A development consultant and now writer, Aysha Baqir’s novel Beyond the Fields hit the bookshelves earlier this year. The novel follows the story of two Pakistani twin sisters, Zara and Tara, growing up in a small village in the 1980s.
After an innocent game in the fields leads to Tara’s rape, the story narrates the sister’s heart-wrenching fight against a deeply entrenched system of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and gender-based violence, highlighted against the backdrop of martial law.
“Each day thousands of girls and women across continents and cultures from Pakistan to Peru are assaulted and the abuse continues without any substantial family, community, or legal support in place,” says author Aysha Baqir in an exclusive interview with The Tempest.
In an effort to shed light on the atrocities girls and women face, Baqir tells the story from Zara’s point of view so that the readers can go on this harrowing journey with her:
“I wanted the readers to experience her emotions. Fear, disbelief, horror, anger, as she sees family, her community, and the legal system failing her. Beyond the Fields is also about fighting back and saying NO to social injustice.”
Baqir grew up in Lahore, Pakistan and eventually went to Mount Holyoke College to study International Relations and Economic Development. Her experience abroad and her education helped push her out of the bubble and exposed her to the economic and social disparities all over the world.
“Upon my return to Pakistan, I saw that the poor didn’t need my sympathy – they needed access to economic resources and networks before they could voice their demands for social justice.” This inspired Baqir to become a part of the change she wished to see.
“In 1998, armed with an MBA from LUMS, I founded a pioneering not-for-profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation which focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused training for girls and women.”
Baqir understands that a victim’s family has to be the starting point for support, which unfortunately isn’t always the case for Pakistani women because of the society’s interpretation of honor: “In Pakistan, as in many South and East Asian countries, the family and community honor is pinned to a girl’s chastity, virginity, [or] modesty. It baffles me why we consider honor to be familial or communal when honor is individualistic and each mature adult is only responsible for his/her own actions.”
However, there are also gender prejudices that are so deeply intertwined with the society’s mindset that they become internalized in its people and trickle out in the form of, for example, a lack of educational opportunities for girls compared to boys. While a lot of these prejudices are held because of a lack of exposure, Baqir also comments upon how Pakistan’s turbulent history had helped bring these prejudices into the constitution. In fact, that is one of the main reasons she chose to set her story in the backdrop of martial law in the 1980s.
In the interview, Baqir recalls attending a protest with her mother during that time. The protest was against a woman’s imprisonment for getting raped, but the legal system imprisoned her for adultery and sentenced her to fifteen lashes while her rapists walked free.
“To date, I shudder thinking that the only thing that separated me from Safia Bibi was an accident of birth.”
But it’s not just the legal systems that have failed the women of the country, it is also the intense economic disparity. The rural setting in the novel is inspired by Baqir’s own work in the rural areas in 1998 where she set up programs to help the girls and women in the villages of Pakistan.
“It just wasn’t the poverty – it was the social injustice, the threats, the assaults, and the violence the girls and women suffered and withstood – yet they carried on – determined to improve their lives. Over the years they become my heroes. Hence, when it came to writing the novel, about a girl rising up to fight against social injustice, I thought the story should best be told in a rural setting.”
Despite Pakistan’s history, the country is slowly moving towards progress. Baqir recalls how the Women Protect Act in 2006 no longer classifies rape and adultery as the same crime, and a woman can no longer be prosecuted for being raped. In 2016 the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offense of Rape) Act 2016 stipulated that women would no longer go to jail for reporting rape or be accused of adultery. Moreover, DNA testing and physical check-ups in the presence of a female relative also become mandatory.
Baqir expresses her optimism as she’s watching her country take steps towards a brighter future. Her own work in the development sector has, of course, contributed to this progress, but she still wants people to remember where we’ve come from, how far we’ve gone, and how much farther there is still to go.
“It will take time to fully remove the burden of honor from a girl’s or a woman’s shoulder especially in the rural areas of Pakistan. I hope that my writing will help to promote and spread the change in thinking and action, not only in Pakistan but also across the world.”
And we share Baqir’s sentiments and hopes for the future. A future where girls and women are no longer policed or threatened because of their bodies and equality no longer feels out of our reach. Baqir’s novel is a testament to the progress we’ve made so far but the story of Tara and Zara still reminds us that the conversation is far from over.
Make sure you get your copy of Beyond the Fields and embark on this harrowing journey with the girls. You can get it here for $13.99.
This interview was conducted by Mariyam Haider and shortened for length and clarity.