Pakistan: We sinful women

New standard-bearers of progressive Urdu poetry: The feminist poets

Anyone who is familiar with the field of Urdu poetry will readily recognise and acknowledge that it is extremely gendered. This gendering works at two levels. First, most of the poets are men; virtuosity in verse is still considered to be a male purview and women poets, even well-known ones, continue to be marginalised. Second, the predominant themes and metaphors of this genre assume the poet-as-male (and consequently the reader-as-male) and revolve around the themes of the beauty of the beloved, the plight of the lover and the pains of unrequited love.

Women feature mostly as an abstraction and as the object of the male protagonist’s desire83. As Rukhsana Ahmad points out in her introduction to Beyond Belief (the first collection of feminist poetry published in Pakistan), ‘(t)he bulk of published Urdu poetry is still love poetry bound in the old traditional idioms and conceits’84. These ‘conceits’ include the male poet as the embodiment of agency and the woman as a mere object, represented as ‘a feckless beloved, who was endowed with heavenly beauty… fair of face, doe-eyed, dark-haired, tall, willowy, for whom the poet was willing to die but who vacillated from indifference, shyness and modesty to wanton wilfulness and cruelty85.’

The PWA [Progressive Writers’ Association] poets, notwithstanding their commitment to social change and egalitarianism were, for the most part, inheritors of this legacy of Urdu poetry as well as its purveyors. In their work, a woman was frequently seen as an exemplification of beauty and a repository of purity. She was often depicted as a weak victim of oppressive structures who depended on men to save and protect her and on their generosity of spirit and sense of righteousness to rescue her from her plight…

In their role as social reformers, the Progressives did, at times, take issue against the oppression of women and sought to highlight their condition. Speaking against the institution of the veil in his poem Purdaah Aur Ismat (The Veil and Honour), [Israr-ul-Haq] Majaz offers the following commentary:

"That which is not visible cannot be Exquisite

That which remains hidden cannot be the Truth

That is not Nature, nor is it Destiny

Whatever else it is, this is not Virtue"

There are also the occasional moments when the progressive poet sees women as potential rebels and agents who have a role to play in the public space and in social transformation. In a poem Naujavaan Khaatoon Se (To the Young Woman), Majaz writes:

"It would be better if you shrugged off this wicked veil

It would be better if you used your beauty to cover yourself…

This scarf that covers you is beautiful indeed

It would be better if you converted it into a banner of revolt"

While Majaz’s poems take a position against the sequestering of women behind the veil, it is important to note that their tone tends to be patronising for they are essentially exhortations by the male poet to women. Perhaps the poem by a male progressive poet that comes closest to representing a woman as a subject in her own right is Aurat (Woman) by Kaifi Azmi:

"The past hasn’t recognised your worth

You are capable of producing flames, not just tears

You are Reality, not merely an interesting tale

Your Being is more than your mere Youth

You will have to rewrite the theme of your History

Arise my love, that we can walk together

"Destroy the idols of Custom, break the shackles of Tradition

Free yourself from the enfeeblement of Pleasure, the false ideas of Delicacy

Step out from the confining circle of Femininity drawn around you

And if Love becomes a prison, then reject the constraints of Love

You will have to crush not just the thorns, but the flowers in your path too

Arise my love, let us walk together…"

Kaifi’s poem is radical in the way it positions a woman as a fellow companion, in its exhortation that women break free from the confines of tradition and custom, but particularly in its insistence that women not only crush the ‘thorns’ in their path but also its ‘flowers’ (delicacy, elegance, femininity, grace and even love) that serve as mechanisms of limitation and control. Where it falls somewhat short is that while Kaifi is establishing the position of his female companion as a comrade, he demands that she shed her accoutrements of femininity in order for her to ‘accompany’ him on his quest. Nor does Kaifi manage to fully reject the conventional characterisation of women in the dominant discourse of the time, for the woman of his poem has the capacity to produce flames ‘in addition to’ the ability to shed tears; her existence is ‘more than’ her beauty and youth.

