Fakir Her-stories. Women's Spiritual Careers and the Limits of the Masculine In Pakistan
by Omar Kasmani
To speak of minority masculinities, that is to say of masculinity without men, is primarily to untether an essential relation of masculinity from biological maleness. Similarly, queer theory has operationalized the assumption that challenges to hegemonic masculinity are made possible when confronted with other and multiple masculinities. One possible reading of the more specific case of female masculinity that Jack Halberstam is invested in illustrating is that instances, practices, and performances of undoing femininity must and can only give way to the subject’s masculinization. And this, despite a welcome proliferation of masculinities, does little to break away from a necessary dimorphic regime of sex and gender. Similarly paradoxical is the view on the subject of trans* in queer and gender studies. As much as an emerging body of texts and anthologies, especially from South East Asian contexts, continues to call into question the operative binary, still, the analytical categories of trans* politics, sociality, and identification come with their own classificatory hegemonies – not least that gender concepts, performances, and classifications sit rather uneasily on terrains of translation and amid an ever-unfolding field of transnational diffusions, especially in post-colonial settings. Consequently, efforts to classify and categorize non-normative gender behaviors – in addition to routinely subsuming other diverging as well as diverse corporeal and sexual practices in the service of science or the state – come to reveal an occupation with and an occupation by European histories and archives of the body. If the point of provincializing, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has himself noted, is not to reject social science categories, it may well be read as an invitation for social scientists to take up place where place is not given, so that forms of provincializing can come to look like invasion, intervention, and disruption. This would mean doing the painstaking work social scientists must do to inhabit a sedimented, epistemological space of scholarship or to intervene in invasive ways so as to foreground perspectives that contour but do not necessarily serve to extend existing shapes of scholarship. To contour is in this sense to disclose, i.e., to trace the shape or follow the form of something anew while remaining invested in the moment when possibilities of its disruption are revealed.
In this reflection and its brief ethnographic instances grounded in Sehwan Sharif, a Sufi pilgrimage town in southern Pakistan, I aim to disclose and call into question epistemological scopes that limit the ways in which gender, more precisely femaleness and femininity in the case of South Asian women’s religious careers, is regularly viewed, discussed, and explained. Picking from women’s stories and narrativization of spiritual careers in Sehwan Sharif, I shall highlight how frames of knowledge that tend to situate an emancipatory ideal in the subject’s masculinization miss the point and risk ascribing projects of gender to such women, projects not always reflective of their own aspirations.
Of non-male spiritual pursuits in South Asia, especially ones that involve ascetic wandering, abandonment, and renunciation, it is often noted that these imperfectly emulate scripts of piety that are essentially designed for a male body. In other words, attaining spiritual feats that are coded as masculine, as Karen Ruffle has noted in her discussion of Shi‘i women saints, forecloses the subject’s potential to attain saintliness in bodies that are specifically female-gendered. So profoundly felt are such constraints on mystical outcomes among women in South Asia that, in narrating her career, the woman-healer of Flueckiger’s ethnography would render gender analogous to caste, impossible to overcome. Such evidence, though singular in this instance, is in no way exceptional. My own research confirms that women practitioners are acutely aware of the male operative norm against which all ascetic lives come to be measured, not only by their male counterparts, but equally in the eyes of their own followers, women and men. Consequently, accomplishments of women in godly pursuits are socially predicated upon overcoming their feminine and therefore base natures. Female charismatic careers require strategic management, on the part not only of women themselves, but also of others. For example, questions like why Muslim women mystics have remained largely invisible in historical accounts, or why some have come to be recorded in nameless ways, are better situated in what in historiographical terms is described as hagiographic transvestism. What this means is that any description of female spiritual feats risked disclosures of their persons, necessitating their strategic portrayals as men in the guise of women or, for that matter, as rare women who achieved the status of a man. It also means that an absence in historical texts does not always correspond to an exclusion of women Sufis in historical contexts. Thus, reading contemporary women fakirs’ life narratives in Sehwan as her-stories is to foreground and maintain the discursive labor that such women perform with every instance of telling; it is also to intervene in archives that fail to render such lives visible. The other epistemological burden that comes to be addressed is the assumption that an overcoming of femaleness is made effective only through the subject’s affective masculinization.
