'The Upstairs Wife' interweaves Pakistani history with a tale of plural marriage

Journalist and activist Rafia Zakaria explores the pain Muslim women may feel when their husbands take another wife.

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan By Rafia Zakaria Beacon Press 264 pp.

Every religion has its apologists, some of whom feel no compunction about engaging in sophistry in order to sanitize the more unsavory aspects of their belief-systems. Islam is no different. Some Muslims attribute great significance to the fact that the Quran states that no Muslim man should take more than one wife (he’s allowed up to four) unless he can treat them equally, maintaining that this ensures that polygyny will not harm the women involved.

Meet Amina and her husband Sohail, who stand at the center of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Rafia Zakaria’s powerful and poignant, if loosely held together, first book. Amina is Zakaria’s paternal aunt. Some 15 years into Amina’s marriage to Sohail, he takes a second wife. Sohail proceeds, in scrupulous fashion, to split his property between the two women. (Amina is given the upstairs apartment – hence the book’s title.) Similarly, “his time was divided into blocks of single weeks, which belonged to one and then to the other wife.” An ideal arrangement, yes?

Not quite. In limpid, often novelistic prose, Zakaria chronicles her once-lively and ebullient aunt’s descent into melancholy and bitterness. Amina feels especially aggrieved during the alternate weeks when Sohail lives with his other wife downstairs – close enough that Amina can hear their interactions. “The sounds may have been nothing or something or anything, but wafting into the silence upstairs they were always intimate and always conspiratorial,” writes Zakaria.

We never learn why Amina decides to stay with Sohail, who has failed to secure her permission – as required by Pakistani law – to take a second wife. Does Amina fear that were she to request and subsequently obtain a divorce from an Islamic court, she would receive no alimony, as usually happens when the wife initiates divorce proceedings? Zakaria does not say. Instead, she intersperses Amina’s unhappy marital saga with snapshots of Pakistan’s troubled history – jumping back and forth through the decades – including the life and times and assassination of two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Although some of these episodes are fascinating, many bear only a tenuous connection to Amina’s story and that of the Zakarias as a whole.

However, there are exceptions. The members of Zakaria’s immediate family are Muhajirs, or Muslim emigrants from predominantly Hindu India. Most Muhajirs came to Pakistan in 1947, during the ghastly and blood-soaked “population exchange” between the two countries that followed Partition that year, but some continued to trickle in long afterward. Zakaria’s parents and grandparents moved to Karachi from Bombay (Mumbai) in 1961, well before the author was born, drawn by the allure of living in a Muslim country and aided by the “nagging, knotty suspicion that … India would not love them back.”

The author interweaves Zakaria, Muhajir, and Pakistani history in a knowing, artful way, and captures a paradoxical impulse animating many migrants: a desire to recreate in their new country lifestyles from a homeland to which they don’t wish to return. One wishes that Zakaria, who now lives in the US and sits on the board of directors of Amnesty International USA, would address the issue of Pakistan’s atrocious religious discrimination, which targets communities such as Ahmadis (prohibited by law from identifying themselves as Muslim), Christians, and Shiites. Zakaria does occasionally delve into rights violations, highlighting repression of Muhajirs in Karachi and Hyderabad, as well as Bengalis in East Pakistan (which seceded and became Bangladesh in 1971).  

Where “The Upstairs Wife” succeeds in most striking fashion is in its unflinching depiction of the toll bigamy takes on a wife – one who understandably feels spurned despite her husband’s rather conscientious efforts to mollify her. Zakaria describes her aunt Amina’s travails in a sympathetic but never sensationalistic manner. And all the while, she draws attention to a wider Pakistani phenomenon, one that has spread with every Islamization drive launched by populist political leaders.

“Unraveling the emotional scars created by a life of competing for a man, the daily smites of being overlooked, ignored, or unloved, is not a wound Pakistani women wish to open to the world,” observes Zakaria. Yet, as she points out, “letting this realm remain private has rendered the effects of polygamy invisible.”

Over a period of years, the author peered time and again into one such private sphere. She came away troubled but also imbued with resolve. Zakaria subsequently scuttled her own arranged marriage. And, still haunted by her aunt Amina’s life, she wrote this moving and socially conscious book.

Rayyan al-Shawaf is a journalist and book critic based in Beirut.

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