‘Since Heer, women in Punjab have never been voiceless’

February 25, 2018


Dr Ebad Nabeel Shaad, Dr Nabeela Rehman and Saeed Ahmed. — White Star
Dr Ebad Nabeel Shaad, Dr Nabeela Rehman and Saeed Ahmed. — White Star

It was a pleasant surprise to hear the touching music of folk singers on Heer as well as a passionate talk on ‘Heer Waris Shah te Ajoka Wasaib (Heer Waris as today’s society)’ at a session of the Lahore Literary Festival on Saturday. The session was moderated by Saeed Ahmed with panelists Dr Nabila Rehman and Dr Ebad Nabeel Shaad.

Saeed opened the session with a brief introduction to the tragic romance of Punjab, its characters and plot. The treatment of the love story in this epic poem by Sufi poet Waris Shah was the topic of discussion.

Dr Nabila said Waris Shah wrote about a vocal feminist in his poem where he fielded Heer against social rituals, mullahs, courts and family feuds, the factors suppressing the voice of women. She said the poem was written in 1766 and in those times the women in Punjab had all the liberties, equalities and rights, which the modern societies are fighting for.

In Waris Shah, women had a powerful voice, but the fact is that women in Punjab have never been voiceless. She said the stanzas where the glamour of Heer is described showed the power of women. The real beauty of Heer is discovered when she fights the odds when she speaks to the qazi, the mullah and her family. She exhibits great awareness of women’s rights in religion and society.

“Waris Shah, in the voice of Heer, rejects oppression of women,” she said, adding that it was wrong to say rural Punjab in those times was an anti-women society. She said romance in women was acceptable to some extent, as is today.

Dr Ebad said the male characters of Heer of the 18th century were still around and valid with their anti-women agenda, so “more and more Waris Shah-like people are needed to defeat them”. He said a poet’s acceptability among the public was ascertained by the recitation and usage of their work.

Heer Waris Shah did commercially well as it made several Urdu Bazaar publishers rich while hundreds of people were still around who had learned the epic poem by heart. Also, lines from the poem were used in daily language, which shows its popularity. The poem was a pro-woman document, which had inspired modern day feminists.

Before this session, a group of Sri Lankan women writers sat on the stage to discuss ‘Myths, Realities, Politics, and Imagination: post-conflict Sri Lanka and women’s writing’. The session, moderated by Maithree Wickramasinghe, had Sunela Jayewardene, Bhavani Fonseka and Ameena Hussein on the panel.

They discussed the craft of writing and expression in Sri Lankan literature during and after conflict eras. Bhavani said they felt more at liberty in their expression after 2015 when their government started following democratic norms. Ameena said fiction was a wonderful world to find expressions even in suppressed regimes. The panelists also talked of conflicts surrounding history and races in their country. Ameena said these issues were important in Sri Lanka, whereas outside their country, they were just Sri Lankans. The country is struggling to find a solution to such conflicts for textbooks.

The day started with a session on ‘Trainspotting and other works’ of Scottish novelist and playwright Irvine Welsh. Novelist Nadifa Mohamed moderated the session. Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting, revolves around a group of heroin addicts. Since the drug has strong relevance in Pakistan also, several fans of the writer were present in the hall. Irvine said heroin was right now less a threat and more of a lifestyle and compelling drama for young people.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2018