Pakistan, Love, and Jane Eyre
Wikimedia Foundation’s Heart of Knowledge Contest Grand Prize Winner
I still remember the day my mother first took me to our local British Council branch in Lahore, Pakistan. I was around eight years old. The sun was at its zenith, its brightness requiring me to squint my eyes as I followed my mother up the marble steps into the air-conditioned foyer of the British Council chapter in Defence — one of the affluent neighbourhoods in Lahore.
The office was large and well-lit, and with the exception of the woman behind the information desk, my mother and I were the only other people there. Our footsteps echoed against the beige, stained marble floors, and Mom and I took to speaking in hushed tones as I asked her what we were doing there. She told me to wait by one of the bookshelves, and after getting some information from the lady behind the desk, made her way back to me.
We walked over to a bookshelf stacked with VHS tapes. Mom slowly slid her finger across the titles and stopped at one — it was a two cassette VHS box that looked prehistoric to my juvenile eyes. The colors on the cover had faded, but the box was intact and in good condition. Mom checked it out with her British Council membership card and we made our way home in the car.
That evening, Mom asked if I wanted to watch the movie she had checked out on a three-day rental. I asked her what it was about.
“It’s based on a classic book called Jane Eyre,” she told me.
I had not read any classics at that point, nor was I familiar with old-timey, British films. But the intrigue of never having watched something like it piqued my interest and after dinner, Mom and I popped the first cassette into the VCR in my parents’ bedroom, rewinded the tape, cranked up the air-conditioning, got under the bedsheets and started watching.
Mellow, instrumental music played against a grainy, intro title. “Is this a movie or a TV show?” I asked my mother, to which she shrugged and told me to keep watching.
Turns out, it was a mini-series from 1983 developed by the BBC. With 11 episodes and a runtime of 4 hours, it was as though my mother and I had been transported to a different era of civilization, namely 19th century Victorian England.
I have no idea where my brother, father, or anyone else in our house was over the span of those 4 hours. No one knocked on the door. The phone didn’t ring. The electricity didn’t go out (a common problem in Pakistan back then). My mother and I were floating through space-time; visitors to an alternate dimension, brought there through the power of film and imagination. The bedroom (with its attached bathroom) acted as our self-sustaining ship, tumbling down a wormhole into the past.
At the halfway mark, when the first cassette finished, I begged my mother to watch the second one then too. She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Okay, we can watch it now, but don’t say you’re not going to school in the morning!”
I hastily agreed. We both quickly took turns going to the bathroom while the second cassette rewinded, plopped ourselves back on the bed and pressed play. Looking back on it now, I realize this was my first ‘binge watch’ in life.
It was past midnight by the time credits were rolling, and I was promptly shuffled off to my room and tucked in bed. It was, after all, a school night.
Jane Eyre was the first piece of feminist art I was exposed to in my childhood. What stood out to me most was the portrayal of romantic love between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.
Growing up in Pakistan, love was seen either as a force of dangerous passions and irrational obsessions, or it was a compromise where women ended up with a worse deal than men. There was this unspoken consensus within the women of our society that cheating husbands were part of the package of married life and stability. Working women, especially in the upper-middle class strata of society, were a rarity back in the 90s, and unless a woman came from an extremely rich and progressive family who were willing to support her, it was unlikely that a woman could leave a bad marriage, especially if children were involved.
Marriage and courtship were often arranged by the parents, and suitors were picked based on a multitude of criteria ranging from cooking skills and physical features of the woman, to family prestige, money, and job prospects for the man. Very rarely were people paired up based on intellectual and emotional compatibility. Social compatibility and the ease with which the families (and wealth) could merge were of the utmost importance when securing spouses. There was an understanding that love happened after marriage, and over time you would learn to love the person you married.
Divorce was almost non existent back then due to the social stigma attached to it, the brunt of which fell on women. Marriages among first cousins were extremely common, which made the prospect of getting a divorce even more complicated. So, with poor economic prospects due to lack of access to employment, many women were not able to support themselves and their children, and most turned a blind eye to their husbands’ indiscretions since they had few other options.
My mother and many of her female friends often gave each other advice on how to confront their husbands when they engaged in extramarital affairs. I remember hearing stories of heartbreak and betrayal at social gatherings (which were segregated) among women if ever I needed to speak to my mother and made my way over to the “aunties’ corner” from the “children’s corner” of the party. I knew some day, this would be my fate too.
But then, Jane Eyre happened.
In the movie I saw, for the first time, a defiant woman. Not just as an adult, but a defiant child who wasn’t afraid to call out the adults around her for the injustices they committed against her. Young Jane was angry, and she wasn’t going to let her aunt and cousins treat her like a subpar human being who could do without love and compassion. She demanded respect, even when she was in no place to bargain for it.
After Jane is sent off to Lowood Institution and villainized by much of the staff and students there, she perseveres, forging meaningful bonds with a handful of people, and eventually goes on to become a teacher there herself as an adult. When her work no longer challenges her, she leaves. Jane never settles for anything less than what she expects for herself, and pushes back against what her society expects from a young woman like herself. She is often called plain looking and pitied for being a spinster, but she doesn’t let these words wound her or break her spirit. She is, in every essence, a brave woman.
Much of Jane’s behaviour was radically different from what was expected of young girls and women in Pakistani society. We were never to talk back to our elders, even if they were unjust to us. Respect and obedience were the most important traits a woman was supposed to embody, and blindly follow whatever path her family chose for her, having faith that they knew what was best for her.