Notwithstanding a few scattered examples of such engagements with patriarchy, none of the PWA poets ever wrote in a manner that unambiguously assumed women’s independent power, subjecthood and agency. For this to happen in the field of Urdu poetry, we had to wait for the works of the feminist poets from Pakistan, particularly Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riyaz. In order to understand and appreciate their work, it is important to place it in the context of the material and social conditions in Pakistan within which it was written.

The political, social and cultural milieu of Pakistan in the 1980s was defined by General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation programme and its attendant attack on women’s rights. Zia’s misogynist policies were an articulation of the anxieties of class and gender felt by middle class men during this period who resented what they saw as the increasing presence of women in the public sphere and feared the repercussions this might have in the private sphere of the family. It is perhaps a testimony to the force of these anxieties that the state’s blatantly sexist policies and the far-reaching changes they forged within Pakistani society and culture did not inform the work of progressive male poets in any significant way (perhaps the one exception was Habib Jalib, the only one who participated in the famous 12 February 1983 demonstration organised by the women’s movement against the [discriminatory] Law of Evidence). This burden was left for feminist poets to bear.

The challenge posed by these feminist poets to the establishment worked at different levels: first, they were women poets writing in what was an overwhelmingly male literary milieu; second, they were feminists raising their voice against an increasingly hostile and misogynist social and cultural context; and third, they were producing work that effectively subverted existing, accepted conventions of poetic form and content.

The poetry of these feminists was not confined to women’s issues; they were fierce critics of the reactionary political, social and cultural changes taking place in Pakistani society. However, given that the brunt of the state’s retrogressive Islamisation policies along with the changes they wrought in other aspects of Pakistani life was borne by women (and minorities), most of their poetry did overwhelmingly address ‘women’s issues’ such as the Zina Ordinance (which included punishments such as stoning adulterers – both male and female – to death, and which tried rape victims under charges of zina, or adulterous sex).

Not all women or poets of the time chose to challenge the prescribed literary forms or themes, nor was all women’s ‘progressive’ poetry (that which worked to subvert the patriarchal establishment) of one piece. Progressive poetry written by women ranged from the work of Parveen Shakir and Ada’a Jafri – whose poetry was less explicitly political insofar as it did not address explicitly ‘political’ issues, and who tended to use conventional poetic forms such as the ghazal (and in the case of Jafri, some of its standard expressions as well) – to that of poets such as Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riyaz, whose writings were stridently feminist in their tone and subject matter.

However, given the male dominated nature of the Urdu literary establishment, the very fact of a woman writing ghazals was itself subversive since it inverted the implicit convention that women were the objects rather than the subjects, or agents, of romance and desire. Feminist poets had to deal with a significant backlash, including criticism from the largely male status quo, for their ‘loose morality’ and their ‘masculinity’86, and were frequently subjected to the threat of violence from the state and individuals87.

Since women were at the vanguard of the movement against Zia’s martial law government and its policies, it is not surprising that they were also the most political and prominent writers/poets/artists of the time. As Kishwar Naheed points out in her well-known poem, Hum Gunahgaar Auraten (We Sinful Women):

"It is we sinful women

Who are not intimidated

By the magnificence of those who wear robes

Who don’t sell their souls

Don’t bow their heads

Don’t fold their hands in supplication

We are the sinful ones

While those who sell the harvest of our bodies

Are exalted

Considered worthy of distinction

Become gods of the material world

"It is we sinful women

Who, when we emerge carrying aloft the flag of truth

Find highways strewn with lies

Find tales of punishment placed at every doorstep

Find tongues which could have spoken, severed"

Besides being a harsh indictment of those who sold out to the establishment, these words also directly subvert the dominant stereotypes of women as weak and ineffectual and their accompanying ideas about ‘femininity’. The phrase ‘we sinful women’, repeated like a chant throughout the poem, functions as a slap in the face of the religious orthodoxy and the state, referring as it does to the Zina Ordinance which uses the crutch of Islam to hold women responsible for all sex crimes.

Fehmida Riyaz’s poem Chaadar Aur Chaardiwari (The Veil and the Four Walls of Home) was another explicit example of the way feminists used poetry as a medium of dissent against the Zia regime and as a critique of the hypocrisy of the religious orthodoxy. The poem derives its title from the name of the campaign started by Zia’s Islamic Ideology Council, which was part of the general move to restrict women’s participation in society to the domestic sphere…:

"Sire! What will I do with this black chaadar

Why do you bless me with it?

