Who is the sister of Cain and Abel
Different between the middle of her thighs
And in the swell of her breasts…
… Look carefully at this impression
Above the long thighs
Above the protruding breasts
Above the raveled womb
Aqleema has a head too
Sometimes Allah too should speak with Aqleema
And ask something!
This poem, taken from Fahmida Riaz’s 1973 anthology, Badan Darida (The body torn) captures the essence of her poetic method — a visceral, vivid embodiment of the gendered subject, juxtaposed with a sharp critique of the nexus between religious patriarchy and authoritarianism in South Asia.
Riaz takes us back to Aqleema, the sister of Abel and Cain. This journey into the origins to recover Aqleema’s voice, her note of dissent, is also a journey into rewriting the past for the present.
Riaz’s reinterpretation of Abrahamic tradition also brings to mind another originary myth built on the silencing and brutalising of women — the birth of the postcolonial nation through a bloody partition.
This marking of the female body as a site where regional, national and communal patriarchies played out their battles was also critiqued by Amrita Pritam, Fahmida Riaz’s friend who helped her secure asylum in India after the Zia regime threatened her with charges of sedition.
Amrita Pritam’s Today I call on Waris Shah uses a technique similar to Riaz’s — a reinterpretation of literary-cultural tradition to fashion a feminist indictment of postcolonial patriarchy.
Where Riaz instrumentalises the Abrahamic tale of Abel and Cain to reconstitute it as a vehicle for feminist critique, Pritam reworks the qissa of Heer-Ranjha by appropriating the voice of Waris Shah.
Riaz received the President’s Pride of Performance award and was also recently honoured by the Pakistan Academy of Letters. As condolences poured in for the deceased poet and political activist from all quarters, I am reminded of her words in Condolence resolutions:
Do not let the authorities own my corpse.
Today, as we are left bereft of her skillful working of the sharp insights of materialist feminism into the subtle plays of Urdu verse, we must pause and reflect on her contribution to the intellectual debates that preoccupied progressive thinkers in the early decades following decolonisation and that remain relevant today.
How does the work of Fahmida Riaz — and of her contemporaries like Amrita Pritam, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and Kishwar Naheed — inform our search for an alternative aesthetic devoted to emancipatory ideals?
Read next: In conversation with Fahmida Riaz
The birth of a new nation, albeit with a “stained dawn” as Faiz declared, invigorated public debate around the question of cultural construction and identity.
As Kamran Asdar Ali writes in Surkh Salam, key progressive intellectuals such as Sajjad Zaheer and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi brought their Marxist-inspired analysis to bear on the pressing questions of nation formation in nascent Pakistan.
Simultaneously, workers’ movements and student organisations began to regroup following the tumultuous ruptures caused by Partition. This was the context in which a young Fahmida Riaz came into her intellectual and political own.
Born in Meerut in 1945, she grew up in Hyderabad, Sindh, where her father had been posted. Riaz began writing poetry at a very tender age, and honed her craft through her experiences of student activism in the 1960s.
Riaz was part of a powerful student movement resisting Ayub Khan’s ban on student unions, and published her first book of poetry in 1967, titled Patthar ki zuban. Six years would pass before Fahmida Riaz published her explosive poems in Badan Darida.
Returning from England after her first marriage ended in divorce, she met a Sindhi Marxist, her second husband with whom she started running a magazine called Avaaz.
Eventually, the magazine’s brave critique of military authoritarianism under Zia would force Riaz into exile across the border in India.
Fahmida Riaz’s intellectual trajectory was informed by the critical, anti-colonial legacy of the Progressive Writers Movement.
Founded in the late 1920s, it bloomed into a loosely-knit cultural movement that addressed the intertwined histories of class, caste, gender, colonialism and citizenship in South Asia with a commitment to radical transformation.
The progressive emphasis on cultural construction finds deep resonance in Fahmida Riaz’s book, Pakistan: literature and society.
Published in 1986, the book was written during her exile in India, where she was affiliated with the Jamia Millia University in New Delhi.
Although lesser known than Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s reflections on national culture, Riaz’s essays on Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi and Pashto literatures of resistance envision a national character premised on linguistic plurality.
As Amina Yaquin points out, unlike Faiz who remained trapped within a ‘myth of nationalism,’ Riaz offered us a dynamic collective identity, in which Urdu too, must bend to the mould of its newfound homeland.
At the core of her argument is a critique of what Riaz terms “linguistic chauvinism” and a corrective to the entrenched position of “a Pakistani literature that exists in the perception of the people of North India, written only in Urdu, which again, in their imagination, was the language of the Indian Muslims.”
Counter to the state’s inscription of Pakistani identity through a conflation of Islam and Urdu, Riaz’s analysis takes us to the regional margins and plies through vernacular literature to unearth local modes of resistance.
Her own use of language in her poetry also deliberately subverted the cultural agenda of the Pakistani state, while also avoiding the elitist Ashraf trap of reifying its place in a nostalgic, Mughal past.
For Riaz, “Urdu was the language of Kabir and Tulsi, the language of the peasants of UP, CP and Bihar.”
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This tension between her affective attachment to Urdu’s earthy roots in the land of her birth and its new-fangled status in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is written into the form of her verse.
Fahmida Riaz’s poetic language is playful and eclectic. Sindhi, Hindi, Arabic, Persian and Braj idiom mingle freely with the polished conventions of Urdu verse, de-centring its containment within any border, communal or national.
