Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KNAU's main phone line is experiencing technical difficulties. Click here to contact members of our team directly.

2 Sisters In Pakistan Find They Have A Lot In Common With Jane Austen


Our next story comes from Lahore, Pakistan, where two sisters host regular meetings of the Jane Austen Society. It has hundreds of members. Austen wrote her novels 200 years ago in the English countryside. But as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, her stories are resonating with women of a certain class in this conservative Muslim country.


DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Step into this Jane Austen Society party, and you are instantly transported from Lahore's bustling streets to the setting of one of Austen's novels.


HADID: There's chandeliers and Victorian furniture. One host, Mahlia Lone, is dressed for the occasion - hair in curls, a low-cut, frilly top and an elegant skirt. Her sister Laaleen Sukhera is the other host.

LAALEEN SUKHERA: Is it Pemberley, or is it "Downton Abbey?"

HADID: Laaleen leads an Austen-themed quiz.

SUKHERA: Ladies, try this one. Was it Bingley, Wickham or Darcy? Who had 10,000 a year? Somebody tall and handsome.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Clapping) Bravo.

HADID: The sisters grew up in Pakistan's tiny wealthy elite. They studied in English and devoured Austen novels. Here's Laaleen.

SUKHERA: We find it easy to relate to her. We find it easy to relate to her era and her characters because Pakistan 200 years later is still very similar to the Regency period.

HADID: Austen's books are about women who must marry well. They can't inherit their father's property, and they may not work. And that pretty much sums up the predicament of elite women in Pakistan, like the sisters hosting this event. This is Mahlia.

MAHLIA LONE: So one of the basic themes in, for example, "Pride And Prejudice," was the law of primogeniture. If there is no son, then the father's estate goes intact to his next male relative. We actually have a law like that here. How much more real and substantial can it be?

SUKHERA: Everything revolves around marriage whether it's courtship, or it's making a good match, or it's getting your children settled with the right kind of family.

HADID: And Austen's heroines fight the system. Here's Lizzy from the BBC adaptation of the novel "Pride And Prejudice."


JENNIFER EHLE: (As Elizabeth Bennet) You would never think of marrying a man like that simply to secure your own comfort.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) No. But, Lizzy, not everyone is the same.

HADID: The similarities run so deep that Laaleen has curated a collection of stories adapted from Austen. It's set in contemporary Pakistan, and it's called "Austenistan." The women didn't have to look far for material. Some of Austen's most beloved characters are sisters who deal with their limited options differently. Mahlia sees her younger sister Laaleen as headstrong, romantic and irresponsible, just like a typical younger sister in an Austen novel. She's hit a nerve.

SUKHERA: I don't know. I don't agree. I'm not such a romantic at all.

LONE: You're emotional.

SUKHERA: Who isn't? You are.

LONE: I'm the practical one.

SUKHERA: No, you're not. You're super emo. That's how you see yourself.

HADID: Even Mahlia's story for the collection features a character who she says is a mix of her sister and Lydia from "Pride And Prejudice" - that's the scandalous one who elopes - even if Mahlia says her sister is not that bad.

LONE: It's the minor things - like minor...

SUKHERA: (Unintelligible).

LONE: Yeah, she had...

SUKHERA: (Unintelligible).

LONE: Yes. But there are tiny quirks. You know, there are small quirks. Oh, I also want to do this. I'm 16, but I want to grow up quickly. It's that.

HADID: Her sister Laaleen shoots her a look. It's clear Mahlia sees herself as the more sensible type, a typical older sister in an Austen novel. Mahlia's learned important lessons from Austen - marry well and smartly manage your husband. For instance, her first draft of the story for the collection was tame, but the publisher wanted a racier story, something more authentic and contemporary.

LONE: And I had to - I asked my husband for permission. Earlier, my story was very timid.

HADID: Why did you ask your husband for permission first?

LONE: He has to support me, right? So if he gets scandalized, and everyone's making fun of him, and he divorces me - so where am I, right?

HADID: She says it was a strategic move.

LONE: Social politics - that's exactly what Jane Austen writes about. You make one slip-up, and you're out. It's contemporary world, so you can make a couple of slip-ups, and then you're out.

HADID: Mahlia walks a fine line. She's independent. She works as a magazine editor. But she acknowledges she had to marry well to live the life that she wanted.

LONE: Not just marry well but remain in the marriage. So it becomes all about, you know, perpetuating the system.

HADID: And the system has treated them well. As we chat, a maid brings tea, scones and serves us fresh lemonade. Now it really feels like a Jane Austen novel. The sisters laugh - close but not quite.

SUKHERA: The glasses would've been placed with perfect symmetry. And when we watch "Downton Abbey" we're like, oh, my God, how come we can never have that? But yeah.

HADID: We sip our lemonade, and Laaleen reads out a passage from her story in "Austenistan."

SUKHERA: (Reading) So what is an inch or two here and there with a house like that?

HADID: It features a matchmaking auntie. She sets up a young woman with a rich bachelor. And when the woman hesitates, she's lectured.

SUKHERA: (Reading) You're a lovely girl, Roya Beeta (ph). But do you know how many girls with decent backgrounds, anorexia and designer clothes are waiting to pounce on him?


SUKHERA: How was the accent?

LONE: Dramatic reading.

HADID: Laaleen also drew from her own experience. Like a headstrong heroine, she didn't have an arranged marriage. She waited for love.

SUKHERA: You know, whichever suitable gentleman pursued me with the most ardent fervor was the one I actually ended up marrying and had children with. And that's over now (laughter).

HADID: She's getting a divorce, and it's been ugly. She and her husband are fighting over custody of their three little girls.

LONE: And there's nothing - not one single penny so far.

HADID: The sisters are clearly frustrated with how women are treated in Pakistan. But just like in Austen's time, Laaleen knows there's not much sympathy for a woman who breaks the rules.

SUKHERA: When a marriage fails, it's your fault because you haven't been able to handle him properly.

HADID: Manage. Manage.

SUKHERA: You still don't know how to make your ideas appear like his ideas. You still don't know how to - yeah, that's you.

HADID: That's you. She's looking at her older sister Mahlia, who jumps in to explain the difference between them.

LONE: So there's eight years difference between us sisters. Like, I work the system, and she walked out. That is challenging the system, but it's tough. You only do it as a last resort. You don't do it as a first, second, third.

HADID: Even after leaving her husband, Laaleen didn't find independence.

SUKHERA: First, you start off as the daughter of somebody. Then you're the wife of somebody. And now I'm the daughter of somebody once again.

HADID: Just like Austen's days - so it is 200 years later in Pakistan - you can work a system. You can rebel. But you can never escape the rules. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore.


Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.