Like Sassui, the women at the shrine move their bodies deep into the night.

If there is music, there is dhamal. The Bhit Shah faqirs sing the raag till sunrise. By then, most of the devotees are asleep. Among the ones awake and listening are the women still doing dhamal. The faqirs pluck their tamboora, and the women move near them, now in trance-like circles, now in violent jerks. A defiance of respectability that startles the night.

A faqir at the shrine cautions not to romanticize this sight. Many of these women are traumatized, or in serious trouble at home. Yet, whatever private grief leads her to the shrine… under the guise of ritual, it becomes public. This public grief, sometimes of one woman, sometimes ten, seems to push men into the shadows. There are always more men in the courtyard than women, but charging a place with presence is not simply a game of numbers. It is about the degree of intervention.

During the day, too. The shrine is emptier, but the women are present everywhere. Do not look for bodies but traces. Women have troubled shrines and mandirs all over Sindh with their traces—threads, broken bangles, cloth scraps hung on trees, alams. Leftover oil lamps, burnt incense sticks. Private rituals that live in public space.

Men don’t seem as interested in tying threads and burning oil lamps. Maybe men speak directly to God.


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Kabira khara bazaar mein, liye lukathi hath! Kabir stands in the marketplace, flaming torch in hand. Jo ghar jalawe apna, chale hamaare saath. If you can burn your house, he says, come join me. If you can’t, stay home.

This is a popular doha by the 15th century mystic poet Kabir Das, whose call is, essentially, to befriend death. Leave everything behind. Live on the tip of the thorn.

But it is also a call to live in the world. Kabir’s call is a man’s call. A call he can make, let’s admit it, because his wife is at home tending to the house and children. Women, before stepping into the marketplace, must prepare in a dozen other ways. Who does she leave the baby with? What about the sick parent? Then she must prepare herself—what does she wear, who must be informed?

Most women do not just get up and go to the marketplace. There are other crossings to make, all in the private sphere, and also within. One wrong step, and the house may collapse. It takes a lot to make it to the door, let alone burn it.


We heard the women before we saw them.

It was our last day in Mithi, where we filmed part of our short documentary on Bhakti poetry and music in Sindh. Mithi is a Hindu majority city, which means that every few lanes there is a mandir, shopfronts display small idols of Hindu gods, RAM and BHITTAI co-exist on signboards, and every morning, each jewelry or grocery store manager hangs a fresh garland of roses at the door.

We were at the guest house rooftop, reviewing the days’ work over chai, exhausted. I was thinking about how we had, once again, filmed only men all day, when the skyline broke with a sacred song. Women in the courtyard below us were singing. Chanting-singing. Clearly the song was a prayer. In the fading light we saw them: no idols or oil lamps, just a rough circle of women trailed by children, singing with eerie synchronization under the open sky. Did this count as public or private space? Not one of us rushed to fetch the camera. We stayed where we each were, listening, watching. Like smoke their voice rose to the sky… like smoke it rose to haunt the whole city.


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A. K. Ramanujan, Indian poet and scholar, compares the poetry of men and women saints. Men, he says, direct their poetry towards social reform—they are fighting caste, class, and other public roles. It makes sense for them to call a seeker to the marketplace or the field (maidan), because “the upper caste male’s battle is with the system as a whole, often internalized as the enemy within.” In short, men singing mystic poetry deal in ‘puram’, or exterior themes.

Women mystics sing about love. They deal in ‘akam’, private or interior themes. Mira’s poetry is all about her devotion to Krishna, and the lengths she can go to in her devotion. Akka Mahadevis reveal the nature of love itself. Both women lived in protest of family values. Ramanujan says that the “women saint’s struggle is with family… she struggles not with her own temptations, but with husband and priest.” Yet their poems do not speak of the battles, so much as the love to be had once the battle is crossed.


Shanta could have made it big, like her father, a well-known Bhagat in Sindh. But girls at her time were not encouraged. The main trouble was who would marry her. She still sings when she feels like it, though.

We are in the fields, a twenty minute walk from her father’s village, sitting under a big tree. I ask her if she regrets not being a public musician, like some of the younger village girls these days. My question confuses her.

It doesn’t matter, she says. I am so happy.

She must be in her early twenties. A few years ago, she married a man who she now loves very much. They have a child together. The child changed everything.

Sab kuch badal jata hai, she says. Aap ko pata hi nahi hota kya ho sakta hai. She did not know, she searches for words, she did not know so much could be inside you. Until the baby was born, she did not know she could love so much.

