An Unapologetic Voice of Feminism

Jyoti Shekar

Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle
ab tak kahaan chhupe thay bhai
vo moorakhta, vo ghaamarpan
jis mein hum ne sadi  ganwaai
aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaare
arre badhaai, bohot badhaai

n-11-2This beautiful nazm was written by Fahmida Riaz, a progressive Urdu writer and poet from Pakistan, well known for her political and feminist ideologies. A fearless woman who dared to exercise her right of expression, she was even charged with sedition in Pakistan and had sought asylum in India for a few years.  Badan Dareeda, her second collection of verses was one of the first set of verses that delved on a theme considered a taboo for women writers. On its publication, she was accused of using erotic and sensual expressions in her poetry. Undaunted, she later wrote Apna Jurm Sabit Hae about her homeland’s experience under dictatorship.

Our first anniversary issue of Eyra will be incomplete without talking about her journey as a writer, radical thinker, and most importantly as a woman.

In a quest to know more about Fahmida’s life and works, we spoke to Dr. Saif Mahmood, an Advocate of the Supreme Court of India, equally well-known for his love for Urdu literature and poetry. His recent book, Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets, is based on the famous Urdu poets of the Mughal era.

Here are some snippets of my conversation with Saif about his book, his interaction and views on Fahmida Riaz and his own take on feminism:

Jyoti: Congratulations on your book ‘Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets’. It is getting rave reviews. Please tell us about this book and what inspired you to write it.

Saif: My book is about my city, Delhi, and its great Urdu poets of the Mughal era. Urdu, as you know, rules the cultural and emotional landscape of a large portion of the subcontinent. 91hlypat0zlAnd it was here in Delhi that Urdu grew to become one of the world’s most beautiful languages. Through the 18th and the 19th century, while the Mughal Empire (which had its seat in Delhi) was in spectacular decline, the city of Delhi itself was becoming the capital to a parallel kingdom, the kingdom of Urdu poetry. And it produced some of the greatest poets of the language of all times.

In this book, I have tried to portray the history of Delhi from 1700 when Wali Dakhani, the first classical Urdu poet came to Delhi from Deccan until 1905 when the last classical poet of Delhi school, Daagh Dehlvi, died. Through their biographical accounts, interspersed with their best-known poetry, I have tried to paint a portrait of Mughal Delhi.

Delhi’s classical Urdu poets, from Sauda to Mir to Ghalib to Daagh, remain the most quoted poets of the language ever. That their poetry, penned about 200 years ago, remains relevant even today and is often quoted bears testimony to the great skill of these poets, the enduring quality of their compositions and universality of their themes. It is a pity that their lives and the life of the city which shaped them in their poetry had not been documented in a single volume for the general English reader. Of course, there are short biographies of some of these poets which may be found in larger works of Delhi written in English, but there was hardly a book in the language, perhaps none, which captured their fascinating world in great detail in one volume, under one cover. This is exactly what I have tried to do in my book. My book seeks to give you an overview of the life and times and works of these poets and the Delhi of their days. What it also does is to tell you what we have done with our heritage that these poets left for us – their homes, their haunts, their graves. Photographs in the book of these places, as they exist today, provide the painful answer.

I have deliberately ascribed the feminine gender to the city in the title of my book. In English and many other languages, countries and cities have traditionally been seen as feminine and this is truer of Mughal Delhi because the city was a female beloved for the great Mughal poets as far as one can infer from their verse and the conventions of their time. Of course, today this might be contentious but I have deliberately bowed to the old convention on the cover and title of my book.

I just hope that my readers are enchanted and beguiled by the magical spell of Delhi which the city has been casting over hundreds of years on so many of its lovers, writers and poets. I am not a historian or an Urdu scholar. I have grown up around dining table conversations not only about Urdu poetry, but also in Urdu poetry. All I can say is my book is the culmination of my love and passion for the conversations I have been raised in.