Women fakirs – who in the context of Sehwan perform mainly as spiritual guides and intercessors, and to a lesser extent, also as healers – are equally aware of and thus regularly preempt, in the eyes of the shrine’s public, the questionable character of their bodies as well as the validity of their public roles and practices. But women’s charismatic pursuits are fundamentally hindered by their lack of access to fakir institutions. Becoming a fakir in Sehwan more often than not involves initiation into a fakir commune, lodges run by local spiritual figures and the sayyid elite who trace their lineage to Prophet Muhammad as well as to companions of the saint of Sehwan. Women, unsurprisingly, do not find a place in this patrilineally ordered system of charisma, which means that non-male persons (women and hijra) who pursue fakir careers in Sehwan must do so without institutional support or must secure forms of patronage. Scholars argue that in the face of their exclusion from dominant religious traditions in South Asia, female spiritual masters must act pragmatically and innovate with what is available to them. What emerges across several studies is how personal experience – of spiritual encounters or episodic hardship and suffering – and its affective narrativization to a relevant audience constitute a key characteristic of arguing and establishing women’s charismatic authorities. This is also observable in Sehwan. Unlike their male counterparts, the careers of women and hijras are more likely to draw on experiences of dreams and waking visions, but also of enduring illnesses and cohabiting fakir-spirits. If women cannot be lodged at all-male fakir communes in Sehwan, the public space of the shrine offers a fruitful alternative. Saints’ places and religious shrines, which were taken over by the Pakistani state in the early 1960s, have since been administered as inalienable endowments under the Ministry of Religious Affairs. With its unique mix of state administration and saintly refuge, the shrine – a site where fakir her-stories are regularly performed – offers an advanced yet contained field of publicness within which non-customary spiritual careers and women’s aspirations for more public roles are fostered. Contemporary saintly careers, especially of women, have benefitted from this modern governance of religious sites, which by enabling greater access, also promotes gendered possibilities of engaging with the saint and his followers.
Amma – meaning mother – as she is reverently called, is one such woman-fakir from Balochistan. She lives with her husband and three children in a rented house a few minutes walk from the shrine of Sehwan. For almost twenty years, she has spent her days sitting in a corner of the men’s prayer space at the shrine, which explains her all-male following. A pilgrim, who in the summer of 2009 had introduced me to Amma, had described her as his spiritual master. This, however, was not exactly our first encounter. Weeks earlier, while taking respite from the July heat in a corner of the prayer space, Amma had interrupted my short afternoon nap, reprimanding me duly that one ought not to sleep in the saint’s presence. I clearly remember being taken aback – a feeling confirmed by my diary entry from that day – less by the interruption of my rest than by the sheer fact that it was the one place in the shrine I had not expected to be awakened by a woman. While it is not uncommon to interact with women at the shrine, spaces for ritual prayer for men and women are indeed separate. Amma’s extraordinary claim to her daily seat among men, as I would come to learn over the years in her regular performances of fakir her-story, was a function of her fakir status, but one that was premised on her being a woman unlike women.
My point here is that women-fakirs’ articulation of their gendered selves in relation to “ordinary” women was carried out not in a language of masculinization, but in that of different, multiple, or other femininities, primarily because such claims rested firmly on their reliance on feminine ideas of saintly belonging. Its illustrations were manifold. Women’s sexual and reproductive characteristics were at once barriers and assets at their disposal. If the femaleness of women’s bodies and persons called for its strategic management, possibilities of a charismatic career opened up only once women had acquired a certain level of social and sexual maturity in their roles as wives and mothers. Young and unmarried female fakirs were more or less unheard of. In fact, women-fakirs actively took on the post-sexual authority of mothers, drawing on specifically feminine forms of spiritual mastery. Their female persons were regarded as convenient consorts for a male saint, an advantage they enjoyed over male fakirs within a heterosexually defined relation of devotional belonging. They equally depended on the gendered idea that women were better listeners and more caring in their roles as guides and intercessors. Women-fakirs did not reject marriage, as is common among Hindu female ascetics, but inventively renegotiated the terms on which marriages were lived. By refusing the conjugal rights of their husbands in favor of belonging to the saint, they were paradoxically able to reassert and embrace their sexualities. In this and other ways, they successfully distanced themselves not only from men, but also from other women. Such inventive articulation of their charismatic authorities and its affective narrativization in the form of fakir her-stories has revealed an awareness of how their spiritual careers were circumscribed not only by a socially ascribed unsuitability of their emotional and corporeal faculties, but also by their exclusive investments in domestic and familial settings.
