Sunday, January 23, 2011

Individual Female Power in Collectivist Patriarchal Cultures: Across Oceans

I thought of Scarlet O'Hara the moment I put my foot inside the early twentieth century Umar Hayat Mahal (The Palace of Umar Hayat). The palace is located in Pakistan in Chiniot, a small town famous for its architecture and intricate wood work, a celebration of the local unsung and unmatched artists.

True to the vibes, the local guide informed me that Umar Hayat, a wealthy businessman and landowner, had married a prostitute (the guide did not know her name), and that he built the palace on the wish of his wife, the prostitute.

It was striking to notice two women of the same era, one real, one fictitious, geographically and culturally poles apart, yet sharing the same story. Scarlet was born a lady with the heart of a prostitute, was called a prostitute, and despised as a prostitute by the respectable females of her society. Mrs. Umar Hayat was born a prostitute, worked as a prostitute, and managed to achieve wealth, name, recognition, and respect though marriage. It was unheard of for women of Scarlet's stature to enter into the world of business. It was unheard of for women of Mrs. Hayat's station to marry into aristocracy.

True to the narrative, Mrs. Umar Hayat lost her husband to death soon after her magnificent house was finished. Scarlet also lost Rhett at the height of her wealth, though not to death. Scarlet and Rhett's only daughter died young and happy in a horse riding accident. Scarlet was left to mourn her demise alone in spite of Rhett's love for her. The Hayat family's only son died in the palace, young and happy on his wedding night, and Mrs. Umar Hayat mourned alone.

As interesting as it is to notice the similarities between these two women, it is even more interesting to explore the challenges of contradictions within their personalities. On the one hand, despite living in a man's world, they had the audacity and sense of self to look at themselves as people who had every right to possess power. Yet, they were acutely aware of their feminine charms and used them to their advantage. They instinctively understood the submissive position of women in their respective societies. Yet, they also understood the cooption of fellow females to patriarchy. They made alliances with men and gained dominance over men and women alike. They turned the collectivism of their societies on its head for their advantage. While they enjoyed the relative protection that collective society gave to women, they ignored public opinion when it did not suite their desires.


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