An Intersectional Feminist Study of Smashing Islamic Patriarchy in Meera Syal’s My Sister Wife

Meera Syal (born 1963) is a very popular English actress and writer. She has written many screenplays and two novels. She has also won many prestigious awards including Media Personality of the Year in 2001. She has Indian roots and descendent of an Indian family. She was born in a small town near Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. She has good education including a BA in English drama from prestigious Manchester University.
In 1996, Meera Syal wrote her first novel, Anita and Me which has semi-autobiographical notes. The novel reflects her pain and experience as an outsider child in British society with dark skin, who gradually realises and recognises that she was the outsider and the ‘other’. This left an indelible mark in her writings and screenplays.
On account of growing racism towards outsiders in her home town, Syal and her family left that town and moved to another place. The Anita and Me was nominated for the Guardian Fiction Prize and won the prestigious Betty Trask Award for the theme of racial equality.
Meera Syal was awarded an MBE in 1997 and won the ‘Media Personality of Year’ award at the Commission for Racial Equality’s annual ‘Race in the Media’ awards (2000), as well as the EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Award) for Media Personality of the Year 2001. (British Council, (https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/meera-syal).
Her other novel, Life isn’t All Ha Hee Hee is an ironic and dry narration of ‘ethnic’ culture presently marketed and sold as a style accessory in the Western world in which Chila and her two female friends are employed or exploited in the novel. Proctor writes:
On one level Life isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee is a wry look at the way ‘ethnic’ culture is currently marketed as a style accessory in the West and how Chila and her friends either exploit or are caught up in that scene. Like her work to date, Syal laughs at her protagonists without restoring to the usual clichés and stereotypes… Her work in fiction and on-screen is exemplary for how it uses humour to both challenge the limits of political correctness and to contribute to a politicised understanding of British Asian culture. (Proctor n.pag.)
Syal’s screenplay My Sister-Wife is no exception. In this screenplay, she explores the predicament of the characters who live in western societies but hug the customs and traditions of their original roots. It is a disastrous idea for the migrants if they try to incorporate the norms and traditions of both cultures into their lives.
The presentation of the play by Meera Syal, One of Us catches the attention of the BBC. The BBC gave Syal an assignment to write a script for a television show about the Muslim women of Pakistan. She used this opportunity to show off her skills and wrote My Sister-Wife. Clash of ages in Meera Syal’s play My Sister-Wife is one of the major themes. In the play, Syal attempts to present a clash of ages with an intersectional feminist presentation. The clashes are dominant in the life of the immigrants to Europe from Asia. It aims to corroborate the story by following the analysis of characters, culture, religion, and ages.
Meera Syal was studying English and Drama at Manchester University, when her stage play, One of Us, came to the attention of the BBC. Syal was commissioned to write her first television script, on the subject of Pakistani marriage. She relished the opportunity, pointing out that “the pleasure of writing as an Asian woman is the pleasure of exploding stereotypes”. The resulting feature-length drama, My Sister-Wife, was a joint winner in the TV Drama category of the Commission for Racial Equality’s Race in the Media Award. (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/). For this project, “…Syal cooperates with Asmaa Pirzada who makes a research on four sister-wives in London” (Ranasinha 254).
Polygamy among Pakistani Muslims is the core of the screenplay My Sister-Wife and this article. To exemplify the key points, the playwright tries to emphasise the character-analysis style to converse with the theme of the suffering of Pakistani Muslim women in a new, liberal, open, and inclusive western culture. This style is very apt to describe the dilemma of characters crushed between their intolerant traditions and the modernised and open life in their new western adopted homeland.
Farah is a young, attractive, ambitious, and successful Muslim woman of conservative Pakistan origin. She was trapped in love with a cheat, Asif Shah who hid his marriage and two grown-up daughters. She was shocked to know the truth about his marriage and daughters and decided to break the relationship because he was already married already and “He’s a liar, mummy. He lies at me No-one lies at me” (Scene 5).
However, Farah was obsessed with love with Asif and her parents used this infatuation, particularly her mother Mumtaz who tricked her into marrying Asif. The mother brainwashed Farah that he had just married his first wife, not for love but for family tradition, while he truly loves Farah. Moreover, his marriage to his first wife is not legally registered in Britain; hence, it is null and void.
In traditional Islam, women enjoy a secondary status because she is looked upon and treated as the weaker sex (zaifah) who is: emotional, irrational, unpredictable, irresponsible, indecisive, risk aversive and mischievous and therefore is in need of man’s constant supervision, protection and domination. (Kusha n.pag.).