That non-male fakir pursuits are even possible, though less common, in Sehwan is evidenced in the reference itself. Fakirni, the feminine linguistic equivalent of the word fakir, follows the standard way to assign gender for Urdu and Sindhi nouns referring especially to professions and work, i.e., by adding the gender morpheme ni as a suffix (e.g. ustani or female teacher, mullahni or female religious leader, etc.). However, the word barely comes up in Sehwan, whether in forms of women fakirs’ self-representations or in others’ referencing of them. A preference for its masculine form (fakir) across genders may possibly affirm the idea that to be a fakir is a valid life script for men, but not for women. But at the same time, in women-fakirs’ reluctance to adopt the feminine linguistic equivalent of the word lies the possibility to read a different doing of the script. I suggest that the social success of less customary spiritual careers rests on the additional work that women fakirs must do to orient themselves not only in relation to the male norm of fakirhood, but also in contradistinction to other women. Amma’s self-representation as being unlike women is therefore not an overcoming of femaleness per se, but the effortful device through which her fakir aspirations are accommodated despite her gender. Such innovative locating of oneself, however, is also enabled by the social fact that cultural imaginaries of gender in South Asia do not operate solely with categories of male and female, but point toward a third and open space between and beyond binaries or involve identifications like “neither man nor woman”.
Amma holds a healing-cup at her home in Sehwan Sharif | 2009 © Kasmani
That said, it is important to ask what happens when persons take on scripts deemed unfitting for them. In her work on women parliamentarians in the British House of Commons, Nirmal Puwar has highlighted the relevance of the male script in its prescriptions of corporeal, sartorial, institutional, and spatial codes. Women’s performances thus reference the script not only in adhering to it, but equally in questioning it, in failures to abide by it, in deviating from it, and in efforts to undo the script. Women like Amma who claim to receive charisma from saintly sources found in dreams and visions circumvent the patrilineal rule of transmission, but also reinstate its genealogical forms when they wish to transmit it to their daughters. In other words, the radicalness of non-male ways of doing a male script lies in its promise to contour the norm, to trace it anew. Likewise, fakir her-stories from Sehwan reveal innovative instances evidencing also that, if it is indeed the femaleness of their bodies that so often hinders women’s prospects for religious and spiritual careers, femininity is regularly employed as a way to argue the distinctiveness of women’s charismatic promise. What this means is that women’s efforts to address femaleness do not preclude their dependence on their femininities. Moreover, to understand such invasive and effortful labor of inhabitation in the language of (minority/female) masculinities is to severely limit non-male subjects’ other ways of doing the script or of ascribing proclivity to masculinization where there may be none. And not least because my fakir interlocutors include women, men, and hijra, in adopting such limited frames, other epistemological possibilities of speaking from and not to a non-binary field of gender may come to be effectively foreclosed.
In disputing epistemologies and in spelling out their discontents, one is still left with the question: what would forms of its provincializing look like? Fakir her-stories regularly trace and contour, but also interrupt scripts of asceticism and genealogies of charisma so as to reveal and restore to the female project of fakirhood its own feminine archive. Such outcomes of speaking from and not speaking to contain moments of disclosure, which can be situated within the spatial-orientational metaphor of provincializing itself. In her talk at Berlin’s literature festival in 2015, Gayatri Spivak spelled out a notion of radicalness – though not limited to doing science – that is to be invested in the moment when the one who is historically seen may turn into the seer. To believe in such prospects, as I have understood, was not merely to be interested in a reversal of the gaze, but also speaks to sedimented histories of structural violence that regularly foreclose new potentialities so as to render other views, other orientations impossible. As she read poems aloud in Bangla, neither fully translated nor comprehended, and not her own poems, but those by low-caste, low-profile poets, she manifested interruptions of language and also of meaning, intervening in a sedimented space by making room for works that do not follow or extend the shapes of a literature festival. Perhaps the enormity of any project of provincializing means that we locate its promise in the very act of uneasy, jagged, and oddly fitting interventions.
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