People & Society

An interview with feminist poet Kishwar Naheed

Updated 08 Mar, 2017 03:39pm
— Arif Mehmood, White Star
— Arif Mehmood, White Star

“It is only us – the poets and writers of Pakistan – who have never let down the oppressed and the condemned in our society. We have kept alive the struggle for individual liberties and realisation of human rights of common people,” proudly claims Kishwar Naheed — the arch feminist poet of our times.

Kishwar Apa – as she is fondly called by the young and the old alike – celebrates her 75th birthday this year. In the artistic and literary circles as well as among political workers, trade unionists, journalists and diplomats in Islamabad, she is considered the matriarch of culture and resistance. With eight collections of verse, a pungent collection of personal memoirs, pen portraits of writers and artists, and translations of some key feminist literary texts from other languages into Urdu behind her, Naheed is more prolific than most of her contemporaries. Besides, she writes a regular weekly newspaper column and is widely acclaimed for her sharp and incisive poetic expression, for being bold and direct, and, for celebrating the universal human struggle for equality, justice and freedom.

She champions the cause of peace in South Asia and has played a significant role in promoting Pakistan India People’s Forum and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Writers Forum. She has participated in global literary and cultural movements bringing together writers and artists who believe in a fair and equitable global political order. Recently, her powerful poems against extremist religious thought, violence, terrorism and increased suffering of women and girls due to radicalisation have created waves locally and internationally.

Following are the excerpts of a conversation with Naheed.

Harris Khalique. What has fundamentally shaped you, your mind, your ideology and your writing?

Kishwar Naheed. Some months after the Partition of India – a little before we moved to Lahore from Bulandshahr – I saw something which left a lasting impression on my mind and my heart. The pain and sadness I felt in those moments have stayed with me forever. Some Muslim girls who belonged to Bulandshahr were kidnapped during the Partition riots. Either they succeeded in running away from their captors or were rescued, they arrived back in Bulandshahr. Some were known to our family and I accompanied my mother and sisters to go see them. They looked haggard, exhausted and broken. Surrounded by other women who were trying to console them, they were all lying down on the floor or reclined against the walls in a large room. The feet of these women were badly bruised and soaked in blood. That was the moment when I stopped being just a child and became a girl child. I became a woman. Today, I do not remember their faces but I vividly remember those blood soaked feet. Women and girls anywhere have their feet soaked in blood. Very little has changed over the decades. This must end.

Also, as a young girl, I was inspired by the girls who had started going to Aligarh Muslim University in those times. The white kurta and white gharara under a black burqa that they wore looked so elegant to me. I wanted to go to college, to read and write.

My father, Syed Ibne Hasan, was the secretary of All India Muslim League in Bulandshahr. He distributed sweets on the creation of Pakistan and was jailed soon after.

Khalique. What were your childhood and early years like?

Naheed. Well, they were all right in the sense that I had loving parents and siblings. But, as a girl, it was a terribly difficult childhood and teenage. For instance, I was made to wear the burqa when I turned seven. However, you will find it amusing that the burqa was briefly removed when we took a flight from Delhi to Lahore as a burqa-clad girl would not pass for a nine year old and a discount ticket could not have been purchased for her. My mother had sold her jewellery to buy us air tickets so that we could travel safely. But as soon as we landed in Lahore, I was asked to put on the burqa again.

Ours was a typically conservative Muslim Syed family of northern India. When I was growing up, the family elders were waiting for respectable Syed grooms to appear for my two elder sisters and take them away. Also, the family suffered hugely due to the Partition and the subsequent migration. My father, Syed Ibne Hasan, was the secretary of All India Muslim League in Bulandshahr. He distributed sweets on the creation of Pakistan and was jailed soon after. As soon as he was released on parole, he fled to Lahore. We were left behind but joined him after some time. He refused to file any claims for property as it stood against his political conviction and commitment to the new country. This meant difficult times for all of us. My parents with seven children, four girls and three boys, stayed in one room in my aunt’s old house in Anarkali. Then we moved to Garhi Shahu where I insisted on attending the local girl school. After matriculation, there was a lot of resistance to my taking admission in college. But my brother, Syed Iftikhar Zaidi, paid for my tuition and helped me continue my formal education.

