Thursday, February 3, 2011

Our Women Are Free: Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush (Book)

Our Women Are Free: Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush
By Wynne R. Maggi

The Kalasha are a dynamic community of about three thousand people living in three tiny finger valleys near Chitral, Pakistan. A tumultuous history has left them the only remaining practitioners of cultural and religious traditions that once extended across the Hindukush into Afghanistan. The Kalasha differ in many ways from the conservative Muslim communities now surrounding them.
Yet despite their obvious religious differences with nearby communities, when asked what makes the Kalasha unique, both men and women often reply, "Our women are free" (homa istrizia azat asan). The concept that Kalasha women are "free" (azat), that they have "choice" (chit), is a topic of spirited conversation among the Kalasha. It touches at the heart of both individual women's identities and the collective identity of the community.
Our Women are Free introduces the historical and cultural landscape of the Kalasha and describes the role that "women's freedom" plays as an ethnic marker for the entire community. Throughout the narrative, Wynne Maggi stays close to conversations and events that illustrate the daily life of the community, focusing particularly on the Kalasha people's sense of humor; on the pleasure they take in work, children, ritual, and relationships; as well as on the complexity and seriousness of their social lives.
Accessible and thought-provoking, Our Women are Free will be of interest to professional anthropologists, area scholars, and other social scientists.
The wonderful thing about this book is that, while covering all the scholarly, academic bases, Maggi also manages to be warm and funny and show tremendous affection for her subjects. She writes beautifully, tells wonderful stories, and both she and her Kalasha subjects are delightful company. Reading this book makes you want to (a) travel to Kalashadesh and get to know these folks yourself, (b) become an anthropologist yourself, (c) hang out with Wynne Maggi and listen to more of her stories and insights, or (d) all of the above.The Kalasha live in the mountains of northern Pakistan and have retained much of their ancient culture and pagan religious beliefs despite being surrounded by Islam for centuries. One of the crucial ways they distinguish themselves from their neighbors is through their belief that "our women are free", and Maggi sets out to examine what they mean by that. She looks at the work Kalasha women do and its importance to the community. She explains how Kalashadesh is divided between "ongesta" (pure) and "pragata" (impure) areas and how women tend to those shifting boundaries. She describes their distinctive fashion, their marriage customs (especially the tradition of elopement or "going alasin"), and, perhaps most fascinating, the "bashali", where women go when menstruating or giving birth, and where the sense of community among Kalasha women is strongest. All this adds up to a thorough analysis of Maggi's central question, but more important, for the non-scholars among us, is how enjoyable the book is along the way. I especially loved Maggi's sense of humor, a quality that isn't often found in scholarly works, unfortunately. At one point, for example, when Maggi is lamenting the disappearance of some bashali customs, a Kalasha friend retorts, "Wynne, if you like all that so much, then you sit on a rock, naked, waiting for a bird to chirp so you can pee, and I'll go back to America and ride around in your car with your husband." There are many such moments in this book. Treat yourself, and hope Wynne Maggi has more treats in store for us in the future.

Wynne Maggi teaches anthropology and women's studies at the University of Colorado.

No comments:

Post a Comment