An Urdu books stall displayed at the 'Karachi Literature Festival' - Photo by Shameen Khan/Dawn.com

KARACHI: In her very short span of life, Zahida Khatoon Sherwani (1894-1922) not only emerged in the literary circles as a distinguished writer and poet but also managed to actively promote women’s rights as a feminist campaigner at a time when women, particularly Muslim women, faced gender discrimination in the subcontinent.

She chose to be known by the initials of her name — Zay Khay Sheen — because the society she lived in did not allow women to become a writer or poet or even raise their voice for rights.

Discovering a lost chapter of the subcontinent’s literary history, known writer and poet Dr Fatima Hasan, who chose Zay Khay Sheen for her doctoral thesis, said in her lecture organised by the Working Women Welfare Trust on Saturday. She said that the young activist rebelled against the system and gender bias at the age of nine when she started a campaign for women’s rights from the platform of the Young Sherwani Association.

Besides playing an active role in the campaign, she continued to create awareness of rights among the women of the subcontinent through her writings and poetry, said Dr Hasan.

About her works, Dr Hasan said Zay Khay Sheen’s contribution to Urdu literature was in no way inferior to that of some of the leading literary figures of the region.

Zay Khay Sheen’s contemporaries were Hali, Shibli and Iqbal. “She was a visionary and she wrote on a variety of topics such as farming and farmers, World War, Aligarh University and the Khilafat Movement. Her poetic work ‘Masnavi Aina-i-Haram’ on women’s rights was like Allama Iqbal’s ‘Shikwa’ and drew the latter’s remarks that had Zay Khay Sheen lived longer, she would have achieved as much as he did,” Dr Hasan said.

“Hailing from a family that played a significant role in the establishment of Aligarh University and being the daughter of Nawab Muzamillah Khan, who was a friend of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Zay Khay Sheen took part in various feminist activities aimed at promoting and encouraging women’s right to education and empowerment. Even the tragedies of the death of her grandparents, mother, brother and fiancé that she suffered in her very young age could not deter her from continuing with the mission,” said Dr Hasan.

She said that one of the young campaigner’s poems ‘Mosul ka tail’, published in Maulana Zafar Ali Khan’s newspaper, Zameendar, highlighted the importance of oil in the international economy and the West’s move to control oil deposits around the world. Her father cautioned her against exposing the British but she appeared adamant.

However, one must appreciate the vision and the level of intellect of a girl grown up in an adverse environment, she added Dr Hasan told the audience that she studied works of a lot of women poets but Zay Khay Sheen’s poetry impressed her most. “Her relatives and her letters she had written to some friends of her provided me considerable material for my doctoral thesis on her works but I also came to know that much of her poetic work and a book she had authored were unaccounted for,” Dr Hasan said.

Working Women’s Welfare Trust chairperson Musfira Jamal also spoke.

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