I completed bachelor of arts in 1959 and master's in Economics in 1961 from Punjab University. Earlier, I had finished Adeeb Fazil in Urdu and learnt Persian. I had become a voracious reader in my teenage. I read everything that I chanced upon — ranging from the works of Dostoyevsky to the dictionary published by Neval Kishore Press. It sounds funny how one could actually read a dictionary but I actually did that and I think it helped me in some sense. I am happy that I refused to read [the Islamic fiction written by] Naseem Hejazi even then.

Kishwar Naheed speaking at Urdu Markaz, London, in 1983 along with Iftikhar Arif (left) and Minhaj Barna (far right) | Courtesy Kishwar Naheed
Kishwar Naheed speaking at Urdu Markaz, London, in 1983 along with Iftikhar Arif (left) and Minhaj Barna (far right) | Courtesy Kishwar Naheed

Khalique. You are a feminist but, of course, your work is not just about women. It calls for a wide ranging social change, a pro-people polity and economy. Other than your commitment to women’s rights and liberties and influences of people like Simone de Beauvoir (who you have translated into Urdu) and Virginia Woolf, who else among writers have inspired you most?

Naheed. Progressive politics and free thinking is in my blood. I was deeply influenced by the Progressive Writers’ Movement in South Asia and the ideals of socialism and the quest for the empowerment of the masses worldwide. I see the years between 1956 and 1960 as my formative years. I was fortunate to have grown in a Lahore where Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Ehsan Danish, Syed Abid Ali Abid, Mukhtar Siddiqui, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and some others like them were living and writing. I learned from them and was introduced to international literature during the 1960s. Zahid Dar, who is nothing but a bookworm, used to share with me books of literature written in other languages and cultures. Almost all Russian and Soviet literature was made available by People’s Publishing House in Lahore.

It was in the early 1960s when the short-lived traditional phase of my poetry was completely over. Poet Iftikhar Jalib, who later moved to Karachi, was my class fellow. He and I started writing and experimenting with newer forms: free verse, blank verse and prose poems. That was the time when I graduated from Daffodils to Waste Land. Out of my meagre salary, I would spend a third on buying books every month. I think [the amount] came to hundred rupees in those days but a large number of books could be purchased [with it].

Two things were happening at the same time in those years. There were major international political upheavals; Pakistan was under martial law and new ideas and forms were being introduced and appreciated in our literature. I and my friends saw ourselves as a part of everything. One day we would take a procession out in support of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Egyptian right over Suez Canal, the next day we would bring out a rally for Vietnam or Palestine or Latin America.

Khalique. One understands that your primary passion is literature but you have a deep interest in politics. Let me put to you a clichéd question but I think it is still up for debate. Do you think creativity can be regulated to support a certain kind of politics?

Naheed. No. Creativity cannot be regulated nor should it be. Who would know this better than a woman writer or artist who has to struggle all her life to be able to express what she feels and thinks, to be able to articulate the way she wishes to articulate, to be able to present to the world what she wishes to present in her own unique way. You know, even Yousuf Kamran – who was my friend before being my husband – would discourage me from writing bold poems. Ghazals were fine but my nazms would make him nervous. I, therefore, decided not to read to him or show him my work before it was pulished. He would then read it the way others read it.

But we must not forget that creative writers and artists do not live in isolation. It is natural to react to and comment on the political and social circumstances in which one lives. On one hand, it is said that creative people are more sensitive and concerned while, on the other hand, it is argued that they must confine themselves to writing about themselves or their inner feelings. It is fine that we should write about our inner feelings but when Malala [Yousafzai] was shot or girl schools in Swat were being razed to the ground, it was my inner feeling that I wrote about. My poems will now be seen as a critical social comment and some may call these political poems but these poems represent my inner feelings.

