I am grateful to Amna Chaudhry for organizing this Roundtable on the late Annie Ali Khan’s book Sita Under the Crescent Moon at LUMS Lahore. I want to thank Amna Chaudhry, Saba Imtiaz, Zoya Rahman, Sadia Khatri and Bilal Tanweer.–sepoy
Amna Chaudhry is a freelance writer, currently based in Lahore. She tweets @amnachaudhry03
I’m very excited to be having this event at LUMS. when Bilal first approached me to organise an event about Annie’s book, I knew I didn’t want to organise a panel or just have someone review the book. Instead, I wanted to make a space in which we could reflect on the concerns that this book articulates. So, a mix between a tribute and a chance to critically engage with Sita Under the Crescent Moon. But mostly, I want us to ask what can we learn from this book that Annie has left us with.
Thanks to the book ban, Annie’s book is currently unavailable in Pakistan so a quick synopsis is in order. Sita Under the Crescent Moon explores why female pilgrims, or satiyan, travel from all over Pakistani to Sati shrines. Annie undertakes these journeys right alongside them and asks, who are these women, how did this relationship with Sati start and how worship can be a site of power.
Annie Ali Khan was a journalist based in Karachi and Sita Under The Crescent Moon was her first book-length work of non fiction.
Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist, author and researcher. She writes about culture, urban life, food, and religion, and her work has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Marie Claire, and on the BBC. She is the author of the novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me! which was adapted into an Indian feature film called Noor. She has reported features from Pakistan, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. She is the recipient of several reporting grants and fellowships, including the International Women’s Media Fund and the International Reporting Project. Saba is currently based in Karachi and working on several long-form reportage projects.
In a scene from Sita under the Crescent Moon, Annie Ali Khan describes a girl in a tattered kameez, with no dupatta, who has already been thrown out of a shrine for defiling it with her blood–who boards a bus. She gets attacked by passengers, for now, defiling the bus. A mureed of the shrine, and Annie, step up for her.
“She is not going anywhere,” the mureed says. “Her place is right here.”
Her family had abandoned her, and she kept trying to get back on a bus, to belong. She gets off the bus, her journey abandoned once again.
“I had learnt, that night, this morning, being somewhere, wanting to be somewhere was not that simple,” Annie writes, “when being there, wanting to be there, to want, was simply not allowed.”
When I tried to buy Sita under the Crescent Moon recently, I was told by a salesperson in a book store that it wasn’t available because nothing was coming in from India. It irked me in the way that one is annoyed by not being able to complete an errand. By the time I had finished reading, I was struck by the futility of this, that a book that puts women, their quests, their idea of love and devotion at its centre, was being relegated to the out of stock section, to an order that might not get refilled, firmly placed out of reach, slowly falling off the map. The joyous, difficult journeys, the possession of the women–and the narrator–was being taken away from us by men who control maps and borders.
It is deeply ironic. This book is a reminder that women are not just forgotten, but ignored. It is the acute sensation of someone looking straight past you, ignoring the other set of footsteps in the sand, ignoring that women are also moving through this earth and this city. Sita under the Crescent Moon does this by presenting a Karachi that does not exist in any imagination, making it revelatory in a way that it does not set out to be.
Annie traces the journeys taken by women searching for the divine in the city. There are truths that spill out: women’s long journeys in this world, from their first appearances and disappearances from their mother’s wombs. The book even manages to depict stillness and silence in a place that is so loud that you can barely hear yourself think: what happens in the pauses between one visitor to the shrine to the next, the dark of the night when someone talks to you of love, houses that feel that they will burst open with the force of the love and sadness of the people who live in them. Annie’s quest to find Sita–shrines on the edge of the city, the bus terminals and journeys and rooms–is not alternative geography, a story of a new city, or an account of women living on the margins. In a city and country where women are forgotten, and nameless, Annie gives them names–Saima, Faqira, Zahida–and destinations.
It is the half that has always been missing, the whole that we have been unable to find in our telling of life in Karachi. It turns to the reader and says: You never saw. They’ve been here all along.