We walk back to Bhagat and Kaki’s village. The fields are empty now, though the other women spent the morning in the sun harvesting the last of the wheat. I’m kicking myself because I keep trying to get the women to talk about the ways they might feel constrained, or stripped of certain freedoms. I asked Kaki about the city, doesn’t she wish to go to Mithi and Umerkot as often as Bhagat, but she didn’t see what the big deal was since she has been a few times already. I asked Shanta about music; she turned the conversation to children.

It is not that frustrations do not come up. It would be a stretch to say that outside the city, or anywhere really, women are free in the private or public. It would be a mistake to romanticize the life of any woman who claims to be content with the rules of gender. I could read Kaki and Shantas response as having freed themselves of certain requirements of freedom—or I could read their response as knowing, intimately, the limits of their world, and what happens when the limits are crossed. I could read their response as one bornenot of desire, but duty.


Yesterday in Lahore, a woman wearing a kameez with Arabic calligraphy was accused of blasphemy. A mob of men assembled outside, calling for her death in the marketplace. Husband and priest were both present; the husband attempted to protect her, the priest wanted to kill her.

The accusation of blasphemy, thats just a tool. The whole incident was not about religion as much as gender—how husband and priest and all other men collaborate to mediate a woman’s interaction with space.

Women’s mystical poetry on love and interior themes does not denote a lack of interest in outer themes. It is just that for women, the two are never separate. The outer world of social reform is dictated by private struggle.


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Gender segregation in Bhagat’s village is easy to follow. It is not very different from how it is at my own house. When men are sitting on the main charpai, women must not. When the daughters-in-law are working in the open kitchen, the patriarch must avoid the space.

It is women who lead these rearrangements, constantly making and unmaking the borders. If they move, the borders of where some of the men cannot step, also shift. And the borders do not stay still, because the children do not stay still.

What is confusing is the categorization of space itself. What is private, and what is public, and does one gender stake a claim on one more than the other? But in Bhagat’s village, everyone can be found everywhere. The kitchen, the verandah, the washing area, the studio, the room… now a man sits here, now a woman, if a man was sitting here, a woman was before. And like in all shared living spaces, whether in the city or the village, chores happen alongside rest, serious conversations alongside banter, music, even stillness. The private and the public again collapse.


In Kabir’s poems, familial roles are upturned. Child births mother, and son begets father. Kabir rejected the world’s orders, even as he had a son and wife at home. Mira, though, actually broke off ties with her in-laws, and left her husband’s house to devote her life to Lord Krishna.

When Mira leaves Rana, they try to kill her. Snakes, poison, you name it. Mira evades every trick. She was five years old when she pledged her devotion to Krishna—very little can come in her way now. She goes off, unscathed, singing and dancing. All domestic duties are abandoned, all social roles cut.

And yet, her poetry orbits the language of domesticity. Krishna is her “husband”—she is “wedded” to the Lord.

A woman does not discard the private in public. The private is the breath through which she knows the public. In January, Mahrang Baloch, at the Baloch disappeared persons sit-in in Islamabad, took on public space and public spotlight with a sea of men behind her, a sea of ghosts—men murdered, tortured, disappeared. She came and stood in the marketplace, her house burned by others. She said, I am an activist and daughter both—she claimed the private in the public, and the public through the private. Other daughters and sisters and wives set up camp with her. For a month they held their ground. To love a land, they showed us, is to fight for justice upon it. Everyday they asked, against impossibility, “Where are our men?”

They stake their claim upon the public through the private.


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Lahootis set out for Shah Noorani at the end of Shahbaz Qalandar’s urs. From Sehwan, they walk on foot for about two weeks, camping along the way at other minor saints shrines. If the saint is revered enough, there might be a mela or a festival one night. Women and children stay behind in the camps, or sleep around the festival’s periphery.

Inside Dewano Shah’s mela, as far as the eye can see, it’s just men. Men dancing, men singing, men by the fire, men in the graveyard. Men laughing, talking, sitting in silence. Only inside the shrine, next to Shahs grave, two women appear. Praying by the wall. Up and down they go, nonstop. Twenty minutes. Thirty. An hour and they do not stop. What all must they have crossed, to come here?

Any time a woman appears unexpectedly in ‘public’, it is categorized as protest, novelty, transgression. What if it wasn’t their gender that was exceptional, but their duty, their devotion?

But why didn’t I automatically think about the camps as ‘public’? We crossed hundreds of women on the way to the mela. Surely the women in the camps are also laughing, talking, and sitting in silence. Surely they are also up in prayer. When we say public space, do we just mean a place without women?


Sohini drowns in the river because her pot breaks. Should we read this as a woman’s victory, or a lover’s? Sohini ventures not out of protest but out of love. Her beloved Mehar is across the river. No question she has to go. It has nothing to do with proving what women can or cannot do, where they can or cannot be.

