How Moni Mohsin’s novels defy the rigid “chick-lit” label

21 April 2021
As with Moni Mohsin’s novel Butterfly, her mission in The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R is not to draw a realistic portrait of Pakistani politics.
As with Moni Mohsin’s novel Butterfly, her mission in The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R is not to draw a realistic portrait of Pakistani politics.

Unsuspecting bookstore browsers are sure to be taken in by the cover of Moni Mohsin’s latest novel. Yellow stars jump off a cheerful purple background, suggesting that this is a light-hearted read. Yet, any Mohsin fan will immediately tell you that the title, The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R, betrays the subject. Mohsin, who in Pakistan is best known for her column “Diary of a Social Butterfly,” would never describe anyone’s integrity as impeccable with a straight face. After all, many of her previous characters have boasted similar virtues, only to be taken to task by the obstacles thrown their way through the course of the novels. Instead, the novel follows a bright young woman named Ruby—who has an affair with her boss, the leader of a new political party called Integrity—and the subsequent chaos that ensues. Although many note this is a departure from Mohsin’s previous work, the novel has been well received by readers as a compulsively readable takedown of Pakistani politics, with plenty of romance thrown in. Critics have praised the novel both for its choice of protagonist and for its refusal to pass her off as a mere victim of her circumstances.

In Pakistan, women’s digests and drama serials often receive criticism for being obsessed with romance, brainwashing young girls into believing that finding an eligible match is the only goal worth pursuing. “Chick lit” written in English, though less popular than television and Urdu magazines, is often lumped into the same category. This is the kind of entertainment typically kept hidden from disapproving fathers and uncles, lest they tell you to read the newspaper instead. This “fluff” literature often details how women negotiate with patriarchy on an everyday basis. Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi You’re Killing Me, published by Random House India in 2014, is just one example of a romance novel that also portrays the bigotry many women striving for professional success must contend with in Pakistan. In it, Ayesha Khan, a journalist working in Karachi, wants to find love but shuns the attentions of men who do not see her as an intellectual equal. The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R goes a step further, choosing to quash Ruby’s hopes of a workplace romance—a popular trope in chick lit—and instead highlighting how women are treated in spaces, such as Integrity, that purport to empower them. The novel retains the light tone and fast pace usually associated with chick lit, while demonstrating that novels written for and about young women are more complex than we give them credit for.

Mohsin herself is no stranger to the chick-lit label. Her most famous works, Diary of a Social Butterfly and Tender Hooks, are narrated by a Lahori socialite married into a landed family.  At first glance, Butterfly appears too susceptible to what other people may think of her, and could easily be dismissed as frivolous. However, despite all her privilege, she still deals with sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. Her husband, a bookish Oxford graduate, is condescending towards her, and the book reveals how frequently her labour is overlooked by her family. Butterfly also displays an ability to grow and change. When her cousin Jonkers refuses to marry into wealth, preferring instead to be with a girl who works an office job and lives in a middle-class area, she is against the match at first but eventually stands by him despite the rest of the family’s objections. In the end, she is the one who hosts their wedding and persuades everyone to celebrate their love. Written in Mohsin’s trademark wry style, sitting down with a Butterfly novel is like having tea with a gossipy aunt who also has some valuable life lessons up her sleeve. 

With Ruby R, Mohsin attempts to tackle the question of how much resistance women can display within prescribed social structures. This time, her main character is the straight-edged Ruby, who is hardworking and determined, and looks for a corporate job as soon as she gets her master’s degree so she and her mother can live a more comfortable life. However, with the setting up of Integrity, Ruby begins to question whether her future really lies in the corporate world. Saif Haq, the charismatic leader of the party, praises her intelligence and asks her to join his new campaign, stating that the party needs patriotic women such as Ruby to lead the way. When her mother’s car is rammed into by a powerful gangster, Ruby makes up her mind and decides to join the party, stating she needs to be part of the change.

Mohsin depicts the limits of a narrative propped up by many populists: that an empowered middle class has the power to bring about the change many countries in the Global South are desperate for. It is this same narrative that won Imran Khan, Pakistan’s current prime minister, his initial popularity, as he urged the Pakistani middle class to give him their vote to oust those who have grown rich off the corrupt political system. In Ruby R, Integrity echoes this same rhetoric. After her mother’s car accident, Ruby reflects on the current state of affairs in Pakistan.

Amna Chaudhry is a freelance journalist and activist currently based in Islamabad. She tweets @amnachaudhry03.

Keywords: Pakistan literature women’s writing feminism
COMMENT