I am neither in mourning that I should wear it

To announce my grief to the world

Nor am I a disease, that I should drown, humiliated, in its darkness

I am neither sinner nor criminal

That I should set its black seal

On my forehead under all circumstances

"If you will pardon my impertinence

If I have reassurance of my life88

Then will I entreat you with folded hands

O Benevolent One!

In Sire’s fragrant chambers lies a corpse

Who knows how long it has been rotting there

It asks for your pity

Sire, be kind enough

Give me not this black shawl

Use it instead to cover that shroudless corpse in your chambers

Because the stench that has burst forth from it

Goes panting through the alleys –

Bangs its head against the door frames

Attempts to cover its nakedness

Listen to the heart-rending shrieks

Which raise strange spectres

"They who remain naked despite their chaadars

Who are they? You must know them

Sire, you must recognise them

They are the concubines!

The hostages who remain legitimate through the night

But come morning, are sent forth to wander, homeless

They are the handmaidens

"More reliable than the half share of inheritance promised your precious sperm…

"My existence on this earth is not as a mere symbol of lust

My intelligence gleams brightly on the highway of life

The sweat that shines on the brow of the earth is but my hard work

The corpse is welcome to this chaadar and these four walls

My ship will move full sail in the open wind

I am the companion of the new Adam

Who has won my confident comradeship"

In this powerful poem, Riyaz, by rejecting the chaadar being offered to her by the self-styled keepers of people’s conscience, also rejects the Islamists’ construction of her as a sexual object that is required by the law to be veiled and sequestered within the four walls of the home. She subjects these powers to biting sarcasm by repeatedly addressing them with mock honorifics such as ‘huzoor’ [sire], and a series of formulaic phrases such as jaan ki amaan paaoon [have reassurance of one’s life], dast-basta karoon guzaarish [entreat with folded hands] and banda-parvar [Benevolent One]. Since she is not in mourning, nor a sinner or criminal, she argues with mock innocence that she does not understand why she is being offered the black shawl (or, by implication, the seclusion of the chaardiwaari). The rest of the poem lists the crimes against humanity which her addressee is guilty of, particularly the (sexual) exploitation of women through the institutions of concubinage and marriage, an exploitation that often begins at a very young age.

The poem ends with her concluding that it is he, not she, who needs the black shawl so that he may cover his own hypocrisy and shame. Although Riyaz never mentions Islam directly, it is the absent referent in her text because it is under the chaadar (cover/cloak) of Islam that women have been subjugated for ‘long centuries’. The ‘spectres’ of all these female victims who carry the stench of death are the skeletons in the Islamist’s closet to which Riyaz ‘respectfully’ draws his, and our, attention.

The last stanza of the poem is worth noting, for in direct contrast to the depiction of women in Urdu poetry, Riyaz counterposes her own reading of women against the traditional as well as Islamist ideal of ‘womanhood’ and proposes a new female subject – an intelligent, sentient being (as opposed to an object of desire and symbol of lust), a worker whose ‘sweat shines on the brow of the earth’, a quintessentially modern subject whose ‘ship will move full sail in the open wind’. The relationship between men and women is also redefined as one of comradeship between equals; this kind of comradeship is only possible, however, with a radically reinvented and redefined man – an Adam who is capable of winning her confidence and is thus worthy of her89.

In her poem, Riyaz lampoons the normative Islamist discourse of a patriarchal and paternalistic relationship between women and men and rejects the notion of a woman as an obedient wife who revels in her role as the ‘light of the home’ and one who is supported by a husband who has unquestioned authority over her in all matters. The idea of an equal and companionate relationship with a man is thus a radical proposition, especially when accompanied by implications of a life of unfettered freedom expressed through the trope of the sailing ship, deliberately counterposed to the chaardiwaari. It is also worth noting that Riyaz’s use of words like laasha (corpse), gala sada (rotten) and natfa (sperm) – words not normally used in poetry – along with the explicit references to sex and depravity provide another layer of subversiveness in terms of both form and content.

