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November 13, 2018

The writer who emboldens women


November 13, 2018

Kishwar Naheed’s latest book of poetry ‘Shirin sukhani se parey’ (away from sweet talk) is the continuation of her long struggle for inciting women against the patriarchal society of Pakistan.

This book – hardly 128 pages – is a collection of her poems that reflect the realities faced by the women of this country in the 21st century. But before discussing the book and its contents, something about Kishwar Naheed herself is in order. Though she is one of the most well-known writers in Pakistan with multiple awards to her credit, her credentials may not be known to many young readers.

If you draw a list of female writers in Pakistan, names such as Altaf Fatima, Azra Abbas, Fatima Hasan, Fehmida Riaz, Hajra Masroor, Khadija Mastoor, Khalida Hussain, Nisar Aziz Butt, Razia Fasih Ahmed and Zahida Hina will be at the top. These writers have contributed to the literary history of Pakistan in their own way, some excelling in column and essay writing and some others in fiction and poetry. At least two of the above – Kishwar Naheed and Zahida Hida – have the distinction of keeping the most prolific writing alive through their newspaper columns and creative writing simultaneously, and that too in their 70s.

Kishwar Naheed, at the age of 78, is writing both prose and poetry with a speed not many can match at her age. Her oeuvre produced in the past 50 years spans over as many books that include articles, columns, essays, poetry, prose, and translations. You may think that she must have been prosperous and stable in her personal life to have achieved so much. On the contrary, her life story reads like a roller-coaster of personal and professional challenges that she had to overcome mostly all on her own.

Discouraged by her family but encouraged by her mother, she had to swim against the tide – as most women in our society have to do; especially if they want to establish themselves as independent women. Migrating from UP, India, to Lahore with her family at the age of 10, she didn’t have a mansion waiting for her. She went to public schools and colleges and obtained an MA in economics. But her vocation was away from economic riddles and lay in intellectual puzzles. Her association with Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum brought her in contact with some of the best known poets and writers of the 1950 and 60s.

Her love marriage with Yousuf Kamran just at the age of 20 didn’t bring her much pleasure and stability. She had to fight it out alone to raise her children and give them the best education that she could possibly manage. Her first poetry collection, ‘Lab-e-Goya’ (speaking lips) was published when she was still in her 20s. It contained around 80 ghazals and 40 dohas, all with a new diction and voice. Just look at this couplet: Kuchh is qadr thi garmi-e-bazaar-e-arzu; Dil jo khareedta tha, usey dekhta na tha

In the next 25 years she wrote over a dozen books of poetry, including translations from Pablo Neruda, Andre Voznesenski, and Forough Farrokhzad. In fiction and prose, her journey started with the translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ which Naheed translated as ‘Aurat’. Then in the 1980s, she published her collections of articles and essays in the so-called dreams series such as ‘Baqi Manda Khawb’ (Remaining dreams) and ‘Aurat: khawb aur khaak ke darmiyaan’ (Woman: between dreams and dust). In the 1990s, her translation of Laila Khalid’s biography and of Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel ‘The Bride’, translated as ‘Zaitoon’, appeared.

Then her selection of female story writers from the 1930s to the 1990s was published in 1995, followed by a compilation of articles, ‘Women: myth and realities’. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, her ‘bad woman’ series disturbed the prudish: ‘Buri Aurat ki Katha’ (Tale of a Bad Woman) and ‘Buri Aurat ke Khutoot’ (Letters of a Bad Woman) were published in 1997 and 2003, respectively. Now coming to her latest book, Shirin Sukhani Se Purey, one can safely say that her creativity is still fecund and fertile.

This collection of ghazals and nazams starts with Yazid ke darbaar mein Hazrat Zainab ka Khitab (the address of Hazrat Zainab in the court of Yazid). The defiance of women after the Karbala tragedy is the theme of the poem, in which Yazid is being challenged as the perpetrator of atrocities on women and children. These women, who have seen the worst, refuse to be cowed down; they declare their victory and show their courage and valour in the face of adversity. The poem ends with a curse that the likes of Yazid will never see a day of peace.

Kishwar Naheed continues her defiance in the next poem titled Sheema Kermani at Sehwan Sharif. Readers may recall that after a deadly bomb attack on the tomb of Shahbaz Qalandar, our noted dancer Sheema Kermani went there after a couple of days and performed dance and dhammal. The poem presents a scene where a woman is praying for her son’s safety; there are people in shackles all around. The tomb is a miniature Pakistan where people are surrounded by myriad problems but come to the tomb to seek deliverance; suddenly the flowers at the tomb catch fire but the devotees break their shackles and start dancing. Sheema Kermani becomes a symbol of rebellion and revolt.

In a series of three poems, Kishwar searches for poetry. In Search of a Poem is in free verse; the first part deals with the dead bodies in Parachinar and Ahmed Pur Sharqia. As we know, during the past decade some of the worst sectarian riots took place in Parachinar where innocent people including women and children were targeted. Ahmed Pur Sharqia saw a self-inflicted tragedy when an oil tanker accident attracted hundreds of people who wanted to collect free petrol. The resulting inferno claimed dozens of life and the entire surrounding was littered with charred bodies. The poem asks questions about the futility of such misadventures.

Kishwar is perplexed at the plight of minorities in Pakistan; she mourns the challenges faced by Ahmadis and Christians and Sikhs. She condoles, through her poetry, with the parents of Mashal Khan who was lynched by his university fellows on false charges of blasphemy in Mardan. She writes about Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and her poetry is a reflection of today’s harsh realities. But perhaps the most moving of her poems is about little Zainab of Kasur who was raped and killed by the devil of a man called Imran who was famous for his mellifluous voice. He used his religious piety as a camouflage for his evil designs.

Kishwar Naheed’s tribute to Bacha Khan is another poem of historical and political significance. She salutes that giant of man who refused to bow in front of the British might and challenged the dictators, generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. She reminds us of the struggle Bacha Khan waged for democracy and equal rights in Pakistan. Her poems ends with a wistful desire that had Bacha Khan been alive today he would have fought against religious bigotry and intolerance in the country. Her poems show a mirror to our decision-makers and policy wonks who have brought Pakistan to this state of affairs.

Kishwar Naheed is a woman who has lived her life at her own terms; she has contributed to the enlightenment of our men and women alike. Her writings remain a guiding light for our younger generation especially for girls and women who want to challenge this patriarchal society. May she live long and keep writing and guiding us.

The writer holds a PhD from the: University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]