Mumtaz was a greedy woman who had her eyes on the wealth of Asif. She feels that the marriage is a suitable prospect for her daughter to enjoy his wealth because Asif is an affluent young man. Due to her rigid and fundamental leanings, she was comfortable with her daughter marrying a man who was already married because he belonged to the same religion and race. The mother used every trick to convince her daughter to marry any Pakistani Muslim even if he is not a proper match for her beautiful young daughter, “Could not get me to marry the village idiots in flares your friends kept suggesting. Asif is rich and brown so he’ll do…I’ll fab in the harem and if Maharaj-ji gets bored, he can swap me for a bloody camel” alleged Farah (Scene 5).
Farah was an educated woman, and she was conscious of her rights as a woman in the secular British system. The national objectives of British society have been defined very clearly. The aim is to provide every citizen with the basic needs and complete freedom to have a life of his or her own choice. However, Islamic society denies this right to women. The aim is to create a democratic society that is strong and free, in which every citizen, irrespective of religious beliefs and preaching, will occupy an equal and honoured place and be given full and equal opportunities for growth and marriage. It aspires at ending religious oppression based on religion and doing away with present inequalities based on gender and religion.
Muslim women have been fighting for their human rights all over the world. They are facing discrimination and violence both in Islamic and non-Islamic countries. This is often connected to the obligation to dress as Muslim women and cover their head or entire body. (Soltanoi n. pag.)
However, the fundamentalist mother of Asif convinces her daughter in the name of “Honour [and] duty to the family” (Scene 5). The mother further advocates the case of cheat Asif that if he divorces his first wife, it would again shame him in the eyes of Farah’s family and friends. Furthermore, the mother of Farah adds that she can live cheerfully with the man, first, she loves, and second, he is wealthy and can adjust easily as I did: “love is simple”, added Mumtaz who has passed her life with the large family of Tariq, her husband, and whom she met for the first time only at the wedding night.
The writer Meera Syal tells the readers how irrationally and forcefully the parents of Farah and Asif ignore gender equality, geographical liberty, and the gap between the two generations. They impose their faith and will on them and feel that what suits them and their generation in Pakistan will suit their daughter. The parents were also unmindful of the huge cultural gap between the fanatic Pakistani culture and the liberal and secular Western British culture. They transported this fanatic culture to Britain.
Internally, Farah herself has submitted herself to the fundamental traditional values of her family. Yielding to this tradition, Farah admitted that only marriage can make a woman a decent woman, “Finding respectability at twenty-nine and two-third…” (Scene 10) mumbled Farah to herself on her wedding day and her first night.
Ruvani Ranasinha, in her famous book, South Asian Writers in Twentieth-Century Britain: Culture in Translation, dedicated a full chapter to evaluate the efforts of Meera Syal and Hanif Kureishi as they are described as ‘cultural mediators’ through their literary and creative works. Even such a great writer could not understand the divided self of Farah and other such types of women. Ranasinha writes:
Kureishi’s and Syal’s work charts the uneasy relationship between post-colonialism and multiculturalism, addressing, in particular, the legacy of colonialism, and its efforts on immigrants and their descendants in contemporary Britain. What is distinctive about their generation is that they act as cultural translators, in their mediations between majority and minority communities rather than between countries. The politics of first-generation migrant writers’ reconstitution of the foreign country for the target Western audience contrasts with the later minority genre that juxtaposes, challenges and reinforces dominant notions of their communities. (Ranasinha 221)
Farah was born and brought up, educated and preserved for a thriving career in England and is leading a very happy life. Yet, she could not resist marrying an already married elderly man with two daughters. However, she was trapped in love with the man she loved very passionately, and he was already a married man, Asif Khan. Asif lives with his mother, first wife, and two daughters in one huge house. He dupes Farah by claiming she is his only true love and that he was looking for her.Yet, Farah sees frequently that Asif visits to make love with his first wife, Maryam who has already mothered two daughters with Asif.
Maryam always lives in a hidden dark world. No one outside the family of Asif knows anything about Maryam and her marriage to Asif. People have no idea that she is the wife of Asif. Their first marriage was not legally registered in Britain. Her only duty is to cook and do the shopping for household needs every day. She is very submissive, obedient, and looks after the household needs very well because she has no other choice.
The film revolves around Muslim ideals of femininity. According to the Koran, a man is legally entitled to “possess” up to four wives. Farah and Maryam are engaged in a cruel battle to win the commitment and love of their husband, Asif. Maryam emerges as the ‘winner’, as the woman who retains her sanity. Farah’s descent into madness is attributed by her advisor, Fauzia, to her adherence to Western values, which equate sharing with weakness. (Shalini n. pag.)
Maryam discovers a competitor in Farah. Both were trying to outdo each other to please and satisfy Asif. Paradoxically, both believe that Asif likes the style and form of others. Maryam begins to appear as a modern woman. She begins to wear stylish western dresses; starts cutting her black long hair in stylish western looks; drives a car; gets a job in the company of her rival Farah and starts working. She becomes very bold and aggressive, like a modern woman, and starts to treat her husband rudely and is rude enough to scold him, saying “shut up.” Contrary to this, Farah starts to wear conventional Pakistani clothes and stops getting hair-cuts.