But Jane Eyre turned all these ideas on their head, and I was introduced to a world where women didn’t have to take shit from others just because they were women. Women had the right to stand up for themselves, their wants and desires, and not be ashamed of who they were and the circumstances they were born into. Through courage and resilience, women could take charge of their destinies and build the life they wanted.
When Jane secures employment as governess at Thornfield Hall and meets the enigmatic and moody Mr. Rochester, an unlikely romance blossoms between the two. A wealthy man who has no shortage of women swooning over him and vying for his attention, Mr. Rochester finds in Jane a kindred spirit in search of love and meaning in life. When the two finally confess their love to each other, Jane is reluctant to admit her feelings, and in the grips of passion, says to Mr. Rochester,
“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”
This passage from the movie (and later in the book when I read it), sent goosebumps down my spine. The concept of two individuals being equal because of their spirits and not because of their wealth and the socioeconomic classes they come from — this single idea was the most profound concept I had ever been introduced to. It went against everything Pakistani society taught and expected from its youth. Loving or marrying someone who was from a lower class than oneself was, to this day, grounds for disowning, or even murdering one’s children.
Jane and Mr. Rochester love each other not because they’re both wealthy, but because they both bring out each other’s true natures and are unafraid of sharing with the other who they really are. Mr. Rochester is at times lustful and arrogant, but Jane doesn’t hold that against him. They accept one another for who they are because they are the best versions of themselves when they’re together. Their love connects them on intellectual, emotional and psychological grounds, not socio-political ones.
These ideas quickly took hold in my young mind and went on to forge my views on love, marriage, companionship, and unapologetically living my life as an independent, badass woman. When I turned 13 and started getting my period, my parents told me I was a growing woman and one day, they would find a good man to marry me off to. I told them I’d find my own Prince Charming, to which my father let out a nervous chuckle.
After Jane learns that Mr. Rochester is already married and keeps his mentally ill wife locked in a room in his house, she is devastated. In a state of mental conflict, she flees Thornfield Hall and leaves behind the promise of a cushiony life as Mr. Rochester’s mistress; all she has to do is look the other way. But this goes against Jane’s morals, and she don’t want to be the other woman, no matter how much she loves Mr. Rochester.
Jane doesn’t become a prisoner of her love. Once again, she throws her life into uncertainty if it means she gets to live on her own terms, without compromise or sacrificing her ethics and dignity. She never takes the easy road, even if it comes at considerable mental and emotional distress.
Later, when Jane once again pulls her life together and finds stability with a new job and new group of friends, she is proposed to by John Rivers who wants to marry her and move to India so they can be missionaries together. He openly admits he wants to marry her for her work ethic and commitment, not because he loves her,
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must — shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you — not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”
Not allowing herself to be held hostage to any one man for his own personal gains at the expense of what she wants, Jane rejects John’s proposal. John’s words echo the “learn to love after marriage” sentiment many Pakistani courtships are based on, and seeing Jane turn John down (who is also her first cousin) was an oddly pleasurable vindication for me. Whenever I’d re-watch that scene from the film, I’d mentally say, “You go, girl!”
At 17, after my family and I moved to Canada, I got my first job working at a mall food court making minimum wage. When I got my first paycheque, the very same day, I went over to the HMV in the mall on my lunch break. There, I placed an order for the 1983 BBC Jane Eyre miniseries on DVD, starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke.
Over the next few years, most of what I earned was spent in bookstores buying and devouring the literary works of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and many other English writers from the Victorian Era. In all those books, I saw brave and courageous women, fighting back against the norms and customs of their society and redefining what a woman can be and accomplish. My mind and heart were enriched by stories of resilience, heartbreak, hope, passion, love and betrayal. I was exposed to a myriad of emotions one can experience when we open our hearts to the world and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be heard and seen by others, to fall in love and encounter loss and suffering.
The character of Jane Eyre not only influenced me, she became a part of me. Through her, I learned about fearlessness, and also forgiveness and redemption. Towards the end of the novel, Jane goes back to Mr. Rochester on her own terms; a wealthy woman who comes into family inheritance and can live the rest of her days in comfort. When she finds Mr. Rochester blind and broken by life, his home and wealth destroyed by a fire caused by his deranged wife which ultimately took her life too, she accepts him. Love is complicated, and messy, and happy endings can come in a variety of forms.
The last chapter of the novel starts with one of the most famous lines in literary history,
“Reader, I married him.”
When I went off to university, I took my DVD of Jane Eyre with me. My parents came along to help me move into my dorm and see me embark on a new and exciting chapter of my life.
As my mother helped me unpack, she came across the DVD. I caught her staring at it in silence for a few seconds before she put it down. She didn’t say anything then, but after we had unpacked, it was time to say our goodbyes. Dad hugged me and said he loved me and was proud of me. Fighting back tears, Mom gave me a big, tight hug, held me for a long time, and said to me,
“I hope you find your Mister Rochester.”
Reader, I found him.
In April 2019, the Wikimedia Foundation launched the Heart of Knowledge contest to invite creative submissions from artists and writers around the world on the theme of “What does open access to knowledge mean to you?” Hina Husain’s essay won first price in the creative non-fiction writing category. The complete digital zine with all winning entires can be found here.