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Zenana: Everyday Peace in a Karachi Apartment Building -- Chapter 1

Zenana: Everyday Peace in a Karachi Apartment Building -- Chapter 1

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By Laura A. Ring; published by Indiana University Press. You can purchase copies of this book from IU Press at: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=40963

Ethnic violence is a widespread concern, but we know little about the micro-mechanics of coexistence in the neighborhoods around the world where inter-group peace is maintained amidst civic strife. In this ethnographic study of a multi-ethnic, middle-class, high-rise apartment building in Karachi, Pakistan, Laura A. Ring argues that peace is the product of a relentless daily labor, much of it carried out in the zenana, or women's space. Women's exchanges between households--visiting, borrowing, helping--and management of male anger are forms of creative labor that regulate and make sense of ethnic differences. Linking psychological senses of "tension" with anthropological views of the social significance of exchange, Ring argues that social-cultural tension is not so much resolved as borne and sustained by women's practices. Framed by a vivid and highly personal narrative of the author's interactions with her neighbors, her Pakistani in-laws, and other residents of the city, Zenana provides a rare glimpse into contemporary urban life in a Muslim society.

Laura A. Ring lives in Chicago with her husband, photographer Sheheryar Hasnain, and their two sons. She received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and continues to research and write about everyday life in Karachi.

ISBN 13 978-0-253-21884-1
ISBN 10 0-253-21884-5

By Laura A. Ring; published by Indiana University Press. You can purchase copies of this book from IU Press at: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=40963

Ethnic violence is a widespread concern, but we know little about the micro-mechanics of coexistence in the neighborhoods around the world where inter-group peace is maintained amidst civic strife. In this ethnographic study of a multi-ethnic, middle-class, high-rise apartment building in Karachi, Pakistan, Laura A. Ring argues that peace is the product of a relentless daily labor, much of it carried out in the zenana, or women's space. Women's exchanges between households--visiting, borrowing, helping--and management of male anger are forms of creative labor that regulate and make sense of ethnic differences. Linking psychological senses of "tension" with anthropological views of the social significance of exchange, Ring argues that social-cultural tension is not so much resolved as borne and sustained by women's practices. Framed by a vivid and highly personal narrative of the author's interactions with her neighbors, her Pakistani in-laws, and other residents of the city, Zenana provides a rare glimpse into contemporary urban life in a Muslim society.

Laura A. Ring lives in Chicago with her husband, photographer Sheheryar Hasnain, and their two sons. She received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and continues to research and write about everyday life in Karachi.

ISBN 13 978-0-253-21884-1
ISBN 10 0-253-21884-5

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Published by: Voices and Visions Project on Oct 29, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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1
Introduction
 The
Zenana
Revisited
 W 
e stood in the dimly lit hallway, my husband Sheheryar,son Faizan, and I. Our downstairs neighbor, Ruhi, hadsaid to come at 9
pm
, and we were late. “Oh, you people have come!”she exclaimed, throwing open the screen door and ushering us inside. As we turned toward the drawing room, Ruhi admonished, “Brother, this isthe
zenana
(the women’s space); the
mardana
(men’s space) is over there.”Reluctantly, Sheheryar and I separated. Faizan joined the other pre-schoolers shouting and playing in the corridor, and I stepped throughthe curtains to join Ruhi, her female relatives, neighbors, and friends.For days, Ruhi had been reminding me to come to her dinner party:“If you want to learn about Karachi people, then you must come.” Theresidents of the Shipyard were well aware of my interest in Karachi’sethnic “troubles.” Ruhi’s husband had been involved in Sindhi national-ism during his university days and was certain to have some interestingstories. As the evening progressed, conversation in the
zenana
moved frommarriage, to mother-in-law problems, to children, to sex, to hair removal.Eschewing their various native languages (Sindhi, Punjabi, Memoni), the women conversed comfortably in Urdu, the national language. Thepumped me for information: Where were Sheheryars parents from?How did I get along with my 
sas 
(mother-in-law)? Why didn’t we have
 
