Singing in the darkness

May 16, 2021

An anthology of poems by women about the discrimination against and oppression of women in South Asia

“This is not an anthology of feminist poetry”, announces the editor’s note, but “a book that is a home to all women voices rendered silent by the vicious trinity of oppression, denial and victim-bashing that has allowed violence against women to escalate to an alarming magnitude and that is supported by the presence of a gender-biased social system prevalent in most parts of the world – a system that endorses a tradition of silencing the victims”.

Still We Sing: Voices on Violence against Women, presents the case of South Asia by its female poets. Edited and introduced by the India-born and Austria-based poet Sarita Jenamani – this is an anthology of poems about women and by women poets from the region, written in English as well in different South Asian languages, including Urdu, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Tamil, Punjabi, Sindhi, Nepali, Bengali, Sinhalese, Hindi, Odia etc. being carried with English translation. The anthology covers India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Several illustrious poets along with comparatively new names: Amrita Pritam, Anamika, Anjali Purohit, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Aysa Jhorna, Damayanthi Muthukumaranage, Deepa Agrawal, Deepti Naval, Geeta Tripathee, K Srilata, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nandini Sahu, Nalini Priyadarshni, Naseem Shafaie, Nirupama Dutt, Priya Unnikrishnan, Ranu Uniyal, Saima Afreen, Sakoon Singh, Jean Arasanayagam, Shameela Yoosuf Ali, Shobhana Kumar, Sumana Roy, Taseer Gujral, Tishani Dosi and Vivimarie VanderPoorten, among others, feature in the collection.

Pakistan is represented by poets like Zehra Nigah, Fahmida Riaz, Sara Shagufta, Yasmeen Hameed, Attiya Dawood, Ambreen Salahuddin and Ramsha Ashraf, with one of the blurbs by Muneeza Shamsie.

Discrimination against and oppression of women is a world-wide phenomenon. South Asia, along with some similar parts of the world, arguably demonstrates the most brutal forms of violence against women. India, with its alarming rate of rape cases, has been widely mentioned as a ‘rape country’. Pakistan too does not lag far behind where girls as young as five-years-old are not safe from predators and where parading of naked women – mostly from the powerless social strata of the society – by dominant male groups to punish the former, has not been unheard of. More or less similarly terrifying situations are to be found in the rest of the countries that form South Asia.

Violence against women in this part of the world has myriad facets. It is not that there has been no resistance against the patriarchal masculinity and its manifold offshoots that continue to perpetuate in the entire social fabric of the region. Women in South Asia have launched equality campaigns in different sectors and at various levels, but in the field of literature they have yet to have a considerable momentum, partially because of the fact that here a good number of women writers themselves seem to be averse to the term ‘feminism’. A large number of women writers in South Asia are still entrenched in the hegemonic ideologies of patriarchy bolstered by the dogmas of the faith groups and traditional social order: a mindset that renders them both conformist and fatalist.

This anthology showcases the poets who believe in braving the barriers.

Title of the book echoes a famous poem, Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou.

Though the anthology chooses to replace the verb in the title of Angelou’s poem as well as modifies the pronoun from ‘I’ to ‘We’, it faithfully retains the sense and spirit of the poem:

“You may shoot me with your words, / You may cut me with your eyes, / You may kill me with your hatefulness, / But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

The poets in the collection touch upon, highlight and challenge multifariously exploitative and oppressive means being employed, in general or specifically in South Asia, to subjugate women: domestic violence, forced marriages, dowry-related deaths, sexual molestation, harassment, rape (including its marital variation) and the female foeticide – to mention only a few among them. There are some other forms of violence hard to describe and felt only by the victims. Some poems in the anthology speak for the muted voices. The poetry presented in this anthology not only gives a voice to the silenced victims of patriarchal regimes, but might, also hopefully, help enable more women to attain agency brutally denied to them by the communities of control.

These poems are composed in varying modes and across an extended thematic spectrum. One thing that unites this pot pourri is its overriding tone that bubbles with vigour and vitality and expresses hope for a future that is egalitarian, just and human. This is yet another reason to welcome this collection.

Book: Still We Sing: Voices on Violence against Women

Edited by: Sarita Jenamani

Publisher: Dhauli Books

Pages: 268

Price: INR 495

The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian literature and culture at Vienna University

Singing in the darkness