In a play titled Main Sara (I Sara), the opening scene is of a dark stage with the sound of a train running on tracks. The piercing and ever increasing noise of the engine’s sirens becomes unbearable and then there is silence. In this darkened silence there is a spotlight on a female figure in her late 20s who recites a poem in Urdu.

Respectability has many forms

Veil, a slap, wheat

The nails of imprisonment have been hammered into the coffin of respectability

The house or the sidewalk does not belong to us

We are stamped by the spear of respectability

The lack of respectability starts with our words

If someone tastes our salt at night

Then throughout life we are shunned as unworthy bread

Shahid Anwar’s theatrical interpretation of Sara Shagufta’s life opened in India in 2011. The play in some detail captures the short and at times agonising life of the poet, before we lost her forever when she was some months short of 30. Shagufta at this relatively young age had acquired fame as a poet who shunned convention in her verses and in her personal life. The play reflects this in the scene following the opening poem. The character who recites the verses moves towards the audience and speaks:

“I am Sara Shagufta. People call me Urdu’s first angry young poet. A poet’s wife said this about me; Sara writes good poetry, but has no sense of covering herself (with a dupatta).” Soon after, the character narrates another incident about how, in a gathering, someone said that Sara should create a distinction between her body and her poetry.

Other voices from the shadows then speak, accusing Sara of promiscuity. The female character on the stage replies to these accusations and says that “by sleeping with Sara the elite dogs have achieved nothing.”

Blood-spitting woman is not steam

Nor crushed bangles

The field is my confidence

And embers are my desire

We were born with shrouds on our head

Not with rings in our fingers

That you can steal

Several years before this play was written or produced, I asked a friend in Karachi whether there was material on the Shagufta’s life for someone who wanted to write a literary biography on her. The answer, why would there be interest in the life of a hyper-sexual woman who had major psychological problems, left me a bit perplexed. However, this memory of Shagufta as a promiscuous young woman with enormous literary talent is what one sometimes encounters in discussing her life and death in the polite literary society of present day Pakistan. In interviews with family, acquaintances and friends that were conducted after her death (not by me) one finds contradictory impulses of praise and rejection, admiration and social distancing. Where there is an understanding of the personal dilemmas in her marriages, the custody battles for her children and for her hospitalisation for mental health problems, there is also a denigration of her lifestyle; her staying out late, her befriending men and her romantic liaisons. In these interviews, there arises a sense of social stigma toward Shagufta’s life choices, the reasons for which are at times found in her belonging to the lower classes, with its implicit connotation of an ‘immoral upbringing’. Ironically, in the narratives in which some women distanced themselves from Shagufta by asserting their own respectable background, they also admired her courage to live life according to her wishes; an existence that did not conform to the drudgery of a married middle-class life and responsibilities that many found themselves trapped in.

Main Sara captures the anger, anxiety and creative genius of this young Pakistani poet whose short life was simultaneously filled with moments of brilliance and utmost difficulties, sadness and sorrow. The birth in a lower-class home, the early marriage, the multiple divorces, the forceful separation from her children, the hospitalisation for psychiatric care, the adjustment to the culturally elite literary circles, yet the assertion of individual choice, the desire to live life according to one’s own wishes, the travels, the fame, and finally, death. All this makes for Shagufta’s story, but it could be of many women who pursue their lives on the proverbial other side of the tracks.


In the short space allowed for this article I will not provide Sara Shagufta’s biography nor an assessment of her literary stature (such tasks need more attention, time and care). I open with the play to develop a discussion on sexuality, gender and class as it pertains to Pakistan’s recent past. Shagufta’s life and death allows me to share some developing thoughts pulled from my own research interest on gender and popular culture in contemporary Pakistan. In my larger work, I maintain that in the deeply patriarchal character of Pakistan’s urban and rural life, the social conflicts that arise out of the process of modernisation, rural-urban migration and rapid urbanisation need to also be seriously analysed to understand some of the more systematic moral norms that persist in society around gender and sexuality. Following this argument, Shagufta’s personal life history, irrespective of her literary merit as a poet, permits me to bring a dimension of lower-class women’s participation in the work-force and their visibility in public space in Pakistan to the forefront. In these processes of simultaneous mobility and restrictions is embedded the important question regarding the curtailment of women’s movement and the pivotal issue of personal freedoms (sexual or otherwise). Within this broader context I seek to specifically understand how these issues resonate within various popular genres of representation. For example, in an earlier article (‘Pulp Fiction: Reading Domesticity in Pakistan,’ 2004) I looked at how women’s popular fiction deals with issues of women’s domestic and public life in Pakistan. In that paper I analysed two stories that reflected women’s anxieties around the issue of male betrayal and violence. The female protagonists in both stories were married to men who, in their terms, were not ‘real’ men; one impotent and the other more interested in other men. Within a hyper masculine and dominant heterosexual social more, such fantasies about 'inefficient men' (the impotent, the homosexual), I argued, reverberated with women’s anxieties about the sexually threatening public spaces in which the readers of these stories would find themselves in their everyday life. As women increasingly become the victims of male violence, such stories allow us, I suggested, to fantasize about the reversal of the status quo; providing a social space where men could be portrayed as less masculine, less violent and less threatening.

