Literary lift off

August 21, 2022

Women writers in the KP are reaching new heights

Literary lift off


he freedom movements in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries helped the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa women leave the four walls of their homes and play their role on several fronts including political and literary expression. These women paved the way for the modern day Pakhtun women to raise their voices for women’s rights - access to quality education, healthcare and share in inheritance.

The Pashto folk poetry has been the work of women alone. Pashto tappa, the two-liner genre was invented thousands of years ago by anonymous female bards.

According to research scholars, this kind of literature could only have been created under unusual circumstances and by no one but Pakhtun women who found it to be a powerful vehicle of expression. Tappa has survived till today. It encapsulates emotions and feelings reflective of women’s life cordoned off and away.

“KP women today enjoy more freedom and have more space compared to the past but overcoming all the obstacles to their empowerment will take time. They are moving towards their goals of ending domestic violence, attaining financial independence and political space,” says Prof Salma Shaheen, a former director of the Paahro at the University of Peshawar. She tells The News on Sunday, that it was towards the dawn of the 20th Century that KP women had started laying down the foundations for other women to contribute to the society and the national freedom movement.

“The power of the Pashto tappa was shown by a now legendary young Pakhtun girl during the second Anglo-Afghan War fought on July 27, 1880, ahead of the battle Maiwand. It roughly translates as ‘If you do not embrace martyrdom at Maiwand / I will never accept you back from war’. It inspired the Afghan soldiers to rally and push back British soldiers. Today women writers’ contribution to almost all literary genres –poetry, fiction, prose, research, criticism and translation - is duly acknowledged, “ says Prof Shaheen.

Malala of Maiwand has been a symbol of bravery and folk heroism ever since. Women in those days used to serve the injured soldiers and to sing tappas to raise the morale.

“Early 20th Century was the age of fighting with the weapon of education against oppression. Pakhtun women were motivated by the vision of Bacha Khan who led the Khudai Khidmatgaar Tehrik of non-violence, emphasising women’s education and social reform towards building a pluralistic and inclusive Pakhtun society,” says Prof Shaheen.

She says the KP women in general remained deprived of basic human rights and continued to be subject to domestic violence in the name of so-called ‘traditions.’ She says that most women were not allowed to compose poetry, read or attend literary events. Over a few decades, the KP women gained ground on their own and found space in social, literary and political circles. Their initiatives brought them to the forefront.

The efforts of great literary giants including Alif Jan Khattak, Syeda Bushra Begum, Kainat Begum, Zaitoon Bano and Fouzia Anjum bore fruit. They enabled the KP women literati to organise their thought plan to utilise their talent for highlighting women’s issues.

“KP women enjoy more freedom and space compared to the past but overcoming all issues impeding their empowerment will take time” 

Despite all kinds of problems, the women set up a literary forum, Khwendy Adabi Lakhkar, (KHAAL) seven years ago in Peshawar where young poets and writers are encouraged to speak their truth. At first, only a few senior writers showed up but with the passage of time, the number of participants has grown and young women from colleges and university are becoming a part of the forum.

Kalsoomzeb, noted author of more than a dozen Pashto and Urdu books and chairperson of the KHAAL, says that she and her talented colleagues launched a literary forum in 2016 with the objective to organise and consolidate the strength of KP women.

Over 100 active members of the KHAAL today hold study circles, seminars, monthly sessions, and award ceremonies in which young female writers, critics and researchers are trained along scientific lines. Over 60 women writers have been encouraged to bring out their poetry, prose, fiction and research publications.

“Previously, only a few senior writers had their books in the market but after attending our forum, female literati were able to share their works on radio and TV and now on social media,” says Kalsoomzeb. She says that participating in social and literary gatherings has motivated Pakhtun poets and writers to raise their voice for their rights.

The Karwan-i-Hawa literary forum is another organisation launched seven years ago in Peshawar in which a considerable number of educated women regularly participate in various activities. Bushra Farrukh, author of several Urdu and Hindko books, TV anchor and head of the forum, remarks that her organisation comprised 32 active members not only from the urban population but also from other parts of the KP. The organisation arranges several events to promote the cause of female emancipation and helping hone their creative talent.

“The special thing about the KHLF is that many of its participants are polyglots. They write in Urdu, Hindko, Pashto, Persian and English covering a variety of topics with a focus on women’s rights,” says Farrukh. She says that a few years ago, she had led a delegation of Pakhtun bards to Iran with the aim of strengthening ties with female poets and writers there and to give confidence to local writers.”Today, female writers in the KP include lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs and housewives. They regularly turn up at literary events,” she says.

Farrukh is proud of the progress that the organisation has made, “Last year, the KHLF arranged a national event on March 8 to celebrate the international women’s day in which over 50 awards were given away to the best writers and poets. The forum provides opportunity to budding poets and writers to present their work for critical evaluation.

Apart from mainstream media, female writers in the KP are also contributing to literary tradition by making use of their talent to highlight women’s issues on social media. Asma Ikhlas, a young poet and social activist, has a large fan base due to her unique style in Pashto poetry. She tells The News on Sunday that after graduating from the historic Islamia College Peshawar, she has launched social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to reach out to Pakhtun women across the globe.

She runs her own YouTube channel under her name, raising her voice for poor families and people suffering from addiction. “Female writers in the KP are playing a vital role in creating awareness among womenfolk regarding the significance of education, healthcare, and social work and contributing to society through their talent,” she concludes.

The writer is a Peshawar based journalist who covers art, culture, education and minority rights.

Literary lift off