Fondly called the first lady of Pashto fiction, Zaitoon Bano — a popular voice on radio, a favourite face on television and a widely read word in print — passed away on September 14, after having inspired four generations of Pakhtun literati.

Born on June 18, 1938, in the village of Sufaid Dheri near Peshawar, she received an education at a time when most parents were reluctant to send even boys to school. However, her father, Pir Syed Sultan Mahmood Shah, and grandfather, Pir Syed Abdul Qudoos, were both revolutionary poets and so granted Bano permission to prove her latent talent.

And prove it she did, rising with a strong voice that would continue to resound in the hearts of many, calling for a substantive change in a male-dominated society. Bano was a household name in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and even parts of Afghanistan, for her bold expression and strong feminine voice that highlighted women’s issues. She enjoyed the same respect in Pashto literary circles as was accorded to Bano Qudisa in Urdu fiction.

With her demise, Pashto fiction has lost a strong writer who carried a well-measured resistance, invoking justice, space and respect for women in an environment plagued by stereotypes and unwarranted taboos. Her work highlighted recurrent themes of so-called honour killings and domestic violence, which were subjects that male writers did not tackle with the force and courage that she did.

Zaitoon Bano, whose illustrious literary career had an undeniable impact on Pashto literature and Pakhtun culture, passed away on September 14

She was a student in class nine when she penned her maiden short story under the pseudonym ‘Razia Begum’, proudly disclosing her identity only when a publisher in Peshawar sent her a money order of Rs 250 for her first book, Hindara [Mirror], about a young girl married off to an elderly man without her consent.

She went on to earn a masters degree in Pashto and Urdu from the University of Peshawar, served as a senior producer at the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) Peshawar Radio and also taught at various educational institutions. She married noted Urdu and Hindko writer Taj Saeed and the couple, like Ashfaq Ahmad and Bano Qudsia, enjoyed a good reputation in literary circles.

From 1958 to 2008, she authored more than two dozen books, such as Maat Bangree [Broken Bangles], Juandi Ghamoona [Living Pains], Khoboona [Dreams], Kachkol [Begging Bowl], Zama Diary [My Diary] and Naizurray [Straw]. Her Urdu novels include Sheesham Ka Patta [Leaf of the Rosewood Tree], Barg-i-Arzoo [The Wishing Tree], Bargad Ka Saaya [The Shadow of the Banyan Tree], Dhool [Dust] and Waqt Ki Dehleez Par [On the Threshold of Time].

She also has one volume of Pashto poetry, titled Manjeela [Head Cushion]. Fetching water is considered the responsibility of women in many parts of rural Pakistan; the manjeela is the donut-shaped cushion placed on the head to hold the water pitchers in place while protecting the head.

Three years ago, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Culture published a huge collection of Bano’s Pashto short stories, titled Da Shagu Mazal [A Journey Through Sands]. Spread over 700 pages, the book contains stories she wrote between 1958 and 2017. Besides Pashto and Urdu, she was also well-versed in the Hindko, Punjabi, Persian, Arabic and English languages.

Bano was a popular voice on the radio, hosting the show Da Khwendo Narrai [Women’s World] for decades, and contributed numerous scripts to Pakistan Television (PTV) and Peshawar Radio on a variety of social issues. Interestingly, she also performed on television, portraying a number of the title roles of her own stories, because she felt no one other than herself could do justice to the characters she had created after much deep observation. In an interview with this scribe in 2018, she said, “My characters are blunt, straightforward, telling the naked truth irrespective of society’s so-called taboos and stereotypes, because the idea of hiding facts, or telling half-truths, never crosses their mind.”

Poet and president of the Pashto Academy at the University of Peshawar Professor Abaseen Yousafzai calls her a “whole literary package”, adding that “Bano died, but her characters will not because they are still living around us. Her pen-strokes will always haunt the perpetrators against women’s rights. She was the shadow of perpetual sufferings of women, which she unfolded through her characters in a befitting manner.”

Bano’s portrayal of man’s duality and oppression against women registered such a remarkable impact on audiences that, today, a large number of young women not only participate in literary and cultural activities, but have also become brave enough to conduct well-attended seminars, symposia and reading sessions without men’s help, Yousafzai observes.

Writing on Bano’s art of storytelling, the late director of the Pakistan Academy of Letters Professor Khatir Ghaznavi had noted that “Symbolism has no place in Bano’s stories ... ‘euphuism’ most often robs the true spirit, moreover, it is a by-product of hypocrisy. ‘Zaitoon’ literally means ‘olive’, a medicinal plant, so she has been sent by God to cure the ills of her society.”

Noted Urdu writer and television artist Bushra Farrukh feels Bano crafted wonderful plots that had an instant impact on readers, and her role in creating a space for women in rigid Pakhtun society is significant. “The fragrance of charm is scant in Bano’s writings because she would operate on the ulcer of our society with her sharp pen.”

Professor Salma Shaheen, writer and former director of the Pashto Academy, believes Bano’s master hand cleared the thorny bushes from the path for many women writers and motivated them to expose the injustices being meted out to women under the garb of ‘cultural norms’.

Kalsoom Zeb, author of several books and president of the women writers’ group Khwendy Adabi Lakhar, viewed Bano as a mentor who had opened numerous windows for KP women and encouraged them to fight fearlessly for their genuine rights. “Her most cherished dream was to see KP women literati being engaged in literary, social and political activities, and she did see that her dream, though still blurred, came true.”

Another prolific writer, Hasina Gul Tanha credits Bano’s writings for creating a stir in men’s minds, encouraging them to educate their girls in order to save society from being paralysed, because she looked upon education as a powerful weapon for women’s empowerment.

In recognition for her immense contributions, Bano was awarded about 15 national literary awards, including the coveted President’s Pride of Performance and Tamgha-i-Imtiaz. Her life’s work has left an indelible imprint on the KP literary scene, and continues to influence both women and men writers.

The writer is a Peshawar-based contributor on Pashto literature and culture. He tweets @sheralamshinwa4

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 17th, 2021

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