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