Similarly, in an earlier published short essay I discussed the Geo TV drama serial, Umrao Jan Ada and analysed it to show how, in recent years, the issue of sexuality and sexual freedom has been depicted in popular media. In my reading of the teleplay, I show how liberal intelligentsia and feminist inspired politics in Pakistan may have chosen to depict the life-world of the prostitute and the figure of the courtesan (the fictive protagonist Umrao Jan) as a metaphor to argue for sexual freedom and women’s autonomy. Yet I also raised the question of whether we need the fantasy figure of the courtesan to formulate this political intervention? In such processes of privileging certain kinds of experiences, whether in terms of fantasy (the depiction of courtesan life) or otherwise, I contend that the voices of the economically and socially marginalised remain suppressed.

Here we can have a discussion on the play The Vagina Monologues that has been performed a few times in Pakistan. The audience for these performances has been mostly the English-speaking elite. Of course, the play raises important issues in terms of women’s bodies and sexuality, but the milieu of the conversation remains among a particular privileged class and group. Hence the question that remains is why examples of working-class or lower-middle-class women’s life experiences (women like Shagufta) cannot become the conduit through which issues of women’s personal freedoms are analysed? Those women who brave the increasingly hostile and restricting public and private spaces, without the social protections that class bestows on elite women, continue to take social and sexual risks to manage the uncertainties of their lives. The preferences they choose in life and their resolutions may not always be clear cut, neat or 'moral' (but whose is?). Yet I would argue that the political task surrounding the argument on women’s freedoms in Pakistan needs to take the life histories of poor and working-class women seriously to imagine a politics that does not invariably depend on ideologically pre-determined routes. I argue that to take the vernacular voices and practices seriously is to recognise their popular refusal to integrate into the available forms of middle-class identifications and moral truths provided by the elite social formations. So Shagufta’s life story makes visible and audible those women (and men) from poorer and underprivileged section of Pakistani society that force us to think of our emotional fields, moral positions and liberatory politics not as merely reflecting middle-class images, but through empathetic understanding of diverse life practices.


The earlier discussed dramatic representation of Shagufta’s life opens with her death. Newspaper reports tell us that it was late evening of June 4, 1984, around 11 pm, when a local train ran into a person at the Drigh Colony railway crossing in Karachi. Eyewitness reports speak of a woman standing on the tracks waving her hands and then her shrieks silenced by the roaring noise of the train. Qurratulain Hyder’s Sheeshay kay Ghar was found on the body along with a packet of agar batis (incense sticks). The book had Shagufta’s address written on it, which made the authorities conjecture that this was a case of suicide. The incense sticks to her friends and well wishers indicated that she may have been going to her mother’s grave nearby.

Whether suicide or accident, as Shagufta crossed the railway tracks into Drigh Colony on that fateful night, a journey she may have taken numerous times as she grew up in the area, she was also in some ways moving across the tracks that served as a boundary for “respectable” cultural norms. In the moral spatial imaginary of Karachi, the city that Shagufta called home, places like Drigh Colony, Qasbah Colony, Organi and Korangi, become those distant spaces where the “other” live; those who have not had the resources, economic or moral (for they are at times intertwined) to move figuratively upwards into the more middle-class neighborhoods of the city.


Social change in the last few decades has forced a large percentage of women from all classes to work in the traditional and non-formal sectors of the economy. In recent years, due to economic pressures and the dissolution of extended families in urban areas, many more lower-middle-class women are working for wages than in the past. Women are leaving domestic spaces to work in the expanding formal and informal sector, as factory workers, stenographers, telephone operators, bank clerks and schoolteachers. Of course in urban areas, the poorest women have always worked as midwives, domestic servants, urban laborers, sweepers, or nannies. More often, poor urban women remain at home and sell manufactured goods to middlemen for compensation.

