Celebrating women

April 11, 2021

The first Women in Literature Festival sought to visualise a gender-inclusive world by reimagining literature

In the interest of visualising a gender-inclusive world by reimagining literature, Ananke Magazine, a global digital development platform that empowers women through advocacy, awareness and education, organised its first virtual Women in Literature Festival (WLF) from March 30 to April 1.

Spanning a wealth of female writers, publishers and academicians across South Asia and the Middle East, the festival showcased ideas, discussions and debates centred around the significant role of women’s literature in promoting new futures for culture, art and society through the written word. The first literary event of its kind, the festival sought to celebrate women’s literary pieces and to provide the much-needed applause for their struggles and commitment.

For this event, Ananke teamed up with Pakistani organisations Zuka Books, Ala Books and Authors, Authors Alliance Pakistan, The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, The Desi Collective and The Aleph Review. Many distinguished people from the local literary fraternity participated in the event. They included Afshan Shafi, Dr Amina Yaqin, Aisha Hamid, Ayesha Raees, Aysha Baqir, Dr Nukhbah Langah, Fatima Ijaz, Laaleen Sukhera, Mahnaz Rahman, Mina Malik-Hussain, Mehvash Amin, Moni Mohsin, Naima Rashid, Taiba Abbas, Rabbania Shirjeel, Rashin Choudhary, Saadia Gardezi, Shazaf Fatima, Soniah Kamal, Zahra Hameed and Zarminae Ansari.

The event had a plethora of exciting sessions, panels and talks including a conversation between Sheela Reddy, author of Mr and Mrs Jinnah and Moni Mohsin, whose recent book The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R has been just released. Baela Raza Jamil, founder of the Children’s Literature Festival and Angela Joy, author of the book Black Is A Rainbow Colour enthralled the audience with their segment titled: Today’s Children’s Literature - Beyond Gender Stereotyping.

The event also featured segments like the Intersection of Gender Equality, Feminism, Women’s Rights, Migration, Politics, Peace, Society and Literature, Post-Colonial Literature and Women, The Impact of Gender and Translated Work, among others. Panels discussions on The Future of Literature in the Age of Technology and the keynote session on intersectionality and literature brought local and international voices to the forefront to speak about various perspectives in history and literature via a gendered standpoint.

According to Mehr F Husain, one of the festival organisers, “This is a historic moment and one that celebrates women globally and acknowledges them for their work as writers. Nothing could be more powerful than this.”

Any event bringing women together is a space that invokes thoughtful and meaningful dialogue in multiple spheres of life; the WLF was no exception. Beginning with a keynote session on the relationship between decolonialism and literature, the festival highlighted the hope and the desire to revisit the important discussions for years to come.

Talking about the event, Ananke’s founder and executive editor Sabin Muzaffar says, “We keep seeing manels even on subjects of women’s rights and empowerment. While we do think an inclusive conversation is essential to triggering an impact, if we do not have proper representation especially on issues centring women, I fear that there will never be any change to the status quo.”

Dr Diana J Fox, noted feminist and decolonial anthropogist, spoke during the first session of the festival. The conversation was moderated by Muzaffar. It explored Fox’s delve into anthropology as a vehicle for understanding human relationships, building collaborations and analysing women’s agency in a tumultuous world.

The discipline of anthropology is deeply concerned with concepts like gender, sexuality and culture. An attempt to recover those reveals seedlings of historical transformation and manipulation. Colonialism plays a big part here, as most of us are aware. “Decoloniality, she stated, “seeks to extract meaning from the cultural systems of the pre-colonial period. But it also tries to understand the world as it is now, the problems we face and the ideas that have emerged and have not been distorted by colonialism.” The end of the colonial period is going to take a long time. The process has to be specific to particular parts of the world, localities and certainly women’s marginalisation.

In terms of the impact on literature, Fox narrated an account of a graduate course she took with Shazia Malik, who works at the Centre for Women and Gender Research at the University of Kashmir. Malik wished to understand women’s ‘oral literature’ in Kashmir, which referred to women’s wedding songs. The women of Kashmir have sung these songs at weddings either from a standard collection or through their own narrations contextualised in the wedding rituals. These songs are significant because they reflect on the women’s kin relationships with their in-laws, marrying into their husband’s family, their relationships with their own family, as well as the dynamics of becoming a new bride in the contemporary society. This form of oral literature gives the women a certain kind of agency to express themselves. Fox commented that they are interested in understanding what essentially is this type of narration; could it be a form of protest folklore? What could it say about colonialism and the broader geopolitics in the region?

“The lives of Kashmiris have long been shaped by post-colonialism and the response of the people has been trying to navigate and create a political identity while also trying to sustain a cultural and religious one,” she said.

Another instance is the lament of a mother when sending her sons into militancy. Women are forced to make meanings upon the loss of their sons and this causes them to look to narration to speak about their fears, their relationships with their kin groups and their children. So oral literature becomes a panorama into understanding how women are envisioning their futures through these complexities. Interestingly, women are using their own lives or the lives of other women in communities to imagine a world with a possible freedom without current predicaments hampering their free will. These crises are a result of complex historical processes borne from colonial rule.

In the pandemic especially, literature appears as a sort of window into a distant reality that does not exist yet. Creating stories about characters that face a set of problems helps us dream and hope of some day overcoming them.

Another segment explored the future of literature in the Age of Technology. It featured author Anupama Jain and Pakistani visual communication designer and writer Sabdezar Irfan. Two generations of litterateurs thus described their experience dwindling between the erasure of the written word and the embracing of the fruits of technology.

Internet has certainly changed the way we think and perceive – much of everything is instantaneous and what worked yesterday for us might lose its lustre today. In terms of literature, we learn and become more conscious of the mistakes of the past and constantly look for ways to evolve.

Letter-writing was the ultimate channel for expressing emotion in the old days, Jain commented. “If someone could not put themselves on a piece of paper, they were failing in love.” There were deeper nuances, deeper means of enjoyment in the days of letter-writing. Good handwriting gave you another arena to express emotion. Sabdezar remarked that she viewed letter-writing as requiring more work from the soul. Her graphic novel lets that physicality of the book stay.

The age of IT beckons a new wellspring of thoughts, vision and expression. Publishing has been made easier through crowd-sourcing, and technology has carved with it ways to interpret an old idea in a fresher way. Old and new interpretations examine personal experiences, this way they become more enriching and fulfilling to read. “A library of ideas is then formed through these stories.”

If you are to create a cult following for yourself as a writer, you shouldn’t be intimidated by the internet, she advised. “Your own distinctive and dedicated voice and space will get you noticed.” Sabdezar recalled the time she discovered Wattpad and felt like a full-fledged author, feeling as if she had inched closer to the many writers she had admired as a child. It gave her hope to continue writing.

With technology, there are new perspectives to share, and soon competing to write the best book will be all the more intense with the advent of artificial intelligence. The advantage here, however, will be a wider audience to write for, Jain warmly advised.

Through these essential conversations on literature, women, and writing, Ananke Magazine offered an opportunity for ecstatic readers, writers, scholars and the like to look forward to more occasions of celebrating women’s milestones and their contribution in the global literary sphere.

The writer is a content development officer at    Habib University

Celebrating women