Attachment, Articulation and Agency: A Glimpse into the World of Women Digest Writers in Pakistan

University of Texas at Austin
Publication year

Here's the abstract:

This dissertation presents an ethnographic account of women fiction writers’ engagement with digest genre and the community (of readers and writers) formed around it. Digest genre is published in Urdu monthly magazines, usually known as women’s digests. These fictional stories are extremely popular and have the highest circulation of all fictional genres in Pakistan. However, they are socially perceived as “low brow” and disavowed as having no literary merit. In this context, this ethnography traces the specific forms attachment, articulation and agency take in the lives of women whose stories resonate with many, but who also face the critique of not being authentic writers. It does so by exploring questions such as: How do digest writers develop attachments and bonds of friendship in the absence of physical proximity (since writers rarely meet each other or their readers)? How do digest writers articulate lived realities—both of attachments in the digest community and the larger dynamics of living as a woman in Pakistan’s changing social milieu? How do they see fiction writing and what role do they see it playing in their individual lives? What challenges or opportunities do writers experience as they enter the arena of script writing for television, and how do they speak back to notions of their writing as inauthentic and frivolous?

Methodologically, this research draws on twenty months of fieldwork, carried out in four urban cities (Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi) and villages in two provinces (Sindh and Punjab). Fieldwork took the form of archival work, semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, and participant observation. I closely followed the daily lives and work of digest writers of varying ages, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds. In addition, I conducted work with editors (who select and tailor digest narratives), admins (volunteers who manage readers’ groups through social media), readers and voluntary non-readers (individuals who are familiar with this genre but choose not to read it), television channel heads (who employ digest writers as script writers) and content managers at production houses (who select and tailor digest narratives for television audiences).

Here are some quotes from the dissertation. Collectively, they gave me the impression that some of the stories published in the digests are romance in the sense used in this bibliography, although others are not.


The format of these monthly magazines is relatively simple. They start with an editorial note and end with letters by readers. There are also additional sections on beauty, recipes, and psychological and spiritual advice. The bulk of the pages are devoted to fiction in the form of serialized novels and ten to twelve short
stories. Most of the stories printed in these digests can be compared to Harlequin romances in terms of the theme. However, in contrast to the Harlequin portrayal of main protagonists as autonomous individuals with few family ties (Jensen, 1980), these narratives are predominantly framed within the everyday domesticity of women and extended families. (6)


Despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity, this genre is usually perceived socially as frivolous and pandering to a demand for easy reading. Like most other romance genres, these narratives are often very problematic. The problems range from espousing conventional norms of beauty to stereotypical depictions of gender roles. Feminist work on these digests has highlighted these problems. The first major work was by the National Institute of Psychology in 1984, led by the psychologist Pervez. This was followed by a 1997 study by Aks, a nonprofit organization that works with women and media. Both studies conducted a textual analysis and had similar conclusions. The psychologist Seema Pervez concludes that the most popular central idea in digest narratives was that marriage and romance are the most important aspects of a woman's life. She highlights that “the female protagonist behaves in an emotional way and failure in love destroys her whole life” (1984, pp. 50–51). (6-7)


As a reader, my engagement with digest fiction was deeply conflicted in several ways. It was a site that centered desire around marriage, familial bliss, and heterosexual romance. Yet there were also counternarratives within this form. In other words, rather than a monolithic reiteration of heterosexual notions of romance, there were also stories that wove in the same domestic details and familial everydayness but pointed to a certain disillusionment. For instance, although most stories ended with a woman attaining male validation through patience, appeasement, or her genuine love for her partner, there were also stories (such as the one shared earlier) that challenged the socially constituted norms of marital or familial bliss and adopted the framework of attaining validation through assertion or financial empowerment. In these stories, there really were no heroes but simply ordinary, irritable men who were critical and often grew insecure. Rather than nurturing heroes, in these stories the sense of companionship was provided by the fictional women undergoing these circumstances. In each scenario, rather than explaining her inner feelings to the man she was in conflict with, she shared it with the readers. Thus, the same genre that centered fulfillment on romance or male companionship was also a site for a counternarrative of disillusionment with the very same notions. (119-120)