- Zenana: Everyday Peace in a Karachi Apartment Building
Louis Wirth famously described urban social relations as anonymous. The view that city dwellers are largely strangers to one another has been widely challenged by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians since the 1950s. Nonetheless, while the stranger is no longer a problem for the ethnographer who arrives to find groups and networks flourishing, living among strangers remains an existential problem for many urban residents. In Karachi, a city riven by ethnic and sectarian violence since the 1980s, such problems take on added significance. In her gracefully written and incisively argued book, Laura Ring contends that the everyday efforts of women in Karachi to transform neighbors into—if not quite kin—something other than strangers, are the labors of peace.
The problems of what Ring calls "neighboring" have received less attention than they deserve, largely because ethnographic studies of cities have tended to be oriented around ethnic and/or economically marginal neighborhoods whose residents are often tied to one another by more than locality. The book's setting is a multi-story, lower-middle class apartment building, pseudonymously called "The Shipyard," sheltering nearly fifty families with members of most the major ethnic groups of Pakistan (Pattans, Baluchis, Punjabis, Sindhis) pursuing a variety of livelihoods (government doctors and engineers, [End Page 253] teachers, shopkeepers). Such multistory apartment buildings have risen only in the last three decades, but have quickly become common in this expanding city. Most of their residents have moved from old neighborhoods in the city center or from peripheral one- or two-story "colonies" that are rather homogeneous (at least at the scale of the lane), settled by kin, caste, ethnic, and sectarian groups. Ring shows how residents, with partial success, attempt "to draw familiar social forms into the new space of the apartment building" (15). One man is desperate to rent the apartment next to his for his brother in order to reconstitute a joint family household (the rental agent refuses, "Two brothers, side by side, they'd never leave!" ). As in other sorts of neighborhoods, residents make fictive kin of their neighbors through the use of kin terms (bhai [brother], baji [sister], bhabi [brother's wife]).
The focus of the study is on women's "neighboring practices" (4) in the zenana. Zenana literally means women's space, but in Ring's account it is not a fixed physical space but a realm of women's sociality existing at the sufferance of men, expanding with their absence and contracting with their presence. Unlike most participant observers, who are more observers than participants, the author was fully involved in this world. She moved into the apartment building with her three-year-old son and husband, a Karachi Shia with Sindhi and Muhajir parents. As she notes, "I did not simply 'act' the part of interested, active neighbor…I (often unselfconsciously) lived the part" (30). Like most ethnographers, she uses her own ignorance and reactions as a foil for residents' understandings and emotions, but not as an outsider. She is part of the flow of activity—gossiping, exchanging foods, visiting, fixing a leaky water tank, advising a couple on the character of a boy to whom they are considering marrying their daughter, rushing out one door during an electrical fire while the men go out another.
Ring argues both Western liberal ideology (figuring the home as a "private, feminine realm, cut off from the world of the political" ) and post-colonial studies (concentrating on Indian reformist views of the domestic as sites of cultural authenticity untouched by colonial power) have missed the broader political significance of what takes place within the zenana. These approaches have failed to explore "the spaces and social relations of dwelling—of household, apartment building, neighborhood, backyard, balcony—as sites of political processes, not just of gendered and generational conflict but of class, ethnic, racial, and national struggles" (3). This problem is linked to an overwhelming scholarly focus on ethnic violence rather than peace. It is no mystery why ethnic violence receives so much...