[In] [y]et another poem by Riyaz, titled Aqleema… [t]he explicit references to the female body are Riyaz’s reminder to us that patriarchal society objectifies its women and treats them as sacrificial lambs, destined to be butchered and consumed. The poem goes on to draw attention to the fact that Aqleema has a mind too, one that is rendered invisible by the patriarchal system, not merely to human beings but also to god himself, who has chosen to reveal his word to the world through male prophets alone…

The deconstruction of the normative ideals of womanhood and femininity was a recurring theme in the work of the feminist poets, who deployed a radically different aesthetic both in the choice of their themes and their language in order to challenge existing standards of public discourse and poetry. Boodhi Ma (Old Mother), by the contemporary Punjabi poet Gulnar, is an address to an old woman who has been repressed by patriarchal structures of power and control throughout her life and is a defiant call to all women to reject the roles imposed on them by societal and religious norms. It is interesting to note the unselfconscious use of the English word ‘symbol’ in the poem, another flouting of the conventions of Urdu poetry and its formal diction. This deployment of everyday speech in a literary piece is testimony to the fact that the Urdu for these poets is a living language:

"Old Mother

Why are you teary-eyed today?


"Why are you sad?

You, who have given birth to sons?


"Oh Mother, your fate!

Your childhood spent in bondage to your father

Your adolescence under the control of your brother

Your youth in bondage to your husband

And your old age in your sons’ servitude

But doesn’t Heaven lie beneath your feet?!

Then why, in the cruel cold of winter

Are your feet bare?…"

In the Islamist rhetoric, women are idealised as mothers beneath whose feet lies heaven and as good wives who are the ghar ki rani/malika or the ‘queens’ of the domestic realm. Gulnar critiques these ideals by inserting the figure of a woman who, despite having adhered to all the conventions and expectations of the good woman in her avatars as daughter, sister, wife and mother of ‘seven sons’, is nevertheless left shelterless and uncared for.

In contrast, Gulnar offers a protagonist who is the Islamists’ nemesis: modern, enlightened, educated and unwilling to accept the roles assigned to her by mainstream society in general and religious orthodoxy in particular. She is sensible and hard-nosed (a far cry from the whimsical beloved of mainstream Urdu poetry), wears leather shoes, adopts ‘spectacles’ to see the world clearly through her own eyes, and has rejected the realm of abject domesticity for the world of letters and the realm of intellect. And unlike the protagonist of Riyaz’s poem, Gulnar’s woman does not appear to need a (male) companion in her quest for self-actualisation.


While the feminist poets focused considerably on the condition of women in Pakistani society, they also articulated a comprehensive critique of their contemporary social conditions. Poems such as Kishwar Naheed’s Sard Mulkon Ke Aaqaaon Ke Naam (To the Lords of the Cold Nations) offers a commentary on Eurocentrism while Censorship and Section 14490 challenge the state’s repressive policies. Fehmida Riyaz’s Kotvaal Baitha Hai (The Police Chief is Waiting) and Khaana-Talaashi (The Search) describe her interrogation and the search of her home by the police. Ishrat Afreen’s Rihaa’i (Release) is a poem that talks about how the fight for liberation from ‘the mountains of dead traditions, blind faith, oppressive hatreds’ (Pahaad murda rivaayaton ke, pahaad andhi aqeedaton ke, pahaad zaalim adaavaton ke) is an obligation owed to the next generation while Neelma Sarwar’s Chor (The Thief) reflects on the cruel disparities of wealth in society.

In a similar vein, Fehmida Riyaz’s long prose poem Kya Tum Poora Chaand Na Dekhoge? (Will You Not See the Full Moon?) uses the moon as a metaphor for truth while deploying colloquial terminology to criticise conspicuous consumption and ridicule the subservience of Pakistani society to the petrodollars of the Saudi kingdom…

Understanding that the Islamisation project was a ‘culturalist evasion’91 of the real issues facing Pakistan, Riyaz uses her poem to highlight the concerns of the people at large who live under conditions of starvation and depredation while the city panders to the desires of the elite. The poem is replete with gothic representation and a pastiche of strange and ominous images such as the kites circling a burning sky, the city as web or a trap and the pathological and almost sexual lust for imported commodities which awakens the ‘whore of purchasing power’. This stark reference to the increasing commodity fetishism of the wealthy classes and the symbols of this fetish (the shopping plazas, the mansions) are described as boils on the molested body of the city, just as conspicuous consumption is a sore on the diseased body politic of the nation state.