Creativity cannot be regulated nor should it be. Who would know this better than a woman writer or artist who has to struggle all her life to be able to express what she feels and thinks, to be able to articulate the way she wishes to articulate, to be able to present to the world what she wishes to present in her own unique way.

Khalique. Undoubtedly, as you mention, women faced enormous problems in expressing their ideas, feelings and creativity in the past. But different women writers reacted to the situation differently. There are two distinct streams among women writers and poets. We are meeting on the day when Ada Jafri has passed away in Karachi. She was one of our major women poets but represented a different literary tradition and perhaps used a more conformist style in expression if I compare her to you and Fahmida Riaz. How do you see the contribution of women poets and writers like her?

Naheed. Not just in the past. It still is the case for many women that they face huge issues when wanting to write or publish. But yes, I agree, things have changed for the better in many instances and for many women. This freedom to write and express has come through a struggle drenched in tears.

Coming back to your question, I think Ada Jafri and women poets like her have made a serious contribution. From Mah Laqa Chanda to Rabia Pinhaan to Ada Jafri to Parveen Shakir, there is a galaxy of women poets. For a woman to write poetry and then to get it published was a revolutionary step in itself during those times when Jafri started writing and publishing. She and Sahab Qizilbash were two women who took on the challenge and continued writing and publishing. As far as I can recall, even they couldn’t publish for some years after getting married. Shabnam Shakeel – another of my bright contemporary poets – also disappeared from the literary scene for some years after getting married.

Myself and Riaz – who came soon after me – represent a different thought process, a different ideology and a different world view. That reminds me of Zehra [Nigah] Apa. She is an amazing poet who inspired me the day I saw her for the first time in a mushaira held in Punjab University. It was 1954 and she had come to read her poetry from Karachi — a unique feat in those times for a young woman poet. She was an instant hit and prevailed over the audience like no other. I recall overhearing a conversation about her at the university bus stop next day. A man was telling another man that someone else must be writing for that girl who dominated the mushaira last night. I felt that was outrageous. I wanted to write poems myself and read out in public like Zehra Apa did that day but it was harder to make a name for yourself if you were a woman. People doubt your talent more if you are a young woman.

— Arif Mahmood
— Arif Mahmood

Khalique. How about your professional career? You worked as a government servant for long – even under martial rule – didn’t you?

Naheed. I come from a different generation when opportunities were limited for us and we had to earn our living. I worked without making compromises as I never viewed myself as a government servant. I was a servant of the state and tried my best to promote and protect the rights of the weak and the oppressed, the women and the marginalised. Promoting art and culture was my preoccupation in the hardest of times. Even after being a public servant, my children and I lived under constant surveillance and threat under Gen Ziaul Haq, [forcing] both my sons to leave the country. I live alone in Islamabad today after moving here from Lahore in 1994. I have paid a price for being what I am and what I stand for.

Before I was inducted into the information cadre of public service in 1972 and while working at the Department of Films and Publications as an editor of the Urdu literary journals – I also worked with the local government department in Punjab in 1960s. That was the time when I had a chance to go to villages across Punjab and work with women. The sordid reality of Pakistani society and the treatment meted out to the oppressed Pakistani woman was fully revealed to me then. Therefore, upon retirement from the information service as the director general of Pakistan National Council of the Arts in 1998, I made a conscious decision to establish a non-governmental organisation (NGO) Hawwa Crafts as a cooperative for women artisans. This is a small initiative that removes the role of middleman from the lives of a few hundred women and their households. I could do this much and make no big claims.

Khalique. Many people think that NGOs are not the answer. The right wing sees NGOs as a western ploy and the left wing sees them as a phenomenon that depoliticises society. Do you agree?

