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Sabar: body politics among middle-aged migrant Pakistani women


Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, 51-3 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PE, UK.


This article explores the relationship among suffering, Islamic moral concepts, subjectivity, and agency within a cohort of middle-aged women who migrated from Pakistan to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s as the wives or daughters of industrial workers. These women were preoccupied with their ageing bodies and complained about the cumulative assaults on their health they had experienced, and which they felt had been neglected by health professionals and family alike. By examining how these women bear chronic illness through a discourse of sabar (patience or silent forbearance), I show how women were able to transform their illness into a selfless and virtuous consequence of shouldering the burdens of kinship. Sabar suggests passive acceptance or fatalism to some observers, but attending to how women situate their illness in a religious and eschatological frame, we see that they actively appropriate rather than passively imbibe the norm of sabar. Moreover, turning from narratives to everyday contexts of friendship, family, and inter-generational relations, we see that there are tensions between self-sublimation and self-assertion in the practice of sabar. It is argued that ethnographic attention to subjectivity and reflexivity are crucial to understanding sabar as an agential capacity.