Among such working class women I met during my ethnographic fieldwork in Orangi Town in 2003 was Hasina Begum, a garment worker, who had raised her son almost single handedly as her husband did not work and lately had become an addict. She narrated an episode from her life: her in-laws had collected some money and leased a taxi for her husband to drive, however, instead of helping financially in the domestic budget he started maintaining his habit on the side by selling the car’s spare parts. Then he vanished for a couple of weeks. Her son, while travelling on a bus, saw his father lying unconscious on the side of the road and brought him home. The husband was nursed back to health and was fine for few days, but then the violence and the abuse started again. Hasina Begum’s dilemma was that she could not throw him out of the house as that would be shameful and her son would lose his father. On the one hand, living with the man, according to her, had become unbearable. On the other, she felt responsible for his well being and continued to care for him in her capacity as a dutiful wife. As much as we should empathise with her predicament of raising her son without any familial or spousal support in a precarious socio-economic and cultural environment for women workers, we need to also understand the sheer hopelessness of men such as her husband who are left to die on the road-side every day. Through Hasina Begum’s own contradictory inclinations of not wanting to live with her husband and of spousal service, we see a coming together of different worlds and impulses in the construction of her own self.

Most men of course experience the city with a far more comfort and sense of freedom than women we met with ever did. They traverse the public sphere without the same kind of bodily discipline and emotional restraint that women have to endure. Many find new spouses (but who are these spouses or new partners, are they women who leave their husbands?), abandoning their families to precarious futures, or pursue many pleasures that the urban life offers them with greater ease. Yet, as we know, in the contemporary moment there is vulnerability in male work. This connects to the above discussed example of the unemployed, exhausted and wasted body of Hasina Begum’s husband. In an important work Ananya Roy (City Requiem: Calcutta 2002) makes an argument, which I follow here, about how poor women during her fieldwork in Calcutta depicted their husbands as dead (while they were alive) in order to furnish us with a critique of male abandonment and polygamy, but also to sensitise us to men’s withdrawal from the labour force due to layoffs, injuries or old age (reflected in the many life histories of women that we collected during our own study). Similarly, Hasina Begum had a critique of her husband’s abandonment of his duties as a spouse, yet was also sensitive to her own role as a wife. Within this context, Hasina Begum’s critique of her husband’s actions was intertwined with a caring gesture toward his condition. This may have been one of the possible ways she sought to reconcile with her circumstances. Another resolution of her story could be that she, or others like her, leaves her husband to find a partner who would be more responsive to her emotional, financial and sexual needs. Such cases also abound in the same social space where Hasina Begum lived and raised her family.

The life trajectories and experiences of people like Hasina Begum would not be unfamiliar to a person like Sara Shagufta. Shagufta grew up in a lower-class family that had settled in Karachi after migrating from Punjab in the 1960s. The father had remarried and she and her siblings were brought up by her mother who would perform home-based work, like making flower garlands, to support the family. Her letters and writings guide us to the difficulties of growing up in a household where the father had abandoned the family and there were days of economic hardships and even hunger. Such experiences are lived by many among the millions who reside in the poorer neighbourhoods of Pakistan’s larger cities. Shagufta’s early marriage and divorce, domestic violence, her being separated from her children are also common life trajectories that many women (of all classes) suffer. What was perhaps exceptional in Shagufta’s case was that through her literary talent she tried to enter into the space of 'middle-class respectability'; this was the transgression that was perhaps difficult to accept by many. The innuendos and gossip about her personal life, the suggestion that she did not 'cover' herself, clearly marks the anxiety her transgressions produced among the 'respectable'.

Shagufta’s personal mannerisms and at times 'inappropriate' public behavior, in addition to her poems, made people around her uncomfortable. In conclusion I would submit that Shagufta’s poetry and life choices raise the important question of how we represent the marginal, the every day and the unpredictable in order to bring it forward to contest the more established renditions of society. Within this context, we should understand Shagufta’s life and work in light of contemporary Queer theory, (I am borrowing here from Ann Cvetkovich’s article 'Public Feelings,' 2007), a theoretical framework that depathologizes sexuality within public life and also makes it possible to revalue and document the non-normative ways of living. Shagufta in these terms could be read as a queer subject, both for the daringness of her poetry and her own personal anti-conformist lifestyle (one could also think of the poet Meeraji and even Manto within the same vein). Queer time for some writers is the turning away from the certainty of the dominant narrative of a developmental life cycle that follows the trajectory from adolescence to death through reproduction and child rearing. Queer subjects then are those who live outside what the writer Judith Halberstam (In a Queer Time and Place, 2005) would call 'reproductive time' or family time and also at the edges of logics of capital accumulation. The homeless, the sex workers, the unemployed, the drug dealers, the daily-wage workers and others become “queer subjects” as they may work when others sleep and also inhabit spaces that others have abandoned (like Shagufta and her different life trajectory than those in 'respectable' households).

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