Jyoti: A familiar face in literature festivals, you have had the honour of meeting and interacting with the great Urdu poet and progressive thinker, Fahmida Riaz. One of her poems, ‘Tum bilkul hum jaise niklay‘, really resonates strongly. Not only from an IndiaPakistan perspective, but also from a religion, caste and gender perspective. What are your thoughts on it?

Saif: Fahmida Riaz, or Fahmida Apa as I called her, was one of the most fearless voices of Pakistan. In fact, the last two years have taken from us two of the most fearless voices of Pakistan, Fahmida Riaz and Asma Jahangir. Fahmida Apa, through her poetry, challenged the establishment and the authorities that be; she challenged every decision that she thought violated the spirit of the Pakistani constitution; she challenged everything which she thought was unequal, unjust or arbitrary.

During General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in 1980s, she and her husband were charged with sedition. She had to run away from Pakistan and was offered political asylum by Indira Gandhi in India. She made Delhi her home for many years and stayed as a Poet-in-Residence at Jamia Millia Islamia. During her stay in India, she was very impressed by our constitutional secularism and democratic institutions, which are the very edifice of our State. She always compared India favourably to Pakistan and said very openly that Pakistan is actually going the wrong way, deviating from the purpose for which it was created. She also used Hindi and its dialects spoken in North India freely in her poetry.

This poem that you refer to, ‘Tum bilkul hum jaise niklay‘, mind you, was not written by Fahmida for the current political regime of India. It was written many years ago when she could foresee what India is going towards. She saw through and compared the slow rise of the right wing in India with the always existing fundamentalism in her own country in the poem. She is basically telling India that ‘you have turned out to be exactly like us.’ The poem obviously touched a chord not only in her own country but also in India.

This poem is not only against communalism; it is also against fascism. It tells you that you cannot but be modern, you must move with the times. You cannot cloak your ignorance under the veil of tradition and old cultures, if those cultures militate against basic humanity, equality, justice, reason and education. In the same poem she says:

bhaad me jaae shiksha viksha

ab jaahilpan ke gunn gaana

aage gaddha hai yeh mat dekho

vaapas lao gaya zamaana

46502328_10155579121907391_3216674962739822592_nTo me, this resonates so evocatively with what is happening in India currently. Explaining this, she had once said to me that Pakistan has actually lived in this ignorance for years but, for heaven’s sake, please do not start living in the same ignorance in a country which has been an example for right thinking Pakistanis to emulate; do not destroy the ethos of your country.

I met her last in Karachi last year at a literature festival.

I think it is one of the most poignant and evocative poems on fascism, communism and the way most of world politics is today.

Jyoti: Tough times started for Fahmida Riaz after the publication of Badan Dareeda, which expressed things which were hitherto considered a taboo for women. Do you think it is an equally difficult subject for male writers to cover? And do women still have to think twice before writing about erotic subjects?

Saif: Fahmida Apa was completely unapologetic about her writings and about her ideology. She was not only a poet of dissent, or of protest, her poetry had another side to it. That was her unique side, which Pakistani Urdu literature had not seen so far, a woman poet writing about female desire. Fahmida Apa has written some of the most beautiful Urdu verses which could be categorized as erotica or sensual poetry. Obviously, it had its own repercussions. She paid for it. She was accused of pornography. Also, her forced migration to India during the Zia regime was not only because of her anti-establishment poetry but also because of her sensual and erotic poetry, which was not acceptable to the fundamentalists in her country. There were fatwas against her. She had no choice but to leave her own country.

Speaking from a legal point of view as well as from a literary point of view, in my opinion, there was nothing pornographic about Fahmida’s poetry. In fact, her poetry was beautiful. The subtle way in which she describes delicate aspects of love-making makes for beautiful reading.

Now, whether men would face the same kind of problems when they write about the same subjects, is quite another issue. Let me start by saying that there has been an entire tradition of writing erotic and sensual poetry in Urdu literature.  Men have written a lot of erotica; in fact, men in Pakistan have actually written it, like Mustafa Zaidi. But Fahmida Apa was the first Pakistani woman in Urdu contemporary literature to have done so.

