During my junior year of college I picked up a copy of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir for a bit of “light reading.” An experienced historian with an eye for detail, Weir makes it clear from the get go that, while this is a history of Eleanor of Aquitaine, there are quite a few places where we simply don’t know what was going on with her because, in the twelfth century, no one really cared to document her life. This struck me as remarkable. This is a woman who controlled one of the most desirable duchies in Europe, became queen of France, insisted on joining her husband in the Second Crusade, managed to get her marriage annulled despite papal opposition, married yet another king (England this time!), and eventually became Queen regent when her royal son thought embarking on another crusade would be more fun than ruling his own country. The woman was a force of nature and a canny one at that. And yet, there are gaping holes in her history where even an experienced and well respected historian can only guess what she was up to based on what her male contemporaries say women typically did.
This is the problem we face when history is only written by celibate white men. It’s not that a European medieval monk’s account of history is unimportant or even wrong, exactly. It’s that when they’re the only ones in charge of chronicling events, you’re left with gaping holes. Holes big enough to hold at least 50% of the population. More if you consider that, for the most part, these learned monks were mostly writing about royal and noble households (see: the men in those households), matters of state, or you know, spiritual questions. It leaves us with a mere sliver of history. If a woman who was queen twice (three times
if you count her regency), was so frequently pushed to the footnotes of history, it’s next to impossible to see the broader picture of what life was like. It’s for this very reason that feminist history exists and is why a book like The Upstairs Wife is so important.
Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for publications such Al Jazeera America and DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, has cultivated a major following lifting up the stories of women that have been long absent from the history books. With a strong focus on Muslim women and the lived experience of sharia law, Zakaria acts as historian to a population often left unexamined or misrepresented.
In her first book Zakaria, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan in the 1980s, details the political and domestic upheavals she and her family, specifically the women in her family, experienced as Pakistan embraced increasingly restrictive edicts. As Pakistan’s military dictators worked to legitimatize their rule through an Islamization campaign, the political upheaval sent ripples of change that began to affect women’s freedom and safety. These changes erupt into the private world of young Zakaria’s childhood home when her aunt Amina’s husband, Sohail, does the unthinkable and takes a second wife, violating both kin and custom. In this engaging memoir, Zakaria captures a piece of history and shines a light on the women who struggled to come to terms with a rapidly changing Pakistan. The Upstairs Wife is more than just a good story; it’s a valuable piece of feminist history.
Jenah Blitz-Stoehr is a Marketing Associate at Beacon Press. She is a graduate of UMass-Lowell and is a Master’s candidate at Boston College.