Redefining Women’s Roles
Title: A Punjabi Village in Pakistan – Perspectives on Community, Land, and Economy Author: Zekiye Eglar Publisher: Oxford University Press, Pakistan (October 2010) Pages: 469, Hardback Price: PKR. 1295 ISBN: 9780195477238
Anthropology is the study of humanity. The term “anthropology” itself is derived from the Greek words “anthropos” and “logia” and was first used in 1501 by German philosopher Magnus Hundt.
Its further divisions include cognitive/cultural and economic anthropology. Cognitive anthropology lies within cultural anthropology, in which scholars seek to explain patterns of shared knowledge, cultural innovation and transmission over time and space using the methods and theories of the cognitive sciences (especially experimental psychology and evolutionary biology). This is often conducted through close collabo- ration with historians, ethnographers, archaeologists, linguists, musicologists and other specialists engaged in the description and interpretation of cultural forms. Cognitive anthropology is concerned with what people from different groups know and how that implicit knowledge changes the way people perceive and relate to the world around them.
Economic anthropology is a scholarly field that attempts to explain human economic behaviour using the tools of both economics and anthropology. There are three major paradigms within the field of economic anthropology: formalism, substantivism and culturalism.
One of the roles of an anthropologist is to analyze each culture with regard to its culturally appropriate means of attaining recognized and valued goals. The challenge is that the individual preferences may differ from culturally recognized goals. Under economic rationality, individual decisions are guided by individual preferences in an environment constrained by culture, including the preferences of others. Such an analysis should uncover the culturally-specific principles that underlie the rational decision-making process.
Although there are numerous books that highlight cultural and economic anthropological cases there are
very few that not only shed light on the subject but also make an interesting read. One such anthropological gem happens to be ‘A Punjabi Village in Pakistan – Perspectives on Community, Land, and Economy’ by Zekiye Eglar.
The introduction and preface of the book provides some insight into the author’s life, which happens to be just as interesting as the events and figures she describes in her book. Eglar was a child of multiple worlds and shows affinity for different kinds of cultures from an early age. She was born in Georgia and her mother was the daughter of a Georgian prince while her father (Suleyman Pasha) was an Azerbaijani Turk who served as a general in the Czar’s army.
Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, her family moved to Azerbaijan and in 1923 gained exposure to the newly liberated/independent Republic of Turkey. Interestingly, her family’s association with modern Turkey’s founding father (Ataturk) resulted in the bestowing of the title “Eglar” (intelligence) upon them. All such exposures and encounters with different cultures, languages and customs served as the building blocks for Eglar’s interests and future specialization in cultural anthropology.
Eglar spent most of her life and career shuffling between the U.S and Turkey. In 1933, she studied at Columbia University, under the tutelage of great anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. In later years she also taught cultural anthropology at Ankara University, before returning to Columbia to complete her PHD. Her dissertation, ‘Vartan Bhanji: Institutionalized Reciprocity in a Changing Punjabi village’ was first published by the Columbia University Press in 1958. This dissertation served as the first step in Eglar’s interest in the cultural insights of a Punjabi village and during her time at Harvard it was fol- lowed by a sequel: ‘The Economic Life of a Punjabi Village.’
In her book, Eglar speaks highly of her co-workers and helpers such as Mr. Fazal Ahmed Choudhry, who played a pivotal role in her research. It was Choudhry who helped Eglar in getting acquainted with the community in Mohla; a village in Gujrat, which was to be the site of her anthropological masterpiece.
Her own origins and background was also a major factor in her acceptance in Mohla; being born and raised as a Muslim and an Azeri Turk. Throughout her life, she had friends and acquaintances from a diverse background but her family origins were still Turk/muslim. Her detailed experiences showed that Pakistanis (both urban and rural) highly regarded Turks.
Eglar’s manuscript is divided into two parts with the first part generally describing the life in the village and the second part focusing on its economic aspects. Book One describes in detail the village itself, its compound, castes, the values attached to the land and prestige and ends with chapters highlighting the village calendar, the seasons with relation to planting and harvesting, the hierarchy within the clan and community and the family’s relationships and interactions. The second book focuses more on the economic aspect of the village life and gives an insight into the different roles and relationships that are centred around the women of the village. The details are captured through local terminologies like biraderi (community),
izzat (honour) and sadr (inner most desire), making for an interesting read.
In her research, Eglar also discovered unwritten social contracts and relationships known as vartan bhanji that bound the community at different levels. The well-established networking patterns of vartan bhanji reinforced relationships within the family. These patterns then extended beyond the family to the wider village community and further, to other villages in the area. The unwritten code also sustained professional relationships between the landowners and the tenant farmers. Vartan bhanji revolved around farming and its associated trades, with various barter exchanges rather than cash payments and with women playing a central role. This phenomenon of vartan bhanji is what formulates the main crux of Eglar’s book
Eglar’s studies at the Mohla make an important contribution to the understanding of women’s role in this predominantly Muslim, agrarian society. The book documents women as central to the interdependent process. Women continued the traditions of vartan bhanji that bound the social fabric of the village together with the process primarily taking place through the daughter of the house. In the community-managed pattern of resolving disputes, women were also in a key position as married daughters could mediate in squabbles. These findings countered the prevailing wisdom about women’s roles particularly in such rural, predominantly Muslim settings. In short, women were central not just to the social relationships of the village culture but also to the village economy and to the economic well-being of their families.
Even though times have now changed, women still retain their positions as managers of the house and family and social relationships in the village and beyond. This role remains an active rather than a passive one and counters the conventional position of Muslim women as submissive or docile decision makers.