The stories and rituals and places in Sita under the Crescent Moon are familiar territory, but they have largely only been explained to us, or seen, through the works of men. The bylines in newspapers are largely that of men, men opine, men write about other men. We are taken to these places by men, the places are marked by the stories of men, and when you visit the royal baths in this very city you are reminded that there is a man who tweeted about them. In writing about shrines and devotion, men take centre stage, which is why when you close your eyes and imagine a shrine it is easier to conjure images of men doing the dhamaal, men singing a qawwali. Men, we are often reminded, design the keys to go with the map, the rules of where women can operate, where men are entombed and where women are forgotten. Men even get to decide whether women can rest in peace–just recently a woman’s corpse was exhumed and reburied because she’d been interred in a space marked for feudal landlords.
Writing about women, then, tends to be seen as the alternate. In newsrooms, women typically would get handed the “women” and “human rights” beats. It often feels like it is forced on you, and not a choice you make. It seems imperative that you must write about your gender, you must have a female role model, you must be interested in the lives of women, and you must treat any larger work as a one-off, special event. This is what I found so striking about Sita under the Crescent Moon: that a work of such breathtaking creativity only happens when you choose to write about women, to engage with the lives of women so deeply, instead of being told that you must and can only write about women.
Perhaps part of why Annie’s book feels like such a rarity is that women’s journeys–where they come from, where they end up–is not of any importance. Hearing from women who are alive, who have purpose and desire and devotion, is not on our maps and minds. Women, after all, magic themselves out of nowhere, they’re just Mary Poppins emerging from the sky with an umbrella, they unfold themselves out of less than half a dozen seats on a public bus to serve an ungrateful city, ready to cook, clean, dance, sing, serve. The only women we allow in a public space are women who are young–and more importantly–dead. So young that they cannot be told that really, it was their fault for ending up dead and so dead that their legacies can be reshaped and morphed and refitted to suit the mood of the moment, so dead that it can be easy to forget that they could be at the knee of a dictator and also the voice of a generation. The women that are fleetingly deemed fit for public consumption–a merry-go-round of Veena and Mahira and Qandeel and Rabi–are all quickly thrown off their pedestals and ground into dust until they can be reshaped into something else, until they can definitively be taken off the map.
Annie often deploys this single, powerful description: “She had possession.” The book is seized by that sentiment, the possession that Annie attributes to the women around her, the possession that drives women to get on a bus, to go somewhere, to belong, to take a journey to a place where they have long staked a claim. Every so often, people will claim that women emerging on the streets is a new phenomenon, something to be attributed to mobile phones and technology. But women have always been here: in our shrines and on the streets, in these neighbourhoods, on buses and in convoys of pilgrims. They exist, even if you pull them off buses and take them out of their graves. They have been making these journeys for a long time, for as long as this land has existed,
In Sita under the Crescent Moon, we finally meet the women who are holders of the keys and maps to this country’s shrines and streets. Their custodianship of shrines is taken away, their claim to their devotion is chipped away at, they are pushed to the end of the city, to a place that perhaps none of us could find on a map. Their sons break their hearts, men break their souls, but their hearts are seized by possession. Eventually, the women disperse, they are brushed off by men, they are pulled off a bus, but they return. What is striking is that even without a map, they can make their way back. On a bus to Thatta, Annie meets Rubina, a woman who knows “the route like the back of her hand.”
“‘The land is barren at first,’ she said. ‘Then the marshes and fields appear, and then houses, then fields again. Before the most spectacular city you will only believe when you see with your own eyes,’ she said. ‘Duniya goes to Thatta. Only a person who gets lucky earns a visit to Thatta.’”
Zoya Rehman is a feminist researcher based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She has been working on gender and legal issues from a multidisciplinary approach through her practice and research. Zoya is a recipient of the Chevening Scholarship Award, and has just completed her MA in Gender Studies and Law at SOAS, University of London.
