De­fy­ing So­cial Norms

Ti­tle: Taboo! Author: Dr. Fouzia Saeed Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, Pak­istan (Jan­uary 2011) Pages: 368, Pa­per­back Price: PKR. 595 ISBN: 9780199062799

Southasia - - Book review - Re­viewed by Anam Bhadelia The re­viewer is a grad­u­ate from the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, U.S.A. She cur­rently works as a Pub­lic Re­la­tions pro­fes­sional.

Prac­tices that tend to de­vi­ate from so­cial norms are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered taboo. The word taboo holds a cer­tain con­no­ta­tion or el­e­ment of fore­warn­ing and hu­mans have a nat­u­ral in­stinct to steer clear from any­thing that may be deemed as such by so­ci­ety. So­ci­ety places con­stant pres­sure on us to stay within the realms of what is so­cially ac­cept­able and obey the norms. How­ever, what is con­sid­ered taboo varies across re­gions and cul­tures.

One topic, uni­ver­sally con­demned, is that of pros­ti­tu­tion. ‘Taboo!’ by Dr. Fauzia Saeed pro­vides an in­sight into pros­ti­tu­tion in the South Asian so­ci­ety by ex­plor­ing the cul­ture of the Shahi Mo­halla - La­hore’s no­to­ri­ous pros­ti­tu­tion district.

The book is an ac­count of the author’s per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and the se­ries of events that drew her into the ev­ery­day hap­pen­ings of the Shahi Mo­halla. Cu­rios­ity en­tan­gles her into the lives of the Mo­halla’s res­i­dents as she presents her nar­ra­tive through a re­searcher’s per­spec­tive.

As Saeed probes into the cul­ture of the Mo­halla, she un­cov­ers var­i­ous

top­ics such as the para­dox of why we are fas­ci­nated by this cul­ture, yet shun it? She ex­plores the pos­si­bil­i­ties of le­gal­iz­ing pros­ti­tu­tion to help pro­tect the rights of these women or whether laws against it will help elim­i­nate the prac­tice. As she at­tempts to delve into the lives of the women in­volved in the prac­tice, she also high­lights the se­ri­ous in­volve­ment of bu­reau­cratic in­sti­tu­tions with the Mo­halla.

Pro­vid­ing an anal­y­sis of the trade, Saeed delves deeper into the larger so­ci­etal is­sues and ex­plores the pa­tri­ar­chal na­ture of the South Asian so­ci­ety and the way gender power re­la­tion­ships are de­ter­mined. She sheds light on how so­cial norms and pho­bia char­ac­ter­ize a so­ci­ety and, in turn, shape the way pros­ti­tutes are viewed.

The author’s style of writ­ing is lu­cid and she pro­vides an ex­ten­sive record of her en­coun­ters with the women in the Mo­halla. Adopt­ing an ethno­graphic ap­proach, Saeed uti­lizes an en­gag­ing nar­ra­tive for­mat that al­lows her work to be ac­ces­si­ble to a broader range of read­ers. En­gag­ing and grip­ping, her nar­ra­tives are as in­ter­est­ing as they are in­for­ma­tive. This al­lows read­ers to fa­mil­iar­ize them­selves with the char­ac­ters in the book and un­der­stand them bet­ter as their sto­ries un­ravel. Few nar­ra­tives writ­ten on so­cial is­sues are able to cap­ti­vate the au­di­ence. Saeed’s work, how­ever, does jus­tice to the sub­ject.

When ad­dress­ing the is­sue of gender and its con­nec­tion to the Mo- halla, the author’s ob­ser­va­tions are par­tic­u­larly en­light­en­ing. Com­pelling the reader to draw par­al­lels be­tween women in the Mo­halla and those in reg­u­lar so­ci­eties, stark dif­fer­ences are made ob­vi­ous. For ex­am­ple, the birth of a fe­male in the Mo­halla is widely cel­e­brated whereas South Asian so­ci­eties place un­due pres­sure on women to bear sons. The writer at­tempts to de­mys­tify the bound­aries be­tween cul­tural pro­fes­sions to show that even though the so­ci­ety tries to alien­ate women in the Mo­halla, their per­sonal choices do not make them much dif­fer­ent or as one would be­lieve any ‘worse.’ As Saeed puts it, ‘abid­ing by moral stan­dards has lit­tle to do with moral­ity.’ Hence, one should not let the pro­fes­sion de­fine the in­di­vid­ual.

To fur­ther un­der­stand the con­cept, Saeed, de­spite the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions and opin­ions as­so­ci­ated with the Mo­halla, moves into the lo­cal­ity for a brief pe­riod. By do­ing so she gives us an ac­cu­rate de­pic­tion of what ac­tu­ally goes on, as most of our knowl­edge of this pro­fes­sion comes from ex­ag­ger­ated de­pic­tions of pros­ti­tu­tion on tele­vi­sion and in films.

In­ter­est­ingly enough, the dy­nam­ics of spe­cific gender roles in the Mo­halla vary even though the lo­cal­ity is part of a pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety. Saeed ex­plores the de­vel­op­ment of as­so­ci­ated art forms such as singing and danc­ing and the spe­cific roles taken by res­i­dents of the Mo­halla. Not shy­ing away from the sub­ject, she dis-

In­ter­est­ingly enough, the dy­nam­ics of spe­cific gender roles in the Mo­halla vary even though the lo­cal­ity is part of a pa­tri­ar­chal


cusses at length the role of pros­ti­tutes, pimps, man­agers, deal­ers, mu­si­cians and of course the cus­tomers that set the at­mos­phere. A so­cial taboo is as­so­ci­ated with the singing and danc­ing that high­light a wo­man’s sex­u­al­ity which, ac­cord­ing to so­ci­ety, ‘moral’ women do not ex­press.

Saeed uses var­i­ous strate­gies in her writ­ing in or­der to tackle the topic. While she main­tains her per­sonal views, she pe­ri­od­i­cally pro­vides view­points on her work by of­fer­ing the perspectives of in­di­vid­u­als from the govern­ment sec­tor, ed­u­ca­tional sec­tor, ac­tivists and busi­ness­men, amongst oth­ers. By do­ing so, in­stead of con­vinc­ing the reader to think in a cer­tain way, she pro­vides them with con­flict­ing views so that they can make an in­formed de­ci­sion re­gard­ing their stance on the sub­ject based on their own judg­ment.

To sum it up, pros­ti­tu­tion is a pro­fes­sion that has ex­isted since an­cient times. Liv­ing in de­nial or ig­no­rance will not put an end to pros­ti­tu­tion. The Pak­istani so­ci­ety, in par­tic­u­lar, needs to ac­cept the truth that this il­le­gal pro­fes­sion will most likely be around for gen­er­a­tions to come.

The book does not ask the reader to ac­cept pros­ti­tu­tion but sim­ply at­tempts to un­der­stand the cul­ture and dis­pel com­mon myths re­lated to the pro­fes­sion. It aims to gen­er­ate an un­der­stand­ing, not only lim­ited to the sub­ject of pros­ti­tu­tion but to every­thing so­ci­ety views as taboo. While it is easy to blame in­di­vid­u­als as­so­ci­ated with such acts, we need to look within our­selves and ques­tion whether we con­trib­ute to these acts.

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