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Herald exclusive: In conversation with Arfa Sayeda Zehra

Updated November 28, 2014

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Arfa Sayeda Zehra. —Azhar Jafri/White Star
Arfa Sayeda Zehra. —Azhar Jafri/White Star

Arfa Sayeda Zehra has been a teacher for over forty years. At a very young age, she decided that education was the best way to contribute to society. Known for her eloquent command of Urdu and proficiency in the history of Urdu literature, she is a professor in history at the Forman Christian College, Lahore.

She has earlier served as a teacher and principal at the Lahore College for Women University (LCWU) and has also taught at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, National College of Arts, and School of Public Policy, Government of Pakistan, where she is currently a visiting faculty member.

Zehra has been a member of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and has served as its chairperson in 2006.

Here she shares her experience as a teacher and historian and discusses the nexus between religion, history and education.

Qalandar Bux Memon: Please tell me about your early experiences. How did you become a historian?

Arfa Sayeda Zehra: Ever since I became conscious of my society, in my early years of college, I found that this society basically operates on many lies. So I thought, if I wish to communicate what I think, to share what I interpret, I will become a teacher.

I am one of people who believe we should not shun the past. It should be alive so we know how to move forward.

That is how my interest in history developed. I think it was a sign of dissent — I am a dissenter. I find that, in history, most of the things are not true, except names and dates, while in literature everything is true, almost all the time, except for names and dates.

So, it takes a balance between history and literature to understand the truth.

Memon: It is interesting that you talk about that connection and difference between the truth in history and literature. It is something I have been thinking about as well, in terms of politics and literature. I have been thinking of the limitations that our traditional educational disciplines have when it comes to the truth in such a complex society as Pakistan. I find that literature offers more scope in communicating the truth hidden under four or five levels of oppressive discourses.

Zehra: Yes, religion is always used to create that psychological oppression because this is one thing that tells people don’t think or say anything.

I am grateful to my teachers and my father who taught me not to accept everything or deny everything [either], and instead try to have an analytical approach and do some serious critical thinking before coming to any realisation.

So, literature and history are just windows to the heart and mind of society. Literature brings the best out of the worst [through] the stylistics, the eloquence and the language in poetry and fiction.

These windows sharpen your sensitivities and sensibilities. Most of the time, one finds that literature is somehow exaggerated but take that exaggeration out and you will get the essence of it.

This is how I got really interested in history. My specialisation is in culture and intellectual history. Without thinking, it is not possible to change.

Memon: Literature offers more access to the truth than political science. History has been overtaken and overwritten by various powers for its instrumental use. Social sciences, in general, have more of a trace of this legacy but literature, in some instances, tends to break away from it. What in literature has influenced you or whom do you admire the most?

Zehra: No one can ignore Mirza Ghalib. He is a very fascinating man. He is the last one of an era which was disappearing and the first one of an era which was just coming about. He is a transition man who can see what is going on.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a modernist — he was the one who introduced us to modernity.

He translated Aaeen-e-Akbari (Akbar’s constitution) and asked Ghalib to write its preface.

Ghalib’s reply was:

Aaeen-e-Akbari ka deebacha likhwa kar kya karogay?

Zindagi ka naya aaeen Kalkattay main likha ja chukka hai

Why do you want me to write the preface for Aaeen-e-Akbari? A new constitution for life has already been written in Calcutta by the British.

He was aware of the change coming in — not just in systems of governance or matters of politics but also in ideas.

Memon: I grew up in Sindh and Sindhi is my first language so I do not have the understanding of Urdu as you do.

Zehra: There you have Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai…

Memon: Good that you have mentioned Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. He is quite the opposite [to Ghalib]. Bhittai, Bulleh Shah and many others in Punjab, and all over South Asia are not connected to the network of people [close to the rulers of the day]. I see a contrast between those intellectuals who were close to a white master and those who were not. Bhittai and Bulleh Shah, for me, are admirable because they stayed away from power and challenged it whether it was the British or the Mughals. But, I think, Ghalib was linked with Mughal and British power and also used his art to promote them. How do you relate to him?

 “Urdu is an unfortunate language; nobody owns it.” —Azhar Jafri/White Star
“Urdu is an unfortunate language; nobody owns it.” —Azhar Jafri/White Star

Zehra: This is a big question but one has to be a little sympathetic towards Ghalib while answering it. First of all, Ghalib is the product of a certain mindset. He claims he belonged to an urban, so-called elite class. Bhittai, Bulleh Shah, Rehman Baba were the product of Sufi thinking which makes them averse to whatever power paradigms were around them. Also, a poet has to have a square meal.