And perhaps that was the problem. There is no denying the fact that in most of South Asia we have been bred in extremely conservative, patriarchal and misogynist traditions and ethos. And in our social milieu, writing erotica itself is a taboo, whether it is a man writing it or a woman. If writing on a subject itself is a taboo, and a woman writes on that subject, it becomes a double taboo. If a woman writes on female desire or sensuality, she is bound to face more problems than a man. But I think there is a difference, an important one. When a man writes about erotica, there may be religious or social, and in some cases, legal sanction against him. But when a woman writes about it or is charged with pornography, all this happens, but something additional also happens; and that is, people start attacking her character.

This is what happened with Fahmida Apa as well. But she was completely unapologetic about what she wrote and said that, as a woman, she had a right to express her desires the same way that a man had the right to do so. Of course, as a society we have come a long way. There are literature festivals where there are sessions on erotica, for example, the Urdu literature festival in Delhi called Afreen Afreen.  And that itself is a huge step.

So yes, we have become more liberal, our readers have become more discerning, we have become, perhaps, more equal and women writers, especially young ones, are writing beautifully on these subjects which were hitherto a taboo. But there is no denying that even today if a man writes on these subjects, he can perhaps do it more freely than a woman. We need to change that, just as we need to change many other things to strike the necessary gender balance.

Jyoti: Feminism has taken a lot of different interpretations. But to us, it is all about a woman being able to exercise her right of choice. To quote Fahmida Riaz – ‘What it means for me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities.’ As a man, what is your take on ‘feminism’?

Saif: My take on feminism is the same as that of Fahmida Apa. 943051_566202253464258_1662578153_nI also believe, like her, that every woman has the absolute right to make the choice that she wants to make. Like Fahmida Apa said, women like men are complete human beings with limitless possibilities. I believe that the exercise of this singular right to make a choice cannot be denied on the basis of gender.

But I must also say that I find it a little odd that you ask me what feminism means to me ‘as a man’. Feminism is what it is, and it is necessary and it is beautiful. There cannot be one definition of feminism for a woman and another for a man. And if feminism means what we have just discussed, namely, the right of a woman to make choices the way she wants to make, just like a man, then perhaps I am more of a feminist than a number of women I know. And let us be under no illusion that only a woman can be a feminist. In fact, let me say with all humility at my command that more often than not, you will find that the woman’s right to exercise her choice is actually impeded by another woman.

Having said that, I am of a firm belief that there can be absolutely no distinction between the right of a man to make choices and the right of a woman to make choices for themselves without being judged on any account by anyone and, without being guided or interfered with by any man or woman.

But I also want to sound a caveat here. Women have worked selflessly to create a feminist narrative, to build a world where there are millions who now support the idea that there should be equal rights and equal opportunities for both men and women. A lot of work and selfless effort has gone into this debate which has today led to a conscious realization amongst people in general that there is both a deliberate as well as a mechanical and unconscious gender bias rampant within us, within the society, irrespective of whether we are aware of it or not. Let us not spoil the feminist narrative by bringing everything under the cloak of feminism.

A couple of months ago, I came across a debate on social media where a male academic had said that a female author’s book had some factually incorrect and plagiarized portions. All that he got in response were allegations of being misogynist and sexist. Nobody answered him on merits. There is an increasing number of cases where personal hostilities are sought to be avenged by using feminism as a weapon. When you paint all unrelated things with the brush of feminism, you do a great disservice to women in general and to the whole cause of feminism. You are then ruining a precious narrative that has been created selflessly, over so many years by so many women and men who have dedicated themselves to this cause.

I envision an India where everyone is free – free to make personal choices – speak, eat, wear, marry, worship, not worship. It may not happen in our lifetime but if we keep working on it, surely, it will happen someday. So, we must continue to dream of such an India. Like Pash said: ‘sab se khatarnaak hota hai hamaare sapnon ka mar jaana.’

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