A conversation with Raniya Hosain, winner of 2020 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize
aniya Hosain is the 21-year-old winner of the 2020 edition of Zeenat Haroon Rashid (ZHR) Writing Prize for Women. Her hard hitting essay, Portrait of a Woman in Pain, has been described by the judges of the competition as, “An experiential examination of womanhood in Pakistan that weaves a picture that is at once personal and prosaic as well as universal and profound.”
Hosain previously won the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition in 2014. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s degree in English literature at King’s College, London.
The News on Sunday (TNS) recently spoke to Hosain over Zoom. She spoke about inhabiting Pakistani womanhood, how the burden of care is placed on women, how harassment changes a woman and the influence of Kaveh Akbar and Audre Lorde on her work.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Congratulations on winning the competition. What did winning this competition mean to you and how did your family and friends react?
Raniya Hosain (RH): Thank you. Well, I was excited when I found out. It’s honestly such a big honour. My family was happy as well but a bit shocked, scandalised too [laughs] because in the essay I mention some family members and talk about things that they did. So I have been getting these snide Whatsapp messages, like, “Oh is this the person you’re talking about here?” And I have refused to comment. But the reaction has been insane.
TNS: What about that aunt of yours that you mention in the essay? Has she read it yet?
RH: Yeah she has. [chuckles] And she was quite happy with how I represented her [in the essay]. She was like, “You know what, it’s honest.” It was actually my great aunt that I wrote about, I just didn’t write that down in my essay because I felt it was too unwieldy for the piece. I keep getting these accusing messages [from her] saying that it’s me who’s done this, you need to put on a clarification.
TNS: I want to begin with the end of the essay, where you declare, “.... in honour of spitting paan and red lipstick, in honour of bracelets of jasmine and low cut tops, in honour of Badshahi Masjid and Bahria farmhouse parties, in honour of old gods and undiscovered islands, here I am. A Pakistani woman. And that means nothing to me, and everything to me, all at once.” What did that declaration mean for you?
RH: Pakistani women have all these rigid, defined boxes of what they are supposed to be, how they are supposed to behave and what they are allowed to do and achieve. When I was writing it [these lines], I wanted to say that all of those boxes they try to stuff women in, all that they say is not true and that’s not how Pakistani women have to define themselves. But then being a Pakistani woman and a part of this community of so many amazing women is important to me as well, as a marker of my own identity. So there is a very tense contradiction between where you [want to] sort of distance yourself from the idea of being the ideal Pakistani woman and where you find yourself gravitating to the concept, like “Oh but this is who I feel I am on the inside”. It’s confusing and I’m not very certain about how to inhabit Pakistani womanhood. I don’t think you ever can be.
TNS: At one place you write, “Womanhood is, often, forced meticulousness”. Would you like to elaborate a bit on your use of this expression?
RH: The first time that I use it, I’m referring to my aunt. About how she’s always ultra-observant and super aware of everything [around her] because she has to run her household, and take care of all sorts of things that men never even think about. Women are forced to be in this position where they have to take on these little responsibilities because it’s what is expected of them. Like they’re forced into that role. The second time that I refer to it I’m talking about how women have to be more obvious, more expressive, more emotional, and have to do extra labour that [largely] goes unnoticed. There’s a burden of care that’s placed on women, that women don’t even notice that they’re embodying, or placing upon themselves. This [concept] has always been very interesting to me. When I wrote this essay I knew that I needed to talk about it.
TNS: It isn’t easy to speak of trauma as time doesn’t always heal, as they say. How did you find it in yourself to talk about it?
RH: I think because of the way we are raised in Pakistan, we sort of numb ourselves to pain and go like, “Oh it’s not a big deal,” [mainly] because everyone around us is telling us, “tsk why are you being so dramatic? It’s not a big deal”. So we just internalise it. The instances of pain and trauma that I speak of with regards to myself, I think they’re relatively small instances. There are so many worse things that happen. I am speaking from a position of privilege, and I think that when you are speaking from that position it almost becomes a responsibility [for you] to speak about the pain that you have experienced. I think that I sort of try to talk about my pain in relation to other women’s pain. I talk about the rippling effects of pain, how these are forms of pain that are felt by almost every woman. There are not enough libraries in the world to hold the stories about the harassment and pain that women have faced. It’s frustrating to see that men, culture, society still won’t acknowledge it.
TNS: Did you face any difficulties once the essay was out there?
RH: I got an overwhelming amount of support. I got a lot of messages on my Instagram of people saying, “You know you just said the things that I had always wanted to say and was never able to.” I got so many kind messages from so many lovely women. There were criticisms that were coming in. I read some of them and they made sense. Some of them were a little more hateful but I didn't expose myself to them much. I was just so overwhelmed by all the love.
TNS: Did you feel lighter when you finally got it all out?