As the Indo-Pak divide continues to harden and communal lines are drawn sharper, Fahmida Riaz’s demise also comes to mark the increasing erasure of shared subcontinental pasts.
Her poems such as the celebrated Tum bilkul ham jesay niklay and Aman ki asha expand beyond the confines of the national imaginary, uniting the deadliest and most intimate of enemies through a verse of social and political critique.
While Tum bilkul ham jesay niklay indicts the rise of religious fascism on both sides of the border, Aman ki asha boldly calls out the vested interests of the military in perpetuating hostility.
Her politics, and her poems, subvert the border by embedding themselves in a collective historical memory that is rapidly being forgotten 70 years after Partition.
In the latter half of her literary career, Fahmida Riaz focused her energies on prose. Her engagement with literary pasts and cultural history led her to pen a historical account of the life of Mazdak, whom she described as a pre-Islamic revolutionary in Iran espousing principles of egalitarianism and social equality.
This book, titled Qila e Faramoshi, was published in 2017 and is her last work of prose. The drive behind Qila e Faramoshi emanated from her translations of Rumi, and found resonance with her forays into regional literature.
Read next: Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu?
She also translated the works of Sindhi poets, Bhitai and Sheikh Ayaz, indicating her interest in a cultural project that unearthed marginalised subjectivities in Islamic and regional pasts.
This sensitivity to the productive potential of the peripheries stemmed from her own subjectivity — as a political activist, a progressive poet and most importantly, a woman. The exploration of a gendered body, through a poetic idiom that pushed the conventions of literary Urdu remains her most impressive feat:
Yes, on this impure woman’s lips
There is no prayer
Her head is without prostration.
She is a woman impure, much like Aqleema, discusses the physicality of the female body in vivid detail. While the verses of Aqleema flow through the dulations of the first woman’s breasts and “the swell of her thighs,” this poem describes menstruation.
In Aqleema and She is a woman impure, poetic tradition is ruptured by introducing the female body in all its messy materiality — a body shamed and invisibilised for too long — a body torn.
This embodiment in verse goes hand in hand with a critique of scriptural patriarchy, wherein lie the ideological roots of gendered violence.
Although images of captivity populate these poems, the lack of prayer on the woman’s lips is a double entendre — does she refuse to pray because she is impure, or because she is a heretic?
Badan Darida courted enormous controversy when it was published. Conventional literary critics decried its exploration of female sexuality and bodily experience as “pornographic.”
Regardless of where they stood along the ideological spectrum, men — including progressives and Marxists — could only muster a thinly veiled contempt for her bold insertion of a feminist subjectivity at the centre of progressive writing:
O beneficiaries residing on the ruling
throne of revolution…
what intelligence will you bestow upon me!
… that which you could not learn by reciting scriptures all your life
That a woman has felt in her stricken body.
The scriptures mentioned in The ruling throne simultaneously evoke the Quran and the seminal texts of “revolutionary Marxism.”
A self-identified Marxist herself, Riaz’s work put pressure on radical discourse in the subcontinent, compelling her peers to refine the crude resolutions to ‘the woman question’ many male intellectuals were inclined to present.
Priyamvada Gopal writes in her book on the Progressive Writers’ Movement how gender had a “constitutive” rather than simply a “thematic” place in the writings of Ismat Chughtai, Rashid Jehan and Saadat Hasan Manto.
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Their work, much like Riaz’s, pushed the boundaries of progressive discourse while remaining devoted to its larger project of emancipatory imagination and societal critique.
This blend of “irony and commitment” as described by Terry Eagleton, is what animated the poetic work of Fahmida Riaz, even as she held up the mirror to the sexism in Leftist circles, to those who sat on the “throne of revolution.”
A frustrated Kishwar Naheed echoed this sentiment in her autobiography, describing how male intellectuals were ‘more interested in a female poet’s bare arms than her writing.’
This goes back to the founding of the Progressive Writers’ Association itself, a history that can largely be described as a male dominated institution gradually infiltrated by women such as Rashid Jehan, Hajrah Begum and Indian People's Theatre Association founder, Anil de Silva.
Fahmida Riaz’s ouvre joins that of these socialist-feminist pioneers, pushing a critique of the patriarchy within literary circles, and compounding their analysis of class with the concerns of gender and sexuality.
The uses of language snobbery: Urdu and identity politics
In 1989, following the lifting of General Zia’s martial law, Fahmida Riaz would return to Pakistan from exile. She continued her work, her writing, and her activism.
Between 2009 and 2012, she served as the chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board, one of the many public-sector jobs she would undertake pertaining to languages and the arts. She remained a staunch voice for oppressed groups within Pakistan, especially the Baloch. She wrote her last book of poetry, Tum Kabir, dedicated to her son who died an untimely death, leaving her all too soon.
Today, as she leaves us orphaned, smaller, weaker and more embattled as the forces of reaction and repression close in on the remaining vestiges of progressive culture in Pakistan, I think of her Lullaby:
This land, this sky
All the grandeur of peace
All the markets full of grain
Until that does not belong to us
We cannot exist in harmony
No one to lean on
There is no other option
Do not fear the wolf
Dear heart! Fight with conviction
Do not even despair.
We must fight the wolf, without despair, as Fahmida Riaz did, and remember her as she lived — an unapologetic woman, an unflinching social critic and a dedicated political activist. In her own words:
This corpse belongs to a being
Who said whatever she wanted
Was never repentant, lifelong.
Translations by Amina Yaquin and Raza Naeem
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