Memon: You mentioned that teachers can have an impact on the mind of the youth which can then have an effect on society at large. You have been teaching for over 40 years. Have you, then, found education to have any impact on social change?

Zehra: If in a class of 35, I can make an impact on two students, it is a success.

With all humility, I will say that I did make an impact on my students, not [through] what I was teaching them but through what I was really trying to communicate to them about life itself, and how to face it, in a society where the powerful have everything and the powerless are just meant to be spectators to their own lives.

Education is not needed only for a good job. It is not an employment certificate. It should be a means to graduating for life. More than 50 per cent of Pakistanis today are illiterate, and have no idea who they are, what their rights are, what their responsibilities are.

Memon: I have found that teaching in a university may mean that you don’t only teach one student but you leave an impact on the students’ surroundings, their relatives, the entire households.

Zehra: I am teaching a second generation of students. It gives me such a wonderful feeling when a student comes to me and says that her mother was my student at the LCWU. Then, the mother will tell me that I taught her something that she tried to pass on to her daughters.

Memon: So education is slow work, not a revolution. It is not dramatic...

Zehra: It is not revolution; it is an evolution and it is very sustainable. You have to be honest and sincere to yourself. You don’t have to change [people] whenever you go to a classroom. I became a member of the NCSW in 2002 and I very proudly say that it was during this period that the commission worked on laws aimed at reforming the Hudood laws.

When, in 2006, I became the chairperson of the commission, I not only met with representatives of non-government organisations (NGOs) but also met many women. I have travelled through almost all of interior Sindh and that is how I came to know how these women see life. I sensitised myself through interactions, through talking to them, and I became a master trainer. I train the village girls. The worst opposition that I face is from women themselves.

Memon: What kind of opposition?

Zehra: They think it is not acceptable for a girl to say that she has rights, that she does not want to marry a man she does not like [for instance]. [They see it] against our culture and against our religion. But religion and culture are not meant to enslave you; they should empower you. Most of this stereotypical mindset is not found just in men.

Memon: Could you please talk about your experience of the women’s movement through the various decades of your life.

Zehra: I was fortunate to be born in a family where there was no discrimination made between a daughter and a son. I would say more concessions were given to me rather than to my brother. But the world around me was divided.

In one of my speeches, I said I did not wish to live either in a masculine world or in a feminine world. I would like to live in a human world, because women rights are basically human [rights]. I thought that made my feminist friends very unhappy with me.

In our traditional society, men are given preference in everything from the dinner table to ideals of life. Only two professions were easily acceptable for women – teaching and medicine – which fit into their stereotypical role of a giver and a caretaker. If we want a departure from that, all hell will break loose.

But if everybody is given an equal chance for personal development, they will be able to develop. And I don’t find in religion any discrimination between men and women. God says that you will be judged upon your actions.

It clearly does not mean that men will get all the rewards and women all the punishments. There is a sense of equity and equality which needs to be taught.

Historically, in low-income, oppressed families whatever money they would have, it would be spent on boys’ education rather than on the girls. The girl had to sit at home, take care of her siblings, and look after the parents.

 Burning women for raising their voices, marrying them to the Quran — if that is an act of piety, then men should also marry the Holy Book. —Azhar Jafri/White Star
Burning women for raising their voices, marrying them to the Quran — if that is an act of piety, then men should also marry the Holy Book. —Azhar Jafri/White Star

None of these duties are either an ideal or an intellectual pursuit. Why a woman is not given her rights is the question that got me involved in inquiring why a woman is not considered human. Why talk about women rights? Their rights are after all human rights. If you believe in human rights then there should be no separating women rights from human rights.

In order to remove the distinction, we have to bring women on par [with men] which will take time. Today, the most educated, well-placed, high-earning women are not as respected as their male counterparts.

This was one of the reasons why I started teaching in a girls’ college. I have such wonderful students now. Many have gone into politics as well. [Former foreign minister] Hina Rabbani Khar is one of them. If we bring parity among people, we will find harmony.

Memon: There are people who say women should not become like men. The male world is violent. It is more about possession. What do you say?

Zehra: I hate that women should be like men; they should remain women. Whatever they do, there is a lot more sensitivity in it and they are civilized. The question is why should men stop women from attaining certain things and education is one of those things. All these tactics are to make women less confident. If they are given confidence, they will be better actors in life.

Memon: Don’t you think that violence against women is an act to shatter her confidence? For instance, take the Farzana Iqbal case this year, where she was murdered outside the Lahore High Court for so-called honour and no one stepped ahead to stop it as if it is a normal thing.

Zehra: Burning women for raising their voices, marrying them to the Quran — if that is an act of piety, then men should also marry the Holy Book. That is only for grabbing land: if she marries someone else, the land might have to go with her.

Who says a woman doesn’t have a share in inheritance? She has the right to choose her spouse. She has the right to seek divorce. She has the right to own property.

Memon: Have you worked with any organisation for women’s rights — for example, Women’s Action Forum?

Zehra: No. It is only through education that I have worked for human rights. I have never been part of any NGO. I deliver speeches and lectures. I am a great advocate of [activism] but sometimes I admit that I don’t agree with the tactics.

Memon: How do you see the state of higher education? Do you think that we are going in the right direction?

Zehra: Apart from a few institutions, the rest of the higher education is not satisfactory. We are becoming degree-oriented. A piece of paper has become more important than ideas and knowledge.

And that has happened because material things are becoming a symbol for status — how many cars you have, what kind of home you live in. I am sorry, this is not education.

A degree has just become a certificate to earn money.

Now this number game is going on in higher education. You can enhance the number of universities and students but my question is, what about quality? Let us have fewer numbers but let us have quality education.

The quality of higher education also depends upon the quality of earlier education. I am one of those people who think that primary education for a child should be in the same language as the language of his or her surroundings – whether it is a regional language or Urdu or whatever – because that will help the child acquire clear concepts. Once the concepts are clear and he or she is able to think, then you can put those concepts in any language.

We are only teaching words, not meaning.

Memon: I have a highly romanticised understanding of what higher education should be. As a student, I hoped that the university would be a transforming experience; that it would be a place to recreate myself. I had hopes of becoming a person who reads poetry in the morning, goes fishing in the afternoon and then comes back to philosophy books and, in between all that, engage with people. I haven’t yet seen that environment in Pakistan.

Zehra: Very purposefully, the system of education does not strengthen the study of literature, history and philosophy. I believe everyone should read philosophy; they must know what thinking is.

They don’t have to be philosophers. Literature gives you the power to communicate through writing and speaking. History provides you the background of everything. But, you know, we have seasons here.

For a decade, it has been the season of information technology; in another decade, it was the season of business education. Knowledge should not be taken as an encashment; it should be taken as enrichment of life.

We are purposefully ignoring our own language Urdu. I always say that Urdu is an unfortunate language; nobody owns it. Indians say it is a Pakistani language, Pakistanis consider it Indian. There is no ownership of it.

Memon: But isn’t Urdu a language of colonisation? Isn’t it imposed on the Sindhis, the Baloch and the Pakhtuns?

Zehra: I am sorry. I disagree. Urdu is the language of the people.

Memon: Which people?

Zehra: The South Asian people.

Memon: What about Sindhi, Pujabi, Balochi, Seraki languages? Aren’t these the languages of the people in their respective areas?

Zehra: Urdu became a language of communication between [different] communities. Urdu was not a language of anyone. The Mughals did not bring it with them. It was there for the local needs. But after Pakistan, Urdu became a problem, an issue. Nobody spoke more beautiful Urdu than Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar who was a Pakhtun and even Akbar Bugti who was a Baloch. We have basically politicised Urdu. We lost East Pakistan, not because of language but because of the attitude towards language.

Memon: Any language can become embroiled in an imperial colonial project. And I think that is what has happened with Urdu.

Zehra: Shall we call Punjabi an imperial language because the 19th-century Sikh ruler Ranjeet Singh spoke Punjabi?

Memon: For a particular moment, any language can be embroiled in an imperial colonial project. Just as English and French once were. I am not saying that language itself is an imperial project but that it is used as an instrument for an imperial project.

Zehra: If you say that communities such as the Baloch and the Pakhtuns feel threatened by Urdu then that means it is a safe zone. Urdu is nobody’s language so it can be everyone’s language.

Memon: Isn’t it better to have no national language? People in the village I come from speak three to four languages comfortably, just by living there. Why impose an official language on them?

Zehra: My personal position is that Urdu is not a national language; it is one among so many languages spoken in Pakistan. To me, it is a beautiful language which brings in a lot of intellectual heritage from history. It takes from regional languages also, not only from Arabic and Persian. So many words of Punjabi and Sindhi are there in Urdu. But it is good to have Urdu. Being multilingual is an asset. Look at England. The language changes as you move to the north of the country but that doesn’t make people to want to lose English.

Memon: Despite all the doom and gloom in society, you seem optimistic. What makes you optimistic?

Zehra: I am very optimistic. It was a very conscious choice I made. You may call me romantic. You should not be seeking materialistic gains all the time. You must rise above that and what you may get in return is a pleasure and satisfaction which no money can buy.

We teachers are not paid well until we go into teaching the student favourite subjects. But what do you really cherish? Mind, ideas, aspirations, making your students feel proud of what they are, giving them time and their dignity, and that can only come when we do what we say.