Moved by love, and duty to a love—akam themes—she cannot worry about rules or obstructions. No desert or dark waters are too foreboding. Moved by love, Sohini can step into the river easily; there is nothing to shed.

Kabir should like this. On the heels of duty and devotion, Sohini moves towards death.


Ramanujan says that men, who have public careers as saints, are the ones who need to shed their gender. So they take on the feminine persona or voice. Bulleh Shah becomes a bride, the male speaker becomes ‘she’. Women saints need not take on the masculine persona, nor do they ever become public gurus like men do. Ramanujan concludes that this is because women have nothing to shed. Men need to become women to face God, but women appear before God as they are.


After the satsang—attended only by men—an elder at the Islamkot ashram explained the difference between Kabir and Mira. Kabir spurned everything, he said, but still he lived in the world. He taught us how to live in it while being in steadfast protest of it. Primarily, he taught us to reject its social ties.

And Mira?

Mira, he said, and chuckled. She just loved. She gave up everything for love.

Mira lovedand Mira went into the forest. Well, we can’t be sure, but she is usually depicted sitting under a tree, or in a jungle-like wilderness. Presumably, Mira went into the forest, where she continued her lifelong devotion to Lord Krishna. Kabir, meanwhile, is usually depicted sitting before a weaving loom, with a couple on-lookers watching.

But why didn’t Mira go to the marketplace? Why couldn’t she imagine herself in the market, like Kabir?

A Kabir stands in the market. A Mansour, upon the gallows. Both in public view… and an audience.

Mira—in the forest—recorded by nobody. Devoted to God; marked only by God. What is Mira onto that Kabir is not…

Or is this a mistake, trying to read liberation into choices that are simply that: choices borne out of the gendered roles that life deals you. Where else could Mira go, if not the forest? Surely after spurning her whole family, she can’t be walking around the marketplace like Kabir? They’d kill her.


Katiyar is a village about an hour and a half from Hyderabad. We call it Mulakatiyar. Our family isnt the only one lining up this pir’s village with prayers. People come from all over seeking intervention. The pirs are blessed with a direct connection to God. Some can see through space and time, convene with jinns, and alter reality. This gift passes from son to son, though sometimes a daughter might catch it by osmosis.

The village is segregated. For the women, the pir’s 50 year old sister is the target: blessed with a hotline to God, she can deliver wishes straight to the source. One by one my mother, my aunt, my cousins, would get up, hold her hand, and say what they wanted. Easeful marriages, more children, better lives. Akam, or private themes. They’d whisper loud enough so that everyone heard.

Once, we were told to go into the adjacent room to play with the pir’s youngest sister, who was our age. I was expecting to meet an 11 year old girl, but standing before us was a 11 year old boy. Dressed in men’s shalwar kameez and referring to himself as a boy. We were told that she—he?—was more powerfully gifted than any of the other sisters, almost as powerful as the pir who saw beyond time. We should ask her to pray for us. I don’t remember if we did.

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For years I have been trying to link that sight of the 13 year old boy-girl, who laughed and played with us and at the same time glowed with some strange connection to God, to some of these ideas of gender, of public and private, of slipping past boundaries—whether out of desire or circumstance. But she slips away.


The question is, What if a Sohini were to show up today? Crossing the river to meet her true beloved? All the faqirs at Bhit Shah agree. She’d be killed.

Not one faqir wants to admit they would back a woman like that today. It isn’t about social norms, they insist, but love. What woman—or person—can love like that today? Sohini loved. And Mira loved—and love can excuse transgression. The woman and saints were exceptional because of their love, not gender. Love can take you to the marketplace, forest, capital.

Yet there is something about women’s transgression that male mystics never have to deal with.

In one Mira bhajan, she declaresjoyously—that she won’t return to her in-laws. There is nothing that she needs there. Never mind the mansions, she says, she will live in a small hut in the jungle. Never mind the gold, there is a rosary of basil seeds.

Like Kabir, Mira spurns the world and its systems, but then creates another world for herself. How did we miss this? Mira and Sohini both befriend death. They know that the only way to be free is to leave everything behind. They are prepared to give everything up—and do. Women do know how to burn their home.

But as a woman burns her house, she also rebirths the private in public. Mira burns all social and material ties to her private life, only to reinvent them. Instead of Rana, the Lord is her husband. In place of luxury, simple abundance… a small hut, a rosary of basil seeds, a cup. No robes, only the ‘cloth of detachment.’ In this new, truer life, Mira sings, dances, wanders. No desire—public or private—is left unmet. The house is burned, yes, only to be created anew.

Sadia Khatri is a writer and filmmaker from Karachi. She works with Amrit Pyala, a project archiving, recording, and translating Sufi and Bhakti oral traditions in Pakistan.

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