Mujhe Feminist Na Kaho!
By Dr Tahira Kazmi
Saanjh, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9695933619
272pp.

She has raised her voice against injustices to women, yet in the title of her book — Mujhe Feminist Na Kaho! — she literally declares ‘don’t call me a feminist!’ because she does not like labels.

Dr Tahira Kazmi is a prolific writer of articles that have appeared in various online news outlets and magazines. It will therefore not be an overstatement to say that, in the past few years, she has emerged as one of the most prominent writers in Urdu who are waging a relentless struggle against gender discrimination.

A passionate crusader for women’s rights, she has long been targeting the patriarchy in all its forms. Her first collection of writings, Kanwal Phool Aur Titliyon Ke Pankh [Lotus Flowers and Butterflies’ Wings] was published in 2020, and within a short time she managed to accrue the impressive body of writing under review here. Both books have multiple common streaks, as she does not isolate women’s issues from history and politics.

An important aspect of her writings is that Dr Kazmi realises that women in Pakistan are living under pressure that comes not only from men, but also from the internalised misogyny and ingrained patriarchal attitudes from other, usually older, women. These pressures put younger women at the mercy of the four walls within which they are forced to confine themselves.

This physical confinement has many repercussions and a frequent manifestation is the leaving of otherwise intelligent women mentally barren. But how can one talk about women’s aspirations and ideas when even their bodies are not their own?

Dr Kazmi discusses the problems faced when women step outside their homes. They are targeted in the streets, in public places, work places, campuses of educational institutes and in moving vehicles. Yet even when they return home, there is no absolute guarantee that they are, indeed, safe.

Mujhe Feminist Na Kaho! narrates the stories of women who have endured unimaginable sexual violence and unspeakable torture of different kinds. As a practising medical professional, Dr Kazmi has been eyewitness to an array of awful crimes committed against women of all ages. She has observed inhumanity at its worst and, with her pen, she gives a voice to all the voiceless victims she has treated.

In beautiful prose, Dr Kazmi lays bare an organic landscape of women’s bodies and souls. She writes with a reason: the demand of equal rights for women in society, irrespective of race and religion.

Her clarity of thought is evident from her analysis of the issues. She strongly advocates for the granting of economic rights to girls and women, without which they will continue to remain dependent on men. She stands firm on body autonomy and is conscious of the fact that the pleasure of touch is meant to be just that, and not a painful, imposed experience. She also discusses issues that the transgender community faces in societies such as Pakistan’s.

For her bold writing, Dr Kazmi herself has had to endure verbal attacks, mostly by men who accuse her of being a ‘liberal’ and a ‘feminist’ — as though these were derogatory traits for a woman. She has been called a ‘senseless’ and ‘prejudiced’ woman who is full of ‘toxicity’ against men.

But although these efforts to malign her simply strengthened her resolve to continue writing and exposing the hypocrisy prevalent around us, it cannot be denied that they have had an effect and, at times, readers can feel in her tone the bitterness that inevitably seeps in when living in circumstances such as Pakistan’s.

The book contains over 50 articles and blogs that Dr Kazmi has penned over the past couple of years and some of the most interesting articles are about writers such as Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsiya, Mumtaz Mufti and others of the same ilk. Dr Kazmi exposes the hidden misogyny of their writings and presents excerpts showing how they subliminally propagated a subservient role model for girls.

Perhaps the best feature of Dr Kazmi’s writings is that she avoids emotional commentary and tries to be as objective as possible in her observations. She is well travelled and her exposure to diverse cultures has enabled her to make comparisons and draw conclusions that rise beyond the superficial. She encourages readers to think beyond traditions and explore realms of the new realities emerging elsewhere in the world.

From Alaska in the United States, to Kot Diji in Sindh, she has interacted with the womenfolk and learned from them. This learning shows through in her writings and will be especially enlightening for girls and women who can read Urdu — Dr Kazmi could have well written her book in English, but that would have deprived Urdu readership of her insights.

One does wonder, though, how she manages to find the time to write. It reminds one of Dr Sher Shah Syed who is also a fairly busy medical doctor, but has given us at least half a dozen books of considerable literary merit. But while Dr Syed mostly writes short stories, Dr Kazmi is incisive and innovative in the non-fiction genre. She comes across as someone who must be an excellent teacher in guiding her students and patients alike.

Some of her narrations are heart-wrenching and, at times, readers will find it difficult to hold back tears. Her book is full of incidents that we hear and read about every day, but on which we rarely pause to reflect. Dr Kazmi goads us to think about them and do something to stop such gross violations of women’s bodies and minds.

It also bears mentioning that, while most of the pieces are based on true stories of women belonging to the lower socioeconomic strata, Dr Kazmi is not oblivious of the travails of more affluent women either, who may look happy but have deep scars on their souls. Read the book and feel the pain.

The reviewer is a columnist and educator based in Islamabad. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 3rd, 2022

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