Eminent poet and feminist Fahmida Riaz was gentle and warm in demeanour and elegantly understated in appearance, but any time spent with her showed the steel she was made of and the fire in which she was forged. Her deep-set eyes, underscored by dark shadows, reflected the unspeakable horrors she witnessed, committed by military despots, Muslim fundamentalists, Hindu nationalists and, always, the men who ruled like tyrants over the bodies and souls of Pakistani women.
Riaz died in November 2018 aged 72, leaving behind an oeuvre of work comprising poetry, prose, novels in English and Urdu and translations of Rumi. Her poetry brutally, honestly examined Pakistani politics, culture and religion, and their effects on her and on other Pakistani women. Her involvement in progressive politics and feminist resistance saw her labelled a traitor by the Pakistani state in the 1980s. In truth, she was utterly loyal, seeing Pakistan both in its difficult reality and in the optimistic light of what it could be.
The first time I met her, she drew me to her with a warm smile of recognition. “I knew your father at university,” she said. “We were in a political science class together.” It took me a while to realise this was the famous Fahmida Riaz, who had stood up to a dictator and broken taboos about what could and couldn’t be said about women’s lives. Soon she became familiar to me — at a book launch, a literature festival, a panel on efforts to save Karachi’s crumbling colonial-era buildings. She was everywhere that books, culture, politics were discussed; all spaces where leftists, Progressives, students and feminists could gather were precious in her eyes.
Riaz’s life was inextricably tied to the young country of Pakistan; born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh in 1946, she spent her early years in Hyderabad, Pakistan, learning Urdu, Sindhi and Persian. She studied at the University of Sindh and became a newscaster for Radio Pakistan before moving to London in 1967 with her first husband. That arranged marriage ended in divorce some years later and Riaz returned to Pakistan with her daughter, experience at the BBC and a degree in film technique.
Riaz made a name for herself in the late 1960s with her second collection of poetry. Badan Dareeda [Wounded Bodies] attracted huge controversy for its frank and powerful depictions of female sexuality and desire. Her exploration of women’s experiences grounded in their bodies earned her comparisons to Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood. Depicting the huge physical and emotional transformations the young woman was undergoing in her own life, from college student to wife and mother, the book was classed as vulgarity or pornography by chauvinist male poets and Urdu critics because it dared to address this taboo subject, in language as honest as it was beautiful.
Still, the ’60s and ’70s were a relatively relaxed time — socially conservative, but encouraging of women seeking education and presence in public life. Fatima Jinnah and Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan were prominent women who embodied the values of those times: serving the nation, forward-thinking but respectful of tradition, they were considered excellent role models for young women.
During Gen Ziaul Haq’s harsh Islamist dictatorship (1977-88), the state and mullahs sought to force women out of public space and into the seclusion of ‘chadar and chaar deewari’ — the infamous phrase invented by Zia and complicit theologians that became the title of Riaz’s major poetry collection translated into English: Four Walls and the Black Veil. Riaz’s willingness to write openly about women’s lives, sexuality, oppressions and experiences made her revered among feminists in a Pakistan that was rapidly regressing on women’s rights.
Riaz founded Awaz, a Progressive Urdu newspaper, and wrote against the regime and the 1979 hanging of Gen Zia’s predecessor, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The military regime put her under surveillance, filed 10 cases against her and her second husband, who was thrown in jail. A charge of sedition, which carried the death penalty, was levelled against her. Rather than recanting her stance, she fled to India with her children and spent seven years in exile there as poet-in-residence at the Jamia Millia Islamia.
On her return to Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto’s government appointed her to various government posts, but the stigma of having lived in India clung to her: she was accused of being an Indian spy (and similarly called a Pakistani spy when in India). Of her personal struggle, she simply wrote:
“I am a poet, committed to my people.” The sheer brilliance of her poetry and its message of love for her nation eventually made people see through the government propaganda against her.
Comparatively lucky to have escaped grievous physical harm, the psychological violence done to her by the state is indisputable; it manifests in the poetry she wrote about courts, interrogations and search warrants. That violence is in the process of returning, both in Pakistan and India; in the years before her death, Riaz used her poet’s voice to call it out, although both countries seem determined to do all in their power to try and convince their citizens of the futility of resistance.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party were elected to power for the first time in 1996, she wrote a poem comparing Indian to Pakistani communalism that many regard as visionary: ‘Tum Bilkul Hum Jaisay Niklay’ [You Turned Out to Be Just Like Us].
“So it turned out you were just like us!/ Where were you hiding all this time, buddy?/ That stupidity, that ignorance/ We wallowed in for a century/ Look, it arrived at your shores too!”
In 2007, Riaz’s son Kabeer drowned at the age of 27 in California. It was the only time she called herself a traitor — ghaddaar — believing that she should have been the one who died, not him. Yet rising religious fundamentalism — Islamists in Pakistan, Hindu nationalists in India — roused Riaz out of her personal hell and inspired her to warn people against going down that destructive path once again.
The voice of one poet is unlikely to stem the ugly tide of religious intolerance, gender-based violence and shrinking space for dissent that characterises both Pakistan and India in 2018. As a woman willing to speak up and use her voice to warn not one misguided nation but two, Riaz’s name will always remain ubiquitous with the fight for progressivism, tolerance and women’s rights. The genius of Riaz was to understand and express, with fluency and power, that being a woman who resists is a political act, as well as an act of courage, art and beauty.
The columnist is a Karachi-based author of seven books
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 27th, 2019