Annie Ali Khan passed away over a year ago; her book was posthumously published earlier this year. There is a sadness and inexplicable poignancy to approaching a book that has been ‘posthumously published’ by an author you have never met, who will never be able to address the praise and questions you have for her. This inexplicable sense of loss has shaped my engagement with Annie’s book significantly. For instance, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling helpless when Annie and her female interlocutors were in pain: when Annie confesses, rather tellingly, that “life was simply impossible.”
The underlying theme of Sita Under the Crescent Moon is “a woman’s search for faith in Pakistan.” In the book, Annie recalls travelling with female devotees–satiyan–for their pilgrimages to sacral sites across Sindh and Balochistan. By using the paradigm of Sita, or rather sati, to denote self-sacrificing and devoted women, Annie repeatedly implies that the marginality of these women cannot be ignored. I do not say this to erase the material significance and lived experiences of the women Annie honors, but to demonstrate that Annie dared to do what no one has ever done in Pakistan: she gave a voice to previously untold stories of spiritual Pakistani women finding themselves, in their lifelong struggles of seeking succor and redemption, through inward-looking and sometimes deeply personal feminist journeys. She centres the lived experiences of women who embark on pilgrimages to Sufi shrines to show how, under the shadow of militancy and ethnic strife, they carry on the memories of Sita’s dismissal and sacrifice. She highlights their personal quests in light of the ways in which these women give meaning to their lives, and the trials and tribulations that stem from their socioeconomic marginality, while they remain committed to an endless search through “wilderness” – particularly through their rituals, folklore, dance/dhamaal, reclamation of male-dominant public spaces and of women-only shrines. Annie simultaneously charts her own journey of becoming a female pilgrim, or a seeker of truth, as she travels along with the women to search for sati, or rather satiyaan.
There is a junoon that undergirds Annie’s commitment towards ensuring that these stories see the light of day, as she tries to navigate through the “treacherous” political and geographical terrains of Sindh and Balochistan–the site of remembrance for a woman’s sacrifice–for the voices of her female interlocutors are recovered from the margins. While exploring these “lives lived”, Annie seems to take on her own role, as a researcher and journalist–or rather, an insider/outsider–with unbridled compassion and responsibility. Whether it is the stories or Hamida and Gulshan or the magnanimous Faqira, Annie deliberately centers deeply visceral spiritual and poetic experiences of womanhood in her travelogue, and simultaneously uncovers alternate understandings of hegemonic Islamic traditions in Pakistan. She presents interludes of narratives rooted in female experiences to demonstrate the complex relationship between womanhood (or rather, forms of womanhood) and spirituality. In doing so, she makes an indelible contribution to the contemporary weavings of feminism and spirituality in Pakistani pop culture. Hence, Annie challenges quotidian formulations of religion in Pakistan by vouching for the resilience and strength of her female interlocutors through her storytelling.
The fact that Annie puts herself at a significant amount of risk while uncovering these stories cannot be ignored. Her own vulnerability, as a female journalist with a bit of a personal stake in these stories, who herself transforms from Shakti to Sati in her lifetime, is evident when she describes her various nighttime journeys through ‘darkness’. What I found particularly appealing about the book was the idea of women searching for something through “brooding dark mountains”, that seems to be a metaphor for the dangers, chaos and sorrows they must confront, and their own mental illnesses and marginality that they are expected to live through. How do women save their own lives through daily “acts of assertion” when the world turns a blind eye to their plight, when men keep watching them burn, and they rarely, if ever, make the news? These are the questions that Annie leaves her readers with, as she makes use of unforgettable metaphors and feminist imagery (be it of a “celestial bindi” or the spectacles of “dance and desire” that are witnessed throughout the book) to confront the ways in which the stories she uncovers are interlinked with the majestic terrains of Pakistan: which, in this feminist travelogue, is “a geography known only to women, for women.”