Naheed. Answer to what? Who has said that they can replace the role of the state and of the political parties? There are many NGOs which I would not approve of but there are many businesses, media people and civil servants who I don’t like either. I think NGOs are being demonised systematically, not only by bigots and so-called religious leaders but also by Pakistani media.

Criticising NGOs for standing up for the rights of women has become a fad in news analysis as well as in soaps and plays on popular media. If an organisation campaigns for children to be sent to schools or women not being beaten up or human rights of all citizens to be safeguarded or sanitation services provided to all, should we rubbish them by branding them as agents of the West? Strange, very strange.

I think NGOs are being demonised systematically, not only by bigots and so-called religious leaders but also by Pakistani media.

As far as the left leaning liberals and leftist political leaders and intellectuals are concerned, where is their politics today, where are the roots and where is the relevance? I wish they prosper and succeed but it is us, the writers and poets, who have kept the desire and struggle for change alive in the imagination of people. It is these NGOs who kept the social issues on the agenda, be it about women or minorities, at the time when Pakistan was under martial rule or under right wing civilian rule. It is not the social movements and civil society organisations we should be worried about so much. It is the Taliban, Daish and other such phenomena that should bother us. I maintain that the United States and its allies have brought so much suffering upon us. Nevertheless, extremism and terrorism is our issue — in spite of whatever role we think the western governments have played – and are playing – in promoting or curbing [extremism and terrorism]. I also think it is not just about poverty as some of our friends say when it comes to the roots of radicalisation. I still find urban Pakistan more radicalised than rural Pakistan.

Khalique. It is a grim picture that you paint when it comes to our society and politics. Is there any hope for us? Also, is there hope for our art and literature in these testing times?

Naheed. In the short run, it seems there is little hope. But in medium to long run, things are bound to get better. Currently, all our political leaders are weak and insecure. There is no exception if you ask me. Religion is being worn on sleeves by those who claim to be pluralistic otherwise. But I believe in the democratic process. I believe in the potential of our people, our girls and women, our students and youth, our workers and peasants, and, above all, Pakistani writers, poets, artists and journalists. They have the potential to change the course. There is little state patronage and no encouragement for people with talent but we are still producing remarkable people in all fields.

I also don’t agree with some cynics when they say that nothing is happening in art and literature. They should read works appearing in Seraiki and Sindhi, for instance. There is a tendency among influential English-speaking Pakistanis to consider works in our own languages inconsequential. I have no issues with those writing in English as they more quickly link us to the rest of the world than those writing in Urdu but our writers who do not write in English must not feel insecure. Pakistan’s genius is realised in Urdu and the languages that our common people speak and write in. In the final analysis, it is the content that matters and not the language that you use. But we do need good translations of our literary works in English and other languages. Our young people who know English or other international languages well may consider learning Urdu and their mother tongues with as much fervour as they learn English or French and then translate the literary works of our languages into others.

The Game You Play

You became my lord, my Ram

You became my lover, the loony Qais.

Plaything as I am, left me when bored

Cajoled, caressed, rejected at will

Wore me, trampled me, threw away

Buried me in the backyard.

Painted my hands red with henna

And my face yellow with turmeric

Called me your wife

And made me lose my being.

But my lord, my lover, remember

When you made me run across the deserts

The dig of my heel burst streams of fresh water.

You castigated me with disgust

A prophet illuminated my womb.

You called me a tramp

My bed was your life.

Oh you momentary lord, my lover

On the stage of this world

You revered me like a prayer mat

In your worldly balance

You weighed me in gemstones.

Other than the game you play

In minting relationships

You cast me out.

You walled me in lust

In the name of honour.

You lashed me with contempt

Like a master to a slave.

You have played this game for long

To get burnt to death, to get a stove explode

These flames have blazed for long.

Your garb has lost its colour

Come out of this game you play

You are a human being like I am

Be my friend, be my buddy.

Poem by Kishwar Naheed | Translated from the Urdu by Harris Khalique

This was originally published in Herald's April 2015 issue. subscribe to Herald in print.