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International Women's Day 2018: Years before #MeToo, Urdu feminist poet Kishwar Naheed spoke about oppression

For centuries, women across the world have been treated as being inferior to men, and the Indian subcontinent is no different in this respect. As winds of change were blowing from the West, other cultures did not remain untouched by progress. When talking about feminist ideals, thinkers and writers, we tend to look towards the West. Our subconscious, which still suffers under the weight of a colonial hangover, is so Eurocentric that we rarely recognise the women feminist writers from the subcontinent.

There have been a number of women feminist authors who are writing (or, have written) in Urdu. Fehmida Riaz, Zahida Hina, and Azra Abbas are a few names in this vast galaxy of feminist writers. To make a case for feminist writings and poetry in Urdu, I will discuss Kishwar Naheed’s poems, who once said, “For a woman to write poetry and then to get it published was a revolutionary step in itself.” She led this revolution from the front; though Ada Jafri and a few others started getting published before her, it was Naheed who took on the task of challenging established social norms, especially patriarchal ones.

 International Womens Day 2018: Years before #MeToo, Urdu feminist poet Kishwar Naheed spoke about oppression

Kishwar Naheed in performance. Image from Facebook/@akuglobal

In her book Galiyan Dhoop Darwaze (Lanes, Sunlight, Doors), published in 1978, she introduces herself in a poem titled ‘Kishwar Naheed’. She equates herself to all the women of the world and writes:

Kishwar Naheed!
Tum muh-band seepi ki tarah
Zindagi ke samandar me
Hawaao se baate karne
Pahado ki buniyaad hilane
Aur lehro ko apne baalo ki tarah kaat kar
Sahil pe
Guzishta ki rivaayati
Aur aaj ki muzatrib
Aurat ban kar soch rahi ho
(Kishwar Naheed!
Like an oyster with sealed lips
In the ocean of life
To talk with the winds
To shake the foundations of the mountains
And to trim the waves like your own hair
On the shores
Like the traditional woman of the past
Like the rebel woman of today
You are thinking)

Very interestingly, she points to her own haircut, which in the orthodox Muslim Pakistan of the 1970s would be considered an act of courage. It was a statement in itself — that this was a woman who was ready to break norms.

She further writes:

Kishwar Naheed!
Tumhe khamosh dekhne ki chahat
Qabro se bhi umdi aa rahi hai
Magar tum bolo
(Kishwar Naheed!
Even graves desire your silence
But you should speak)

Naheed attacks the previous generations for silencing women. She wants to speak out in the same society where women are not allowed to express themselves. Her most direct attack on patriarchy is a poem titled ‘Hum Gunahgar Auarate’ (We Sinful Women). She sarcastically points out how women who have an opinion on anything are slut-shamed:

ye ham gunahgār aurteñ haiñ
jo ahl-e-jubba kī tamkanat se na roab khāeñ
na jaan becheñ
na sar jhukāeñ
na haath joḌeñ
(It is we sinful women
Who are not awed by the grandeur, who wear gowns
Who don’t sell our lives
Who don’t bow our heads
Who don’t fold our hands together)

She says that it is because of patriarchy that independent women are seen as being 'sinful'. A woman who holds opinions of her own is slut-shamed for standing against male dominance.

ye ham gunahgār aurteñ haiñ
ki jin ke jismoñ kī fasl becheñ jo log
vo sarfarāz Thahreñ
niyābat-e-imtiyāz Thahreñ
vo dāvar-e-ahl-e-sāz Thahreñ
(It is we sinful women
While those who sell harvests of our bodies
Become exalted
Become distinguished
Become the just princes of the material world)

Naheed asks why women who voice their opinions are labelled sinful, when the men who trade women as commodities are respected.

ye ham gunahgār aurteñ haiñ
ki sach kā parcham uThā ke nikleñ
to jhuuT se shāhrāheñ aTī mile haiñ
har ek dahlīz pe sazāoñ kī dāstāneñ rakhī mile haiñ
jo bol saktī thiiñ vo zabāneñ kaTī mile haiñ
(It is we sinful women
Who come out raising the banner of truth
Against barricades of lies on the highways
Who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
Who find the tongues which could speak have been severed)

ye ham gunahgār aurteñ haiñ
ki ab taāqub meñ raat bhī aae
to ye āñkheñ nahīñ bujheñgī
ki ab jo dīvār gir chukī hai
use uThāne kī zid na karnā!
(It is we sinful women
Now, even if the night gives chase
These eyes shall not be put out
For the wall which has been razed
Don’t insist on raising it again now)

As we continue in our fight to ensure that marital rape is recognised as a violation of consent, and establish that abusive behaviour exhibited by husbands is a crime and not normal, she was writing extensively against domestic violence in her time. In one of her poems ‘Neelaam Ghar’ (Auction House), she writes:

Tapte hue tannuur se jis tarah phooli hui rotiya bahar nikalti hain
Mere muh par tamacha maar kar
Tumhare haatho ki ungliyo ke nishan
Phooli hui roti ki tarah
Mere muh par sad rang ghubbare chodh jaate hain
Tum haq wale log ho
Tum ne mehar ke evaz haq ki boli jeeti hai
(Just like swollen chapatis come out of the hot oven
After slapping my face
Marks of your fingers
Like a swollen chapati
Form coloured balloons over my cheeks
You are righteous people
You have won the right to me by paying ‘mehar’)

Naheed courageously writes about violence against women by mocking the Muslim tradition of paying mehar (dower) to the bride. She sheds light on how marriage has enabled men to dominate women, and how this behaviour is in turn sanctioned by religion.

In another of her poems, Naheed asks women to break free from the barriers that are posed by the traditional roles they must play in the family. She writes:

Behan, biwi aur maa ke rishto
Ki khatir jine wali
Tum apne liye bhi toh jiyo
(For the relationships as sister, wife and mother
You live
Now live for yourself)

It is not possible to present all the poems where she has attacked the purdah system, the very notion of a 'shy girl' and the institution of marriage which is used as a tool to oppress women, in one article. Naheed has also actively written against exploitation as well as the state-sponsored radicalisation of Pakistani society. It is important that we know about Urdu feminist writers in order to understand the problems faced by women in the subcontinent in general, and Muslim women in particular.

Naheed expressed the hope that the youth, who can write and speak in English, will make Urdu and vernacular literature more accessible to people who could not read these languages. She writes, “Our young people who understand English or other international languages well may consider learning Urdu and their mother tongues with as much fervour as they learn English or French and then translate the literary works of our languages into others.”

Hum Gunahgar Auarate(We Sinful Women) has been translated by Rukhsana Ahmad.

Saquib Salim is an independent socio-political commentator and historian

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Updated Date: Mar 09, 2018 19:45:31 IST