This year’s Women in Literature festival was a reaffirmation of how love for the written word is universal, powerful and beyond borders
Seeing writers, readers and publishers celebrating the written word has always been wonderful. The tedious struggle behind every success – from initial perception of the core idea to its refinement and vetting and from its execution to getting it published – often risks being forgotten. The subtleties of politics, gender and identity negotiated in the process remain mostly hidden from the casual viewer. Ananke Magazine, a digital publication that aims to curate and document women writers and gender issues in publication, organised its second Women in Literature Festival (WLF) on March 31 and April 1 to address these issues. Ananke, a Greek word loosely translates to how even the gods are restricted in their actions. To overcome some of these restrictions a number of writers were invited to discuss digital production, migration and social hegemony.
The WLF, started in 2021, featured a fresh line up of participants this year. They included, Myriam Tadesse, Ameena Hussain, Linda Collins, Arshia Sattar, Nilanjana Bhowmick, Radhika Maira Tabrez, Katherine Abraham, Mehr F Hussain, Laleen Sukhera, Taiba Abbas, Arsalan Athar, Kehkashan Khalid, Dr Amina Yaqin and Dr Ammara Maqsood. Ananke collaborated with some Pakistani organisations including the Authors Alliance Pakistan to organise the festival. The WLF provides a platform for writers and speakers to delve into topics of identity, womanhood and politics of language and publishing.
The first session of the festival this year was titled, Rediscovering Feminisms. The discussion examined how feminism has changed over the last thirty years. The participants tended to agree that almost all perceptions and understandings of the term should be acceptable. Sabin Muzaffar, founder and organiser of Ananke Magazine, urged her audience “to look at things through an intersectional lens.” Other speakers said that boxing women and the question about what they bring to the table were essentially redundant. They said the new generation of writers did not think in these terms. Arshia Sattar said the younger lot did not even want to be associated with the word feminism. She said while they were more focused on discovering their personal freedoms, once could not say that their struggle was not feminist.
Other sessions focused on gate keeping in the publishing world and who gets to say what and who gets to be understood? This theme, with particular reference to identity and gender, was explored in the session titled Globalisation of the English Language. The speakers predominantly talked about how postcolonial prevalence of the English language in South Asian countries has resulted in various forms of the language in the region. They said these do not need validation from the Western audiences. The session focused on questions of owning, and speaking the language. Radhika Maira Tabrez argued that new forms of language tests for migration purposes were evidence of colonisation.
The Power of Illustration session was about different forms of the written word, its connotations and the many meanings attached to how it is understood. The session focused on how illustration can be deeply personal or political. It can also challenge patriarchal norms. One of the panellists, Ikroop Sandhu, an illustrator, discussed her creative process. She shared her illustration on the farmer’s protests which took place in India last year and attracted global coverage and response. Her work for the protest incorporated Amrita Shergill’s famous painting, Three Girls. Sandhu said that the girls in her illustration, unlike in Shergill’s painting – where they are sitting inside a home – are on a tractor in a field. This was meant to be a homage to the women who had taken it to the protest. The words on her illustration, “v r the revolution” gave instant, unique and indigenous power and authority to the women’s contribution. Kehkashan Khalid said posters for the Aurat March had always faced scrutiny. The panellists said the advent and amalgamation of technology had brought unprecedented advantages to the new generation. Rohama Malik remarked that “technology has made the process more democratic.”
The festival also provided an opportunity to writers and publishers to discuss sustainable printing. A session moderated by Mehr F Hussain, Sustainability and Publishing included Zainab Shah, Ayesha Baqir and Nilofer Qazi as panellists. Hussain focused on how publishing could be made more productive without further harming the environment, noting how fashion and publishing both take away from the environment. The session also examined the kinds of audiences the writers aim to cater to. Qazi, who has catalogued and compiled lost recipes of Balochistan and released a book called Culinary Tales of Balochistan, said that food is clearly associated with identity and diversity. The panel also discussed how the world developed a “food insecurity” during the pandemic. Qazi said certain parts of Pakistan and Balochistan remain food insecure. She said modern agricultural practices have not made their way to many of these places. She blamed this on state neglect.
Other sessions focused on how social media and information technology had amplified movements like Me Too, and the discussion on the recent hijab ban in India. This is bringing new pressure on decision makers who earlier had a monopoly on the choice and propagation of narratives. Some of the participants pointed out that many in the younger generation did not acknowledge contributions of the earlier feminists.
Still other sessions dealt with identity, the meaning of home, its loss, deracination of identity associated with it and the resurgence of grief. In Navigating Patriarchy: On Movement, Migration and Development, Myriam Tadesse, an Ethiopian-French writer and performer, discussed her dual identity in the framework of politics, national identity and language. The session highlighted how language helps in keeping one’s identity and narrative supreme and far-reaching. On documenting the struggle of her Ethiopian father, she said, “what about the language that is inside you and is kept silent?” The session discussed how reading provides women with agency. Sabyn Javeri said marriage at a young age and moving to the UK soon afterwards had left her with a sense of loss and displacement. She said back in Pakistan, lack of access to public libraries had made it difficult for her to read. This changed when she moved to the UK. She remarked that the agency she needed to leave her former husband came from reading.
Muzaffar said, “This event is a reaffirmation of the appeal of creativity and how the love for written word is universal, powerful and beyond borders. How it brings everyone together. It is about democratising this landscape.”
The WLF has provided women and writers with a platform to discuss a range of topics. It has gone beyond the barriers of visa restrictions and confinements of national and regional politics. It was refreshing to see Indian and Pakistani authors sharing the same stage, women discussing their creative processes, successes and struggles in patriarchal societies and the homogeneity of it.
The writer is a Lahore-based educationist and researcher.