In her article “Citizenship and Gender in Asian-British Performance,” Meenakshi Ponnuswami concludes “the complexity and insight of My Sister-Wife lie in Syal’s sympathetic attitude if the cautionary portrayal of Farah’s longing for an ethnic home to be nostalgic about; Syal suggests that the inability to relinquish a sentimental t to an imagined history endangers rather than empowers women” (48). Syal, in My Sister-Wife, is essentially concerned with the diversity between the values and convictions of the children of the first generation of immigrants.
Rather than focusing on conflicts between cultures, she portrays the discord between generations within the same community. This focus on the differences between two generations within one community forms the basis of her appeal to new generations of readers, for whom these differences may be part of their own experience. (Ranasinha 225)
The rigid and fundamental first-generation immigrants in My Sister-Wife are represented by the parents of Farah and Asif who very strongly cling to their convictions and traditions. Mother of Asif, Sabina forces to prepare traditional health tonics at home. She compels everyone to give those healthy drugs to children, and shockingly, parents also allow those drugs enthusiastically.
The strictest of those is known as the Hanbali school and forms the basis of hard-line currents in Islamic thought, including Saudi’s ultra-conservative Wahhabism and variants of Salafism. It is this current that has further isolated women in the eyes of the law in states where Islamic law is practised or enshrined. (Dina Elbasnaly, Lewis Sanders IV).
Farah’s pleas to shift to another house have no impact on stubborn Asif. He does not budge even when Farah tells him that his mother has given her medicine that can kill her child instantly. Asif was not ready to smash the family traditions. He refused to live in a separate house with his second wife. The bitter dramatic irony is that the play happens in a very modern and civilised country and culture that has a very modern, liberal, and progressive culture and the best medical facilities available there.
The women’s reversal of roles testifies to the authority of the traditional Pakistani husband. Frighteningly expressive in her silence, and wearing a dark veil covering half of her face, Maryam at first carries out her duty as an obedient wife and servant with precision. But when Maryam gets a job and starts to wear Western clothes, make-up and jewellery, Farah becomes withdrawn and subdued. Housebound, pregnant and pale, she takes to her bed, usurping Maryam’s role as abject ghost-figure of the haunted house. In their periods of silence, Asif’s two wives are equally desperate to understand their confusing position in this Western-Asian world. (Shalini n. pag.).
Farah was torn between two cultures ? one was dark but still alive, and the other modern but powerless to smash the darkness. In the beginning, Farah is a symbol of resistance but in the next part, she surrendered herself to the Islamic patriarchy. She lost all the courage to smash Islamic patriarchy and enlighten the enslaved other women in the misogynistic Islamic world. Syal says that “she visits India at the age of twenty-two and finds out that the first generation of immigrants clings to traditions which are outdated in its homeland. Asif’s mother symbolizes that generation that clings to traditions that have already been neglected in its home” (Ranasinha 225).
The mother of Asif, Sabia, tries to convince the two wives of Asif that the best and the easiest way to achieve Asif’s love and favour is to deliver a baby boy. She takes Farah to a witch for magic called Mata-ji to prepare her mixture that ensures that a baby boy will be born to Farah. Farah saw many women who were seeking the blessing and help of the same witch. Hence, the first generation of immigrants took this evil and formed its ethnic customs in Britain. Farah also falls prey to the witch Mata-ji and her witchcraft. She firmly believes that the Mata-ji has supernatural healing powers. The mental condition of Farah begins to worsen as she loses her first child due to the potions of Sabina. She has such blind faith in a witch, Mata-ji that she ignores the advice of her educated English friend, Poppy:
Farah: how can we resolve anything when there’s always another person to run to when things go wrong. She’s got some potion from that Mata-ji witch Southall. She put a spell on him….
Poppy: listen to yourself. You’re an intelligent woman, you have got a career….you have to get out of there!….
Farah: because if I can get him into my own space, I can fight her if I could have a baby, I know I could get him back….
Poppy: I’m a woman. No woman I know could live like this. (Scene 65)
Farah becomes obsessed with the thought that she must recapture Asif and thinks that delivering a baby boy is the lone way to win the favour of her husband. She finds out that Asif has coerced Maryam to abort because the foetus was a girl. Then she begins to converse to the ghosts of the four sister-wives who come into sight only to her. Asif calls Farah ‘the madwoman in the attic.’ She even notes the start and finish times of Asif and Maryam sex time sessions. Finding that Maryam was expecting again, she conspired to poison her with the tonics she bought from the witch. However, accidentally Asif is poisoned and dies. Ultimately, both the wives failed to give birth to a baby boy. With this accident, Meera Syal symbolises the death of Islamic patriarchy that represses itself through its evil means.

