good literature endures, obnoxious males notwithstanding. You can't put a good woman down.

Raj Jan 11, 2017 07:20pm

No Mam, don't compare Pakistan and Indian women and how they are treated same . In India , we have a vibrant democracy and strong judiciary and also an active civil society. There may be some unfortunate instances of women being stalked and harassed . But overall you will find single woman in live in relationships, women partying with men wearing short dresses and etc.

Vinod Narang Jan 11, 2017 08:31pm

@Vijay B. I agree with you 100%. I am a proud father of a daughter who is is finishing pharmacy School with 4.0 average. we all need to look at the person what their abilities are. Women these days are touching the sky with their education and dedication to their field. Parents specially need to stand behind their daughters because they need the encouragement and they know some one appreciates their efforts .

sri1 Jan 11, 2017 08:39pm

Agreed with most of the author's points.

a Jan 11, 2017 09:33pm

First of all, every society must respect a woman's decision to separate. In 2017, a person's marital status shouldn't be an issue of public discourse.

I don't think though India is that harsh to women writers. I disagree there.

Pronay Bose Jan 11, 2017 09:36pm

In India we have had many great female writers who were greatly respected. Back then there was a culture of respect. But even in present days though the society has changed a great deal, still I think female writers are treated fairly well.

KeeNobserver Jan 11, 2017 10:48pm

@Raj Women wearing short is not freedom. Men stop raping them just because how women dress is.

faryal Jan 12, 2017 12:18am

Shocking and disgusting ! but not surprising reactions and responses from certain men. They are many doing their best at keeping the tradition of chauvinism alive. But we have seen that the masculine ego is quite fragile really - Shazaf has illustrated well that men don't handle rejection well ... at all. Unlike women who have been dealing with it ever since they have been created. Don't expect men in general to praise women intellectuals over and above their male counterparts , be they writers or other artists. It's rare man that can hold a woman to a high esteem unless she perhaps is his mother. It's even rarer that a man will accept a deal with a woman unless its purely on his terms. To let a woman succeed on her terms at anything is something most men find really challenging.

Harmony-1© Jan 12, 2017 04:26am

@Deepu - Commenting based on headline without reading is not going to make you realise that the similarities of incidents mentioned are so common. The daily news of misogyny coming out from your side is enough evidence. So denials are useless. Recent mass molestation and how rape victims are patronised are just a couple of examples. You are a touchy lot that stems from fragile self-esteem!

Raj Jan 13, 2017 12:38am

Good things happen in Pakistan only and when bad things happen they happen in India too . And this is how you pacify your ego and self image .

BBW Jan 13, 2017 01:27am

A pleasure to read. I am a man and what you say about Pakistani men is bang on target. For starters they haven't the slightest idea of how to talk to a woman about anything. This sorry state of affairs is probably because of the segregation of the sexes in Pakistan (and indeed in much of the Muslim world).

Samana Syed Jan 13, 2017 11:20am

Being an ebook writer, i also have the same story and dilemma. Well written piece by "Woman Writer" indeed.:)

Habib A. Zuberi, Phd, Emeritus Professor of Economics Jan 13, 2017 07:45pm

It is nice to read something good women are doing in Pakistan. They are no different than any man. I know few who have accomplished lot more than man. For me all men and women are equal and no distinction should be made between the two.

Dib Jan 14, 2017 08:30pm

@Yumna

Thinkers, Writers, activists....all should respect a boundary. Do not drag India into this controversy. Plz

Ahmed Bilal Sheikh Jan 15, 2017 10:15am

@Raj Really