2 / Zenana
a second child? Had I converted to Islam? Did I prefer waxing or shav-ing?From the
mardana,
I could hear snippets of conversation—somethingabout migration, feudalism, roots, language. Casually, I attempted toelicit comments from the women on ethnic identity, on what it meant tobe Sindhi, Muhajir, and so on, but to no avail. Time and again, I foundmyself glancing wistfully at the gap in the curtains, toward the
mardana
imagining the political repartee, the debates, the arguments—as if some-how the truth about ethnic difference, conflict, the “troubles,” could befound there in the men’s room, but not here in the
zenana.
Ethnic Conflict in the
Zenana
In most scholarly accounts, this moment represents a stoppingpoint. Those who write about ethnic violence often introduce womeninto the narrative, only to leave them stranded at the well, discussing“domestic” and “family” matters (e.g., Kakar 1996). Women are conflict’s“victims”; they are “innocent bystanders”; they are, in the last analysis,incidental to the drama (if not the tragedy) of ethnic violence. Feministcritics of this position continue to present counternarratives of womenstepping out into public, political life, protesting in the streets, rioting,aiding and abetting “insurgents” (or, if you prefer, “terrorists”) (Aretxaga1997; Jayawardena 1986; Stree Shakti Sanghatana 1989). But what of the women who, in fact, do stay home? What of the women at the well? Although it was not immediately apparent to me at the time, we in the
 zenana
were equally involved in Karachi’s “troubles” in significant andtransformative ways. As my example makes clear, there are many ways in which we haveimplicitly accepted the tenets of Western liberal ideology, which casts“home” as a private, feminine realm, cut off from the world of the po-litical, uninvolved with matters of state. This “private sphere” is idealizedby some as a realm of freedom of expression, love, and fulfillment; otherssee it as “women’s incarceration” and “restrictive domesticity.” But oneserious consequence of our tacit acceptance of these tenets is that wehave failed to adequately explore the spaces and the social relations of dwelling—of household, apartment building, neighborhood, backyard,
 
Introduction / 3
balcony—as sites of political processes, not just of gendered and gener-ational conflict but of class, ethnic, racial, and national struggles. The considerable literature on domesticity in colonial India has es-tablished the centrality of “home” in Indian and Indian Muslim nation-alist and reform discourses (Chatterjee 1993; Devji 1991; Metcalf 1990; Minault 1998). By appropriating and reconfiguring the “public” and “pri- vate” dichotomies of liberalism, anticolonial movements crafted visionsof the home (
 ghar 
) or the
zenana
as sites of cultural authenticity, un-touched by the emasculating and corrupting influence of colonial power. The home and the
zenana
would nurture not colonial subjects but na-tional citizens. Such scholarship has indeed unsettled and complicatedany easy understanding of these terms—public, private, masculine, fem-inine, home, nation—and has forced us to locate their emergence withinspecific cultural and historical practices. But despite this important in-tervention, the
content 
of domesticity (if we choose to call it this)—thelived spaces, relations, and boundaries of dwelling—remains largelunexamined.Still, one may ask, what do marriage, mother-in-law problems, chil-dren, sex, and hair removal have to do with ethnic conflict? Why look to the
zenana,
the apartment building, the dinner party for insight intoKarachi’s “troubles”? Because the everyday, intimate negotiation of “eth-nicity” and “nationalism”—within gendered cultural and historical dis-courses and practices of home and outside, neighborhood and commu-nity, anger and honor, piety and civility—is deeply implicated in thebroader conditions of possibility of ethnic violence in the city, as well asthe possibility of peaceful coexistence.Despite a wealth of information on ethnic violence, we actually know very little about the micromechanics of coexistence—about the neigh-borhoods and colonies that achieved and maintained intergroup peace inthe midst of civic strife. There is a pressing need for scholarly analysisof the day-to-day poetics of intergroup cooperation. But even morepointedly, we cannot view this everyday life, this peaceful coexistence, asthe static context or backdrop against which “things” (like riots, violence,or “breakdown”) happen. Rather, peace itself is the product of a relentlesscreative labor. Coexistence, as much as conflict, needs to be explained.It is this notion that underpins my interest in the routine rituals and

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