The satirical allusions to the influence of petrodollars and the throwaway Arabic phrases are references to the Pakistani state’s proclivity to look towards Saudi Arabia for affirmation in the political, economic and even cultural spheres, the increasing use of Arabic words on Pakistan Television, the introduction of Arabic as a compulsory subject in public schools and the Arabisation of Urdu itself, all of which were a result of the Zia regime’s effort to move ever further away from an Indo-Islamic culture which was shared with India and towards an ‘Islamic’ identity defined by Arabic elements.

The onward march of capital and the obscene culture of consumption it engenders are depicted through the superimposition of sexuality, depravity, lustfulness and disease in a way that highlights the indifference of the system to the poor and the dispossessed. Fehmida Riyaz’s theme throughout her long poem is that Islamisation is simply a ruse with which the rulers defuse dissent and construct consent while dividing the nation sharply between those who have economic and political power and those who do not.

The arrival of the feminist poets in the realm of Urdu poetry signalled the beginning of a new brand of progressivism, one that took on the establishment in ways that were radical and powerful. These poets – Kishwar Naheed, Fehmida Riyaz, Ishrat Afreen, Saeeda Gazdar, Neelma Sarwar, Sara Shagufta, Zehra Nigaah, Gulnar and others – transformed not merely the themes of Urdu poetry but also its language and its grammar. As Rukhsana Ahmad writes, these poets represent ‘that strand of the progressive tradition in Urdu poetry which had in the early forties so powerfully contributed to the freedom movement.92’ They, more than anyone else in the contemporary period, are the true inheritors of the tradition of progressive poetry, its champions, and its trailblazers.

A very short poem by Ishrat Afreen, titled Intisaab (Dedication), sums up the contribution of the feminist poets to literature quite well:

"Mera qad

Mere baap se ooncha nikla

Aur meri ma jeet gayi

(My height
Surpassed that of my father
And thus, my mother won)"

(Excerpted from Anthems of Resistance – A celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry by Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir; India Ink, Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., 2006.)


83 Admittedly, some might dispute this claim, citing the example of the ghazal in which both the lover and the beloved are referred to in male terms. However, the themes of these poems and the actions of its protagonists, particularly in the context of the times, leave us with little doubt about the gender of the subjects/objects of the poet’s voice.
84 Rukhsana Ahmad (editor and translator), 1990, Beyond Belief, Lahore: ASR Publications, p. iii.
85 ibid., p. ii.
86 The charge of masculinity was most often thrown at Kishwar Naheed because of her blunt personality and her even more blunt poetry.
87 Both Fehmida Riyaz and Kishwar Naheed were targeted repeatedly by the state. Fourteen cases of sedition were filed against the magazine edited by Fehmida Riyaz, one of which carried the death sentence. Riyaz had to go into exile in India along with her family. Naheed was constantly harassed in her job as a civil servant and frequently threatened. Cases were filed against her as well. Clearly, both were seen as threats to the state.
88 A standard way of beginning an address to the prince or emperor.
89 This poem can be interestingly juxtaposed against Ishrat Areen’s Adhoore Aadmi Se Guftagu (Dialogue with an Incomplete Man) in which the poet declares:
"How can I share my thoughts and feelings with you?
How can I take you along on this journey of the intellect?"
Despite his ‘artistic skills… stature… personality’, the man being addressed by Afreen is seen by her as no more mature than a callow boy:
"You are a mere boy
Who is attracted to
Weeping girls
Wounded and flightless butterflies
Boats anchored at the shore
And who seeks sanctuary in the simpering pleasures found in the broken wings of a dove
Who for the sake of immature desires
Will sacrifice his principles"
90 Section 144 in the [Pakistan] Penal Code is used to restrict assembly of people in public spaces, a common law deployed to prevent public gatherings and therefore, pre-empt dissent.
91 Samir Amin’s term.
92 Rukhsana Ahmad, op. cit., p. iv.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Pakistan 3



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