“Something that distinguishes Kishwar is her ability to offer an immediate creative response to every noteworthy political event in the country, or [to] the disturbing social trends that emerge from time to time. That makes her the matriarch of resistance writing — through her poetry and prose — who has a deep commitment to the marginalised and downtrodden women.”
Iftikhar Arif thus summed up Kishwar Naheed’s continued and incomparable contribution to the world of letters, and for the uplift of women, at an event organised at the National Press Club, Islamabad, to celebrate her life and works. The programme was initially planned for last year to mark her 80th birthday, but the pandemic pushed it forward.
Naheed, now 81 and facing ups and downs in her physical health, successfully ignores any constraints that her age may bring, and remains one of our most prolific Urdu poets and newspaper columnists. She also regularly writes non-fiction.
With numerous poetry and prose collections behind her, she is currently working on the sequel to her autobiography, Buri Aurat Ki Katha [The Bad Woman’s Story], under the title Buri Aurat Ki Doosri Katha [The Bad Woman’s Second Story]. However, her primary identity remains that of a poet. It is her poem, ‘Hum Gunahgaar Aurtein’ [We Sinful Women], that became the anthem of the women’s movement across South Asia.
Over the last 300 years — from poet, courtesan, and state policy adviser Mahlaqa Bai Chanda to current times — Urdu has seen many significant women poets with varying sensibilities, themes, styles and personae. Defying all odds and remaining indifferent to how they were or weren’t canonised by the literary establishments of their times, these women continued to push boundaries and gained more and more space for their expression in an inherently patriarchal world. Their efforts must not be undermined while comparing them with enlightenment on women’s issues and feminist poetry that emerged much later.
Naheed and Riaz altered the literary landscape for women writers who came after them
With the advent of the 20th century, women had started contributing to literary journals. Soon after, the arrival of radio in the Subcontinent created some opportunity for them to participate in literary events or mushairas held in the studios. Around the middle of the last century, poets such as Ada Jafri and Zehra Nigah were participating in mushairas that were held in public. A few years later, poets Kishwar Naheed, Parveen Fana Syed and Shabnam Shakeel appeared on the scene. Each one of them made a mark. There were some others as well.
What was different about Naheed was her uncompromising attitude when it came to expressing her feelings and ideas. She wanted an equal world between women and men, and between the haves and the have-nots. On the literary horizon, Naheed was soon to be followed by Fahmida Riaz — a few years younger to her — who stands out like none among her contemporaries and those before her.
Naheed and Riaz altered the literary landscape for women writers who came after them, those writing in Urdu as well as other Pakistani languages. They expanded the possibilities of not only writing on any emotion or subject they chose, but also liberally experimented with form and style.
In her early years of writing, Naheed was lucky to have found mentors such as Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum and Mukhtar Siddiqui. They were generous in appreciation and scathing in criticism for the younger poets and writers. She developed a keen sense of simile and metaphor. Her earlier work pushes thematic boundaries but, in terms of form, she maintains her touch with tradition.
Later on, she moved more towards writing free verse and prose poetry, with definite political and social content and a certain directness. The reason for this directness was an anxiety she developed about, and compounded by a sense of urgency to stop, Pakistani society being radicalised and brutalised at a fast pace, with women and children bearing the brunt of it.
Intermittently, she composed ghazals that remind us of her flair for the genre. On a purely aesthetic basis, I find some of her ghazals having more appeal for a reader such as me. Since her major corpus over the past few years has been prose poems, I feel her ghazals find less mention in literary critiques than they deserve.
Born in the Indian city of Bulandshahr, Naheed moved to Lahore after Partition. With an iron will, she broke all the glass ceilings she found that would constrain her from rising to new heights at every stage and in every situation of her personal life and professional career. She led a difficult personal life, but did not let the hardships make her angry. But the struggle at the personal, emotional and social levels did cultivate in her a sense of separation and loss, which sometimes gets reflected in her personality and work.
Some years ago, when I interviewed her for the monthly Herald, she recalled something that had left a lasting impression on her heart and mind. Some girls had been kidnapped during the Partition riots. Either they succeeded in running away from their captors, or were rescued. Naheed’s family knew them and she accompanied her mother and sisters to go see them.
All the girls were lying down on the floor, or reclining against the walls, in a large room. Their feet were soaked in blood. Naheed says that is when, from a child, she became a woman. She said she didn’t remember those girls’ faces, but vividly remembered their blood-soaked feet.
Naheed worked all her life to prevent any more feet — of women, men or children — from being soaked in blood. Working with the Pakistan National Centre and heading the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, she went out of her way to support artists, musicians and writers. After retiring from service, she established a cooperative NGO to support working-class artisan women.
She writes, argues, fights and keeps the torch of resistance burning, while her own feet remain soaked in blood.
The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 27th, 2021