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The Many Faces of Love

Malati Mathur

By Qaisra Shahraz
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2009, pp. 386 & 224, Rs. 299.00

VOLUME XXXIII NUMBER 8-9 August/September 2009

At first glance, both the books under review appear to be slick Mills and Boons, the perception reinforced in no small measure by the titles. The first one starts off like one with a beautiful woman—the essence of feminine sensuousness—and a handsome man—the epitome of masculine magnetism—locking eyes across a crowd of revellers at a village mela and falling under each other’s spell instantly.   Set against the backdrop of a feudal, aristocratic Islamic culture, more specifically, Pakistan, the love that Zarri Bano and Sikander bear for each other is delineated in terms of a conflict between stubborn, patriarchal traditions deeply rooted in the land and its demands on the one hand and the siren music of love that sways the heart and challenges it to defy all and everyone standing in its path.   Although Zarri Bano’s father wants to see her married, he takes an irrational, instinctive dislike to Sikander which her mother interprets as jealousy for he cannot bear to see his beloved daughter so completely under the thrall of any other man. When her brother dies in an accident, her father decides to anoint her a Shahzadi Ibadat or holy woman who would be wedded to her religion and the land, well versed in holy scriptures, destined to live a celibate, austere life of renunciation. Rebelling against this dictat at first, Zarri Bano later bows before the concept of ‘family honour’, giving up her fashion-loving, tradition-defying ways and opting for the veil that covers her from head to toe in its voluminous folds.   The novel traces the change in Zarri Bano from a carefree, independent style diva to a woman who discovers her faith and the responsibilities that go with her new status as the Holy Woman.   There are interesting insights into attitudes to the veil as well. Far from seeing it as a constricting, suppressive garment, Zarri Bano comes to regard it as something that actually sets her free in many ways—so much so that she feels naked when she does not wear it. An eye-opener this, for all those who regard the veil-shrouded Islamic woman as oppressed. As anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod emphasizes in The Muslim Woman: The Power of Images and the Dangers of Pity, veiling should not be confused with a lack of agency or even traditionalism. Although the novel establishes disturbing images of the veiled Muslim woman ...

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