Skeena (2010), the debut novel of Fauzia Rafique, traces the life story of its protagonist of the same name from her childhood and youth in a patriarchal, feudal family set up in Punjab, Pakistan to her life in Canada where she migrates after her marriage. The novel is divided into four parts: her childhood in a village near Pattoki in Pakistan, youthful days in the urban city of Lahore, life after marriage in Toronto, and finally, living in Surrey after her divorce. Following the trajectory of Skeena’s life allows us as readers to explore diverse cultural and social spaces through her eyes. In particular, the novel is focused on the various forms of oppression she witnessed or experienced while living in each of these different environments. As she bore witness to the brutality of casteism, patriarchy, and religious extremism in Pakistan, she also witnessed and endured other issues in Canada, ranging from domestic violence, racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. The novel scratches away at various myths surrounding the experiences of migration and womanhood to reveal the hidden systems of oppressions lurking underneath. 

Skeena’s Origin Story

In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Rafique told me why she decided to write this novel in the first place. After migrating from Lahore to Toronto in 1986, she founded Diva, a quarterly journal for women of South Asian origin. At the same time, she also started working as a counselor with the North York Women’s Shelter (NYWS). The shelter not only gave women escaping domestic violence a place to live but also an open, receptive, comfortable space to share their experiences. Working with Diva and NYWS provided Rafique with an opportunity to meet and converse with a number of women. It was during these discussions that Rafique realized the need to talk about the oppression faced by South Asian, migrant women; most of the women at NYWS were White and did not have much awareness of the intersecting nature of Islamophobia, patriarchy, and racism faced by a Muslim, Pakistani woman. Such a need to contribute to these discussions stirred her to begin writing Skeena in 1991. 

The Power of Accessible Language

Rafique goes on to tell me during the interview that “writing is a source of communication for me. To communicate to the readers what I feel.” Following this urge to communicate, Rafique went on to write Skeena originally in an accessible, bilingual English/ Punjabi form to reach out to a wider audience. But due to some editorial restrictions, she had to cut out the sections of the novel in Punjabi. By developing these cut-out Punjabi parts later, however, she had two manuscripts of the novel in both English and Punjabi. The novel was first published in Pakistan in Punjabi Shahmukhi/ Persian script in 2007. All along, Rafique was also preparing the English version of the novel which was eventually published in Surrey in 2011.

In the meantime, Rafique also moved from Toronto to Surrey and realized how her novel was not accessible to most of the Sikh community in Surrey because of its Shahmukhi script. Consequently, she decided to publish a third version of the novel, this time in the Gurmukhi script. Surjeet Kalsey, herself an Indo-Canadian woman poet, converted the script of the novel from Shahmukhi to Gurmukhi which was first published in Surrey in 2011 and later got republished in India. 

Skeena Hits the Bookstands

Such a uniquely diverse circulation of the novel, as recounted by Rafique during the interview, has allowed it to outlive any single geographical, linguistic, or cultural categorization. A look at its receptions and reviews indicates how it has managed to stir different chords across a surprisingly wide array of audiences. For Bubbles McKegney, a retired teacher and feminist activist from Ontario, and Bryonie Baxter, executive director of Elizabeth Fry Society in Ottawa, Skeena offered an insightful commentary about issues of racism, violence against women, classism, and the experience of immigrating to a new country. Punjabi Lekhak Manch (1973-), one of the oldest groups of Punjabi writers in British Columbia, hailed the novel as a “unique, artistic and prideful contribution to Punjabi literature.” According to Kalsey, Skeena is a woman who transcends borders and does not belong to any one geographical location of Pakistan, India, England, or Canada. Instead, hers is the story of a woman who is born stuck in the cages of param para (tradition) and who makes a daring attempt to shatter these cages and live an independent life. 

Rafique also told me about the mixed reception the novel has received in Pakistan. According to Sanjh, the publisher of the novel in Pakistan, Skeena is one of the best-selling Punjabi novels in the country, launched in over 9 cities. Despite its popularity, however, the novel has also been criticized for its plot and language. During the launch of the book in Jhang, one of the cities in Pakistan, Rafique had to sit in a room where she was the only woman. The launch was initiated by singing a poem in her praise, calling her the “daughter of Punjab.” When the discussion about the novel began, the chairman of the meeting called the character of Skeena tragic because she did not have kids. Rafique could not hold herself back from breaking the protocols of the meeting and corrected the chairman on his patriarchal expectations about what makes a woman happy.

Outside this launch, Rafique told me, Skeena also did not fulfill the expectations of some leftist activists in Pakistan who were disappointed with the transition of Skeena’s character from a rebellious young activist who could fire a gun if need be, to getting married and migrating to Canada and living a meek, domesticated life. Lastly, Rafique mentions a group of Punjabi intellectuals who have also criticized her for not adhering to a standard, pure diction of Punjabi language and for using too many words from Urdu and English in the novel. “I don’t agree with this idea of a pure language or culture,” Rafique tells me. “Every language and culture evolves by borrowing from other languages and cultures.” She goes on to call such a fusion of different languages and cultures helpful and necessary in the creation of a world free of prejudices. 

Skeena as a Story of Cultural Intermingling

Such an openness to a variety of cultures and languages also gets reflected in Rafique’s characters. During the first two sections of the novel, Skeena had grown up listening to a famous Punjabi song “Jugni” by Alam Lohar and the melodious voice of Noor Jahan, watching the women of her village do the traditional dance of Giddha, attending the festival at the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal, reading Faiz’s Urdu poetry, listening to Punjabi poetries of Madho Lal Hussain and Mian Muhammad Buksh and a Pashto song. But when she moved away from her country of birth in the last two sections of the novel, she found herself equally grounded in the cultures of Canada. She enjoyed watching the Stanley Cup and listening to Bob Marley. She found great friends in Maggie and Yogini, two women who belonged to different cultural and sexual backgrounds than her own. The strict cultural binaries between Eastern and Western values shattered when she compared the relationship between Maggie and Yogini with the one she had witnessed earlier in her own family while growing up back in Pakistan. 

Rafique told me how she does not like how most Punjabi writers, and others, keep crying about the loss or impurity of their home cultures and values or stay stuck in the memories of their home countries. She does not think her home culture is lost since it is there, preserved inside her person, and comes out through her works. At the same time, she also considers Canada, where she has spent more than 36 years of her life now, her second home, whose cultures similarly constitute a prominent part of herself. She feels proud of the fact that she belongs to multiple homes, cultures, and languages. “Of course, migration is a painful process”, she continues to tell me, “You are uprooted from your place of birth. But, it also gives you a much-needed exposure to other cultures and languages and helps you broaden your perspectives.” Perhaps, such an understanding of migration does not sit well with her readers who often find it strange that Skeena adapted to her new environments so well and started living an independent, happy life in the last section of the novel.

According to Rafique, Skeena tries to disrupt the smokescreen created by our commonly held assumptions about migration, Muslim women, and the binary of Eastern and Western cultures in order to bring focus to much more pressing issues like racism and patriarchy that oppressed people, especially women, face everywhere in the world. 

Edited by Carla Rizk

Hamad Abdullah

Hamad came from Pakistan to Canada as an International student and recently completed his masters in History from UBC. He is interested in reading and writing about politics, cultures and histories focused...