RH: I’ve said this before but when I wrote it I wasn’t really expecting anyone to read it. I sat down to write it and this is what came out and it was my truth. I was quite nervous in the beginning but as soon as people started reaching out I felt lighter. I hope that after reading this [the essay] more women apply to the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Competition and other writing prizes and write stories about their experiences because these are the stories that need to be heard.
TNS: There were certain lines that just jumped out at me like this one on identity: “My womanhood, my Pakistani-ness. I hold power over them. I choose what to take, and what to discard; no one else can tell me what it means to be myself.” This is a powerful revelation of sorts. What do you mean by this?
RH: First of all, I need to tell you how difficult it was to sort out the phrasing of that line. I ended up at Pakistani-ness in the end, but it was a process of trying to figure out how to say it in a way that made sense. I think that it is something that has always been at the back of my mind. From [the time you are in] primary school you begin hearing things like, “You’re a young woman don’t be so rowdy. You shouldn’t sit like this. You shouldn’t do that thing.” All that nonsense that you constantly have to face. It is frustrating, especially for someone like me, who has always been a little less ‘feminine’ than most people would expect a Pakistani woman to be. But just because you have a certain identity, it doesn’t mean that other people can tell you how to inhabit that identity, what it means to be a Pakistani or what it means to be a woman. I feel personally that gender is very much a social construct. You get to decide whether to inhabit it, how to inhabit it, how to break boundaries or how to sort of live within them. It is just frustrating that other people think that they have the right to say so many things about a person’s identity or a person’s body or a person's way of living, when it is just them trying to be their most authentic selves. That is freedom on that individual level that is being denied and we can’t let that happen anymore.
TNS: How does trauma change you?
RH: My experiences are universal, but different women will respond to trauma differently. For me it presented this idea to me that my body was public property for people to comment on or stare at or gesture towards, however they wished. That changes the way you move through the world. It changes what you wear, what you choose to wear. For me it made me super aware of people around me. It sort of made me take on this responsibility of shielding myself from the other person’s gaze even though it should be on the other person or the harasser to look away. As a woman in Pakistan I don’t think men can even [begin to] understand how difficult it is for us to walk down the street. Even if we are not subjected to catcalls, stares and gestures we are constantly waiting, like in the back of our minds, because we have been through it so many times. It’s so important for women to be comfortable in their bodies in public spaces because you can’t have a whole gender that is comfortable [only] when they’re enclosed in their houses. We own this country as much as any man does and we have as much of a right to be unafraid in the streets and outside of our houses. That [freedom] has been taken away from us but I think with feminist movements we are starting to take it back. There is progress and a shift that is happening, and we all have to be aware of that shift. But it is not going to happen without every single one of us actively taking part in it, and deciding that the future where women are free is the future that we want.
TNS: You have mentioned Kaveh Akbar and Audre Lorde in your essay. How have their works inspired you as a writer? And who are your other major literary influences?
RH: I came across Kaveh Akbar’s poetry for the first time in The New Yorker. It is the most beautiful, heart wrenching, intimate poetry. You feel like you’re getting into someone’s soul, into the inside of someone’s heart. I feel that that sort of intimacy takes a lot of bravery. I feel it [reading Akbar’s poetry] has taught me a lot about how to talk about myself in an authentic, honest and sometimes terrifying way. And Audre Lorde obviously is an icon. I am working on an essay about her for my master's degree these days. Her poetry is a poetry of resistance and it refuses to shy away from the harsh truths of real life, of politics and of her identity. She refuses to accept the status quo and she’s always resisting. I think that is the ethos that we also need to start living by, in Pakistan. I also love Julian Barnes and Joan Didion, one of the best non-fiction writers. I could go on all day.
TNS: Do you think that reading poetry helped you open up as a writer?
RH: I started writing poetry before I started writing prose. I think it has really influenced me in the sense that I write a lot in metaphor. I am very concerned with the way a sentence sounds. I definitely read more poetry than prose which is partly because academically it is what I am interested in, also because I just love it. You don’t have as much space in a poem as you do in a prose piece. Somehow you are supposed to just take that space and be completely and brutally honest and the way poets manage it is amazing. I love it.
TNS: So can we expect a poetry collection any time soon then?
RH: [laughs] Not currently. Maybe after some time, we shall see. I will be writing another fiction piece that I am going to publish in a magazine that I started with my friends, a digital literary magazine called The Spacebar. So that’s my next story that is going out in the world.
TNS: I understand that you are studying as well, how do you find the time to write and what is your writing routine like if you have any?
RH: Oh it is very bad, it is terrible actually. It’s like everytime inspiration strikes I end up writing for hours until I have written a piece that I am happy with and then I won’t write for the next three weeks because I’ll be too busy with school. After some time I’ll see an image or I’ll have an idea or I'll think of a phrase and I’ll be like, “Oh I have got to write this down” and I’ll write for four hours again. It’s terrible, I won't recommend it to anyone.
Hosain’s award-winning essay, Portrait of a Woman in Pain, can be read here.