There are moments of extraordinary visual poetry, notably a scene where Maryam after Asif goes away, offers Farah a hand (literally) in friendship. The camera cuts from a close-up of the two women sitting on the stairs ? their faces engulfed in shadows ? to a high-angle shot of the pair partly obstructed by imposing wooden balustrades. Their facial expressions are no longer readable; all we see is Maryam’s illuminated palm reach out to Farah, who grasps and holds it in her hand. For a moment, the gesture seems genuine. It is all the more disturbing that, in the ensuing events, any chance of female solidarity is abandoned as the women murderously compete for their husband’s devotion. (Shalini n.pag.)
In the play, women are oppressors of women and oppressed too and support Islamic patriarchy and polygamy. Mumtaz, Sabina, Mata-Ji, Maryam, and Farah ? all the characters carry out these evils. Mumtaz and Sabina force Farah and Maryam to accept polygamy. Magic-player Mata-ji gives potions to Maryam and Farah to control Asif and give birth to a baby boy.
Maryam and Farah compete for Asif’s love by trying to produce a male heir, underling the degree to which they are enmeshed in patriarchy. The text offers no solutions but tends towards a nuanced critique of polygamy. Syal suggests that the script took a polygamous set up in a wealthy family as a metaphor for the painful adaptation processes facing women of my generation. (Ranasinha 257)
Asif also realises that polygamy is evil and admits it while talking to his friends:”…I am honest with my wife. Suppose that’s my burden, coming from a primitive culture” (199). Asif confesses but surrenders to the burden of cultural practices he perseveres to internalise and for which he finally has to pay a very heavy price.
Sabina and her son, Asif are dead at the end. The play symbolises an intersectional feminist reading and Islamic patriarchy for the distress of the immigrants who leave their homeland due to religious fundamentalism and poverty. However, in the new land, they have no courage to shun those evils. The play is a message to be open-minded and the characters should adjust to the new, better life. Being a good woman or man does not mean surrendering to intersectional feminism or the patriarchal model of life. It is a misogynist model.
Despite being a child of the Indian Diaspora, Meera’s narrative is distinct from the majority of diasporic writing in that it reveals an affection for the local village community, rather than the tropes of transatlantic travel preferred by writers such as Salman Rushdie and V. S. Naipaul. (Proctor n.pag).
To conclude, the play presents the quandary of the immigrant characters who are connected to their rigid society and ethnicity, but they carry the burden to implement those values in a new liberal and forward culture. It is not only the oppression of women but men are also the victim. Asif could have easily lived either with Farah or Maryam but he keeps both of the wives and the children. The mother, Mumtaz, Sabia, wives Maryam, Farah, and husband Asif ? all internalise the Islamic patriarchy. Women and men, particularly the first-generation immigrants in the play, are both, the oppressor and oppressed.
The play conveys the idea that men and women must have the courage to choose a superior life and a better future with self-respect. They should not follow their faith blindly in life. The play shows that blind submission to senseless traditions may lead to disastrous outcomes. The play is an excellent study of the clash of the ages and of intersectional feminism.

Web Cited
Chanda, Shalini. My Sister Wife (1992) http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/476215/ Retrieved on 28 November 2019.
Elbasnaly, Dina and Lewis Sanders IV. “Women’s rights in Islam: Fighting for equality before the law, 22-05-2020. (https://www.dw.com/en/womens-rights-in-islam-fighting-for-equality-before-the-law/a-53539222).
Kusha, Hamid R. “Minority status of women in Islam: a debate between traditional and modern Islam.” Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs. vol. 11, no. 1, 1990. pp. 58-72, 20 March 2007. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02666959008716149?journalCode=cjmm19).
Ponnuswami, Meenakshi. “Citizenship and Gender in Asian-British Performance”, Feminist Futures? Theatre, Performance, Theory, Editors, Elaine Aston and Geraldine Harris, eds. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Procter, James “Meera Syal”, in file:///D:/Meera%20Syal%20-%20Literature.html Retrieved in November 28, 2019.
Procter, James. 2002, British Council. (https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/meera-syal).
Ranasinha, Ruvani. South Asian Writers in Twentieth-Century Britain: Culture in Translation. Oxford U P, 2007.
Soltani, Anoosh. “Confronting Prejudice against Muslim Women in the West.” United Nations University, (https://unu.edu/publications/articles/confronting-prejudice-against-muslim-women-in-the-west.html).
Syal, Meera. My Sister-Wife, in Kadija George, ed. Six Plays by Black and Women Writers. Aurora Metro Press, 1993, pp. 111-58.

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