More importantly, ‘Sita Under the Crescent Moon’ transcends reductive binaries and political certitudes in Annie’s attempts to problematize what it means for women to have agency in postcolonial Pakistan. She approaches her interlocutors with humility while denouncing coercive modes of power and jettisoning any presumptions or sense of foreknowledge. Her book is by no means a rescue mission that promises to uncover ‘another Pakistan’. Neither does she reify tropes in which she claims to save marginalized women. By refusing to appeal to liberal sensibilities, Annie evinces poignant self-awareness in her book, whereby she continues to hold herself accountable by doing right by her subjects and honoring their stories over her own, whether she is traveling with the pilgrims or sleeping with them soundly under the stars.
Sadia Khatri is a writer based in Karachi. She has worked as a journalist at Dawn and The Kathmandu Post, and as a reportage editor with Papercuts Magazine. She writes fiction and non-fiction, and is currently working on her first book about the life and poetry of the late Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali.
Tracking the lives and movements of women who worship Sati in Pakistan, and following their footsteps herself, Annie Ali Khan has crafted a book which is as winding as the journeys it describes. Sita Under the Crescent Moon reads a lot like a journal: messy, disconnected, discontinuous. Structurally it presents a narrative that refuses to cohere. Passages switch from observation to commentary to reportage; connections are not explained; time and location jump without warning. Her voice, too, shifts unreliably. Clinical, distant note-taking gives way to fiery self-reflection, social commentary is inserted when Annie feels like, suddenly there is a stray thought, or a paragraph with intense lyricism, or–having been invisible all this while–the ‘I’ leaps out of nowhere.
Almost like Annie is not writing for her audience, but for herself.
In a postscript at the end of the book, the editors explain that this was the final draft Annie submitted before she died. It was edited minimally. We may wonder whether she might have taken it through several more rounds, if she intended to tease out the narrative inconsistencies, or we can see the mess as a deliberate choice and ask ourselves: what is the value of a work that reads, primarily, as raw material? Where the writer, though concerned with specific threads–women’s bodies, worship, love, truth–is essentially presenting her investigations in the form of a travel notebook, distilling her surroundings without regard for formal convention?
A journal, or a notebook, can throw light on the world in ways that fine-tuned writing cannot. It is writing that is immediate, vulnerable and unfiltered, while allowing access to the writer’s own interiority. We do not just see what Annie is recording and noticing, but also how she is experiencing the things she is describing. When does she distance herself and simply list down what is around her (what women are wearing, the songs on the bus, the things people say to her that she doesn’t want to forget); where does she make room for poetry (when she is falling in love with Zahida); what drives her mad enough to throw in a taana (on men’s piety).
In her canonical essay “A Room of One’s Own”, guru Virginia Woolf discusses the trouble of defining “women’s writing” and goes on to offer that it might be difficult to categorize what women’s writing is, but that one could start by considering the conditions under which women write. And how women wrote then, in 1929, is how many women still write today–amidst a series of interruptions, in the stolen hours between their daily domestic duties, the moments they find in-between tending to the house and children. Virginia Woolf was interested in how these interruptions lead to fractures in writing, resulting in a narrative flow that is unsustained, in paragraph transitions that feel abrupt, in a voice that does not hold its own. Here fragmentation becomes inescapable; whether in fiction or non-fiction.The form itself ends up reflecting a woman’s inner world; one where she is repeatedly, violently yanked out of her own thoughts by the demands of her reality.
Travelling as a woman in Pakistan, or experiencing sacred spaces in a woman’s body–granted the moments of oblivion and rapture–is no different. Annie returns constantly to the things women carry on these trips: cooking supplies, bed-sheets, children. Their domestic world moves with them, and when not, there is the mental noise created by the attention drawn to their bodies. Their experience of everyday public spaces in Pakistan is rife with interruptions, much like the way Sita is written. And while such disconnectedness can frustrate, a fragmented narrative can be seen as a more honest reflection, powerful in its refusal to allow complete unrestrained access into women’s interiority, because women themselves are not allowed it. What we get, instead, inner landscape of women’s lives as Annie moves through physical landscapes–as she says in the book: “A geography known only to women, for women.”