You are on page 1of 8

Seminar theme: 'Multiplicity of Cultures in South Asian Literatures', Tumkur University.

Published in Proceedings of National Seminar, 31st August, 2012, pp. 32-37 Allah kabhi Aqleema1 se bhi kalaam kare: the Womans Voice in Modern Pakistani Poetry

Sipra Mukherjee Religion has often been seen as opposed to a modern individualistic identity, and especially to the feminist individualistic identity. This is acknowledged as almost axiomatic in the case of women and Islam, so that it begins to appear doubtful whether the writings of women nurtured in the Islamic nation of Pakistan can be called feminist unless there is an explicit rejection of religion. Yet all over the world, and throughout history, the marginalised voice has repeatedly drawn on the discourse of religion to articulate itself, refusing to foreclose the options that religion may have to offer. This apparently contradictory phenomenon of Muslim women conveying their feminist thoughts not through a rejection, but with an explicit use of the notions of religion may be found in the poetry authored by Pakistani women in the late twentieth century. My paper will take up the poetry of two Pakistani women poets, Fahmida Riaz and Ishrat Afreen to explore how these Muslim women have successfully articulated their feminist agency and their resistance to hegemonic constraints from within the Islamic nation. I argue that the binaries of liberal/religious, secular/traditional or individual/community are too simplistic and narrowly defined to comprehend the complex negotiations that are incumbent upon any individual, be it man, woman or the third sex, residing in any society, Western or Eastern. These binaries encourage us to categorize womens literature according to incomplete notions, asking us to choose between modern and religious, liberal and dominated, marginalizing an entire world of nuanced negotiations that women have conducted with their socio-religious communities through centuries.

If the feminist movement is a product only of the Western ideals of liberalism, individualism and modernity, then the brand of feminism articulated in the poetry of Pakistans women will need to be understood as yet another category. The poetry of these women put to rest any accusation of insularity or timidity that may be associated with Muslim women residing in South Asia. However, if Webers phrase, "disenchantment of the world" is an apt description that characterises modern, feminist poetry, then this poetry falls short of such a modernity. To

Aqleema , according to the Abrahamaic texts, was the sister of Cain and Abel, who remains neglected by the Scriptures.

the contrary, the poet laments the disenchantment that fear and insecurity have ushered in and seeks, with the magic of the idioms of romance or religion, to weave it back again. Resistance to the hegemonies of gender and religion are conveyed powerfully in their poetry, drawing on the ideals of justice and humaneness that are engendered in the Islamic religious discourse. Riaz and Afreens poetry frequently challenge and negate the strictures of the socio-political embodiments of religion using the power inherent in the ideals of Islam itself.

When Fahmeeda Riaz laments the rise of the intolerant Hindutva in India in her scathing poem, Tum bilkul hum jaise nikley, ab tak kahaan chhupey thay bhai? (Youve turned out just like us, where were you hiding all this while, brother?), she is not rejecting religion, but drawing on the sane voice of religion that threatens to be drowned out by the rabid voices, stupid, wallowing in the past: You turned out to be just like us; Similarly stupid, wallowing in the past, Youve reached the same doorstep at last. Congratulations, many congratulations. Your demon [of] religion dances like a clown, Whatever you do will be upside down. You too will sit deep in thought and ponder, Who is Hindu, who is not. You too will issue Fatwas Keep repeating the mantra like a parrot, India was like the land of the brave"2 (translated by Khushwant Singh) Riaz voices the same theme again in Purva Anchal as she travels through India: Brick and stone Reduced to rubble. Mosque and temple Still locked In the same old squabble. Every brow Disfigured by a frown

Fahmida Riaz, Fahmida Riaz: Poems: Classic Poetry Series,, 2012, 4,

The answer she finds to this deadlock is not in the muscular discourse of secularism, but in the strains of Kabirs lyrics: Listen to Kabir, Who pleads with you: Wars of hatred Do no honour to God. Both Ram and Rahim Will shun a loveless land.3 This God whom the poets address is clearly differentiated from the God of the books because, as Afreen writes, the sacred pages of the books leave out much that needs to be spoken about. In her poem, House of God, Afreen moves ahead to complete what the omnipotent books have left incomplete, by voicing what the books should have also said: The books the sacred pages the ancient tomes should have also said: God also lives in dreamless eyes; He sleeps on a wooden cross; He smiles in the seedlings of wheat Naked bodies protruding ribs loaded trucks that reek of hunger crowds of people indigence some book should have pointed out: these too are Gods abodes.4 Perhaps born out of this desire to complete the incompletions, other contemporary poets like Kishwar Naheed have spent much of their time compiling and translating into Urdu legal referendums and ordinances that concern women, such as Muslim Family Laws, the Law of Evidence, and Family Planning. Political consciousness is a salient feature of their poetry,

Fahmida Riaz, Translated into English by Patricia L. Sharpe, Four walls and a Black Veil, Lahore: Oxford University Press, 2005. 4 Ishrat Afreen, translate by Rukhsana Ahman,

and this consciousness extends to the religious domain, enabling them to challenge the God who falls short of His expected status.

Yet this God who is addressed is found repeatedly to don the garb of the male. He imposes upon her undeserved suffering and pain, condemning her to a life of woe: Her arms grew weak and numb pulling the rope over the slimy parapet of the well, but the water never sufficed for the mans feet Her fingers bloodied weaving came into baskets but her share of bread was never enough to fill her bellys basket .And now that the new crops safe in the bales she squats in the sun and wonders if the poison in her aching joints will one day reach above her head? 5 He refuses to speak to her, a woman who is impure by her very existence: She is a woman impure imprisoned by her flowing blood in a cycle of months and years. Consumed by her fiery lust.6 This unjust and prejudiced maleness of God prompts the poet to challenge this God by the very ideals that He is deemed to possess: the values of equality and mercy: Drawing upon the ideal of egalitarianism, the cornerstone of Islam, the women writers address God directly, questioning him and demanding an answer. Thus Riazs voice, prevented by the force of religion from communicating with God because she is a woman, deplores the situation of woman in her poem, Aqleema. Aqleema, who is sister to Cain and Abel, born of the same mother, has remained neglected in the scriptures. The poem, with a tone of stark clarity, reads like a demand that is first rationalised, before it is made, so as to make a refusal appear almost silly and juvenile. Detailing the difference of the woman, Riaz details her sameness to all humanity, concluding finally with the demand: Allah kabhi Aqleema se bhi kalaam kare Aur kuchh poochhe!

Ishrat Afreen, Poison, Transd by. C. M. Naim, See also Kishar Naheeds poem , A Palace of Wax. 6 Fahmida Roaz, A Woman impure

Aqleema, born of the mother of Abel and Cain, but different . . . Look carefully at the imprint in the stone. Above the slender thighs, the intricate womb, But Aqleema has a head, too. Allah, speak sometimes to Aqleema too, Ask something!7 Can this justifiably be called religious discourse? In all probability, the answer to this will be in the negative. This is because what is acknowledged as religious discourse requires the stamp of the worldly institutions that control ecclesiastical matters for a religion. Riaz and Afreen, in rejecting the interpretation of the Scriptures as the authorities have handed them down, are exploring possibilities of alternative discourse through which they, as women, can address God. In an interview she gave the Hindu, Riaz likened the females struggle for equality with that of other marginalised groups such as the Dalits or the Black Americans.8 In viewing women as a community that has been marginalised and exploited by the hegemony of society, politics and religion, these poets refuse to disregard the possibilities of their faith, turning as so many subalterns have done to the struggle of building their own alternative discourse.9 This use of the religious idiom by the marginalised is not invoked for divine intervention, but rather to tap the sources of power inherent in religion. Like many other discourses, the religious discourses include elements that have the power to enable and empower. They provide access to a discourse that transcends all borders, and is viewed as the repository of ideals. With divine authority being more or less universally accepted as the possible source of religion, there is the need for the human mediator. This need has effectively introduced a fuzzy area of interpretation. While this fuzziness has almost always been exploited by those in power, the possibility of the marginalised using it to create

7 8

Fahmida Riaz, Modern Poetry of Pakistan, Ed. Iftikhar Arif and Waqas Khwaja, Dalkey Press, 2010, 226. Rakhshanda Jalil, `There is something sacred about art', In Conversation: Interview with Fahmida Roiaz, The Hindu, Nov 6, 2005, 9 The term subaltern is used consciously, as the Subaltern Studies project repeatedly found religion linked to the power struggles of the communities they studied. As Ranajit Guha writes, The notion of power which inspired it . . . [was] explicitly religious in character. . . . It is not possible to speak of insurgency in this case except as religious consciousness. Ranajit Guha, The Prose of Counter-Insurgency, in Selected Subaltern Studies, ed.Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988), 46.

alternative interpretations has always remained a possibility. Christian Novetzke believes that the antagonistic dialectic10 that exists in modern historiography between religion and history has impaired the proper study of this discourse. The discourse, significantly, may be seen to be used in areas otherwise termed secular, such as arenas of political power and social hegemony.

It would, however, not be correct to say that such a use of the religious idiom is deliberately and rationally thought out by the poets in their poetry. Rather, one would be inclined to believe that religion, in its subjective appeal, evokes in the human mind hope and strength. To the community kept outside the exclusive circle of hegemonic religion, it becomes possible, and even necessary to perceive an alternative religion. As Riaz says of religion in her interview to The Hindu, Earlier, I thought it was a human invention. Now I tend to think, may be it was a discovery. Thus her poem Raj Singhasan (The Ruling Throne) taunts the beneficiaries residing on the ruling throne of revolution, asking them what intelligence they can bestow upon her: You who are the ones to show me the straight path Are you sending me back from the threshold of your kingdoms temple? That which burst out of the ashes of my heart has blossomed into a flower What intelligence will you bestow upon me Take care of your Shivas temple That which you could not learn by reciting scriptures all your life That a woman has felt in her stricken body.11 The confidence to flaunt her own hard-earned sapience, the strength to address and reject the spokesmen of that hegemony who keep her in suppression comes from the knowledge that words of prayer and words conveying divine love are possible to all, even the socially marginalised: Words are, indeed, full of blessings like the evenings at a saints shrine

Christian Lee Novetzke, The Subaltern Numen: Making History in the Name of God, History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November 2006), pp. 99-126, 102. 11 Raj Singhasan, ranