Never marry a poet or join a leftist party ─ and other lessons from Pakistani feminists

If one inquires into the lives of many intellectuals, violent gender politics becomes apparent.
Published January 1, 2018

Last month, a group of resilient women gathered to protest outside the Arts Council building in Karachi, bearing loudspeakers and placards.

Their demand was simple: the leading poet in the city, Sahar Ansari, who allegedly sexually harassed a fellow professor at the Karachi University, be stopped from becoming the vice-president of the Art Council’s committee for arts and culture.

The activists wrote a letter to the cultural institution delineating, what they say, is Ansari’s record of misogyny, namely the use of sexist language against, and the slut-shaming of, women theatre practitioners.

How can Ansari, the protesters proclaimed, who is known to use abusive language for women doing theatre, and passes comments on how they dress, feel entitled to become the vice-president of a committee for arts and culture?

But the protest ended as all protests do: a police van arrived on the scene and the protesters were roughed up.

While the Arts Council did take notice and Ansari was disqualified from contesting the election for the committee of arts and culture, he still garners attention as an intellectual figure.

So much so, that in response to this feminist resistance, Ansari appeared on television to make a showy display of his privilege, stating that:

“He can’t be stopped from attending events at Arts Council,” and he “sits there in the evenings and attends all the events” and that he “even presides over many events, including mushairas and book launches.”

It was not until Ansari said that he does not truly understand why “a case of sexual harassment pertaining to Karachi University” has anything “to do with the Arts Council,” that I began to realise that for the man in question, the personal and the political were two separate categories of existence, that his body’s violation of another body did not qualify him any less to speak on intellectual matters from the mind.

Simply put, Ansari seemed to indicate, the mind and body are meant to be compartmentalised.

Once I had realised the logical fallacy of Ansari’s reasoning, I immediately found myself clutching my copy of Attiya Dawood’s Sindh ki aurat sapney sai such tak (Woman of Sindh: From Illusion to Truth).

Published by Scheherazade some 15 years ago, this excellent book of feminist essays debunks an intellectual’s separation of the mind and the body, the personal and the political.

As intellectuals, we must recognise that this separation exists, understand its ramifications, and start imagining ways of community building that do not give in to this separation and do not build upon violence against women and the erasure of their voices.

In the end, we must ask ourselves: how do we talk about the arts and culture without reproducing the very inequalities that we seek to highlight and critique?

All scans of Dawood's book are provided by Dawood herself.
All scans of Dawood's book are provided by Dawood herself.

Dawood's book is the fruit of years of research, based on in-depth research interviews conducted with many women poets, and uses their bodily experiences to storyboard violence experienced in supposedly intellectual spaces.

The importance of bodily experience, as opposed to a mind isolated from the body, as means of defining honest intellectual existence is central to the book’s philosophy.

This philosophy is communicated not through the arguments and anecdotes alone, but also through the ways in which individual chapters are titled, attributing Dawood’s index with a bodily quality:

Culture ki chakki main pisti hui aurat (The Woman Crushed in the Mill of Culture), Sindhi shayera ka safar (The Journey of the Sindhi Poetess), Sindhi shayerat ke saath mard shayeron ka ravayiya (How Men Poets Treat Women Poets from Sindh), and Be-zaban (Tongue-tied).

This investment in the body is reflected in Dawood's own presence on weekends that I spend in her apartment.

Our first meeting was quite an education about the importance of feminism as a visceral philosophy, i.e. a philosophy of the body.

I showed up with a book of Bhittai’s poems tucked under my arm. Of course, this signified sheer pretense:

Dawood is after all the doyenne of Sindhi literature and I wanted to impress her by suggesting how ‘intellectual’ I was.

When she saw the book, she laughed and recounted an anecdote that I now realise was her subtle way of educating me about honest intellectual behaviour, a behaviour that is embodied rather than simply thought.

“I was in Sindh,” she said, “to interview some women. Their husbands had migrated in search for work, and their situation reminded me of a poem by Bhittai, where Sindhi women come together on the banks of the river Sindhu and sing songs of yearning, praying to the ocean for the return of their husbands.

“At this point, the Sindhi women broke into laughter and said: ‘Are you silly? Our husbands used to beat us. We’re quite glad they’ve left us in peace. Acha hua jaan chooti. (Thank God they've left!)’”

For Dawood, the importance of arts and culture is no grand philosophy. It is simply a mode of being. Of living, talking, writing, breathing.

This experiential aspect of her feminism is key to understanding how we can build more inclusive avenues of talking about the arts and culture.

Grounding herself in bodily experiences rather than abstractions allows her to challenge hegemony in intellectual spaces, by exposing the utter lack of connection between spectacles of intellectual success and the human life that they claim to represent.

In retrospect, Dawood has been attempting to reconcile this separation, by breathing life back into our intellectual pursuits. This is her practice of that age-old feminist analytic, that the personal is the political, that we must practise what we preach, that any separation between the mind and the body is problematic.

The early chapters of the book are dedicated to exploring this problematic separation, and Dawood’s method is to delineate it within the private lives of the many intellectual icons.

In Sindhi shayerat ke saath mard shayeron ka ravayiya, Dawood lays out her thesis:

“If one makes an inquiry into the private lives of many living poets, one will realise how violent the gender politics in intellectual spaces really are: that on the altar of Poetry, it is women’s bodies that become sacrificial goats, that women’s bodies become subservient to men’s ideas.”

To illustrate her point, she gives examples of the historical silencing of women by men identifying themselves as intellectuals.

Her first example is Sara Shagufta, to whom Dawood dedicates a full chapter titled Sara meri dost (Sara, My Friend).

Owing somewhat to the patriarchal nature of intellectual spaces and her own poet husband who forbade her to write, Shagufta fell into clinical depression, and after her divorce proceedings, ultimately committed suicide at the age of 29.

In a letter to the Indian poetess Amrita Pritam, Shagufta, describing her situation, wrote:

“A woman cannot offer philosophical ramblings to her husband as dinner, you see. He demands real food. So he does philosophy, and we cook in the kitchen in order for him to do it.”

“Poets and intellectuals often host poetry recitals in their homes,” Dawood tells us, building upon Shagufta’s confinement into the private sphere. “During these recitals, they speak of women’s rights, hailing each other as progressive men.

“The wife of the poet yearns to join the conversation, but is only permitted into the drawing room insofar as to serve the tray of chai to the guests, before returning to the kitchen.

“The voices clamouring for women’s rights in the drawing room do not even reach the woman’s ears as she busies herself in the kitchen to prepare the next round of chai.”

There are other writers that Dawood dedicates full chapters to in her book. In Wapis aja pagli, dunya bohat achi hay (Return Child, It’s a Wonderful World), for example, an elegy written in the memory of the writer Khairunnisa Jaffri, Dawood mourns her tragedy:

“In many ways, Khairunnisa reminded me of Sara Shagufta. The same, wounded eyes that have understood the hypocrisies of men claiming to represent our rights.

“Once, when a friend asked her whether she would like to accompany us with a circle of intellectuals to Bhitshah for a night of Bhittai’s raags, she responded in a matter-of-fact way: ‘hypocrites, all of them.’

“I remember those early days when we would take our poems to poetry circles to receive feedback from fellow writers. Little did we see that their eyes were scarcely paying any attention to our poetry, but had stealthily dropped below our necks to scan our chests, or the contours of Khairunnisa’s lips.”

In the remaining essay, Dawood recounts how Jaffri, like Shagufta, was harassed repeatedly by the cultural elite of Hyderabad, fell into clinical depression in her 30s, and died a premature death.

If Jaffri and Shagufta’s stories are not sufficient proof, Dawood offers us with two more historical cases to prove the presence of power in intellectual spaces:

In Sindh ki shaera ka safar, she lays these cases before us:

“Take, for example, the case of the feminist writer Surraya Soz Diplai. Her birth name was Naseem, and when she started publishing stories under this name, which naturally some gentlemen thought could only belong to a ‘petite’ girl, she once received a bouquet of unsolicited love letters.

“She changed her name, and fearing more harassment, eventually stopped writing. No one knows her by her name now.

“Then, of course, there was G.N. Manghani, and Ms. Z.E. Shaikh, and who could forget Sultana Vaqaasi. She used to write originally as Akram Sultana, and changed her name in ‘73 or ’74 after a controversy in which she was accused of frequenting mushairas to ‘hunt men’ for herself, and shamed. Now the world has forgotten her and her work.”

At the end of this chapter, under a sub-heading titled, Sindh se bari shayera aaj tak paida kiun nahi hui (Why Women Poets from Sindh Never Made It Big), Dawood cites her final examples, which are based on her personal conversations with the wives of two of Sindh’s foremost progressive writers, Shaikh Ayaz himself, and Shamsheer-ul-Haidery.

While assessing the intellectual iconicism of giants such as Ayaz and Haidery might sound blasphemous to many, Dawood’s writing comes off as so raw, unassuming, and perhaps even vulnerable, that one cannot help but sympathise with her case.

Dawood shows us, both through her visceral persona and her writing, that disagreeing with an intellectual giant who troubles our body is no polemic thing to do, that it is merely an expression of our humanness, echoing Hannah Arendt’s dictum that “there are no polemic thoughts; thinking itself is polemic.”

“The watch-man of the guest house in the hills of Nagarparkar,” begins Dawood, “was perhaps most privy to the private moments of Ayaz’s life.

“It was here, in this guest house, that the great poet of Sindh would retire to reflect on his thoughts, to compose his poetry.

“Poets like to be solitary perhaps. The watch-man informed me that he would often catch Ayaz going on long walks, picking up leaves of all shapes and colours.

“At night, he would study them under the light of the laaltain inside the guest house and write about them.

“But Ayaz’s wife recounted feelings of abandonment by her husband when I went to visit her. ‘My job was only to pack his bags,’ she said. ‘I was only allowed to ask one question: how many clothes?’

“Recounting a similar experience of confinement within the domestic sphere, it was the battered wife of the famous poet from Sindh, Shamsheer-ul-Haidery, who once warned me: ‘Marry a thief, a dacoit, or a scoundrel if you must, but please Attiya, never marry a poet.’”

It is curious to note that in popular discourse, Shamsheer-ul-Haidery is hailed as “a cultural icon who was revolutionary and progressive” and is commonly referred to as the “son of the Sindhi soil,” while Ayaz is “the resistant poet.”

We might ask ourselves: how could a poet batter a woman’s body in private and yet be hailed as a progressive and revolutionary in public?

How could a resistant poet alienate a body through his own actions?

“It is for this reason alone,” Dawood writes, concluding her argument, “that despite my strong left-leaning tendencies, I never joined a single leftist party in Pakistan.

“For even in far-left leaning writing collectives such as the Adabi Sangat [not to one’s surprise, founded by Haidery] ‘progressive’ men are on the forefront of speaking about women’s rights in public.

“But when she meets him at a literary gathering, the façade of intellectual engagement drops dead. Suddenly, the men find themselves transformed into the heartthrobs of the party, and stalkerish behaviour is justified as ‘the gentlemanly act of complimenting a lady.’

“Is the political structure of patriarchy not enough oppression for a woman that she has to take on additional setbacks by men, who, now in the name of arts and culture, are passing off as feminists?”

Dawood is able to show that for the many intellectuals who are canonised as heroes of enlightenment, the mind and the body are compartmentalised as separate categories of experiencing reality.

While, in the public sphere, their minds speak, in elocutionary fervour, their desire to represent humanity; within the private sphere, their bodies contradict everything that their minds claim to represent.

Dawood finds fault in this compartmentalisation, viewing it as basically paradoxical, contradictory, and above all, demeaning to the integrity of the intellectual, who has betrayed their own claim of representation.

Feminism is known as a visceral philosophy, the philosophy of the body, precisely because it seeks to reconcile this separation between the mind and the body, the private and the public, the personal and the political.

This is what feminist theorist bell hooks articulates in her acclaimed book Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom:

“One of the central tenets of feminist critical pedagogy,” writes hooks, “has been the insistence on not engaging the mind/body split… This is one of the underlying beliefs that has made Women's Studies a subversive location in the academy… existing structures seem to uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalisation.

“This support reinforces the dualistic separation of public and private, encouraging people to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and intellectual thought.”

What this means is that whether poets are, for example, sexual predators, or people engaging in domestic violence, under an intellectual hegemony, “the only important thing is that we should all respect that they’re there to be a mind and not a body.”

This, then, explains the logical fallacy behind Sahar Ansari’s own statements owing to recent feminist resistance against him, that he does not see why “a case of sexual harassment pertaining to Karachi University” has anything “to do with [his intellectual pursuits] at the Arts Council.”

But Dawood’s book debunked this 15 years ago. She has shown us that intellectuals are more than a mind: they are also bodies, bodies hurting other bodies, bodies causing human suffering.

When we begin to see intellectual authorities not merely as minds, but also as bodies hurting other bodies, we begin to investigate the function of intellectual hegemony.

We begin to see that hegemony functions in a twofold manner: first, by convincing us that men are the self-appointed representatives of humanity; and second, that their mind is superior to the knowledge women’s bodies witness.

Sindh ki aurat sapney sai such tak questions intellectual hegemony by resurrecting the domestic histories of those women writers who have been historically buried under the weight of their intellectual male counterparts.

In Unveiling the Issues: Pakistani Women's Perspectives on Social, Political and Ideological Issues edited by Nighat Said Khan and Afiya Sheherbano Zia, Dawood has mapped this systemic intellectual erasure in a chapter titled Feminist Voices of Sindh.

In this chapter, names that we, as students of South Asian literature have never come across, float before our eyes:

Markhan Shaikhan, Jadal Jatni, Shah Shujah, Mai Niamat, Mai Ghulam Fatima Lal, Nemanu Fakir, Bhagwan Dasi, Rama Bai, Kamla Kaiswani, Sultana Waqasi, Shamshad Mirza, Sosan Mirza, Shabnam Moti, and Miran.

So many names that we wonder and ask: who, indeed, were these women? Why did we never hear of them? Did someone else speak for them while they were locked within the private sphere, their voices obliterated?

I have learnt most about the functions of intellectual hegemony from Attiya Dawood. Questioning these functions and reimagining the ways in which gender, sexual, racial, and class minorities reclaim their right to talk about their lives has shown me how to be a better feminist, and indeed, a better thinking individual.

As intellectuals, we are here to critique institutions of power that dehumanise human life.

I do not think we can achieve radical good by simultaneously existing within such institutions and laying our claim to representing human life.

This simultaneity is the crux of why we, in many ways, fail to create inclusive community spaces.

It was the revolutionary feminist poet Audre Lorde who paved the way in feminist thought for the crucial need to address, and resolve, this simultaneity:

“When we view living only as a problem to be solved,” she said, “we then rely solely upon our ideas to make us free… But as we become more in touch with our view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.”

If we are to become better intellectuals, we will have to tap into these hidden sources of knowledge, and work towards lasting action. If we are to become better intellectuals, we will have to sabotage our own desires to benefit from institutions of power.

This is a feminist act: an act of renouncing your privilege. It is only through this renouncement that we can begin to imagine inclusive and sustainable community spaces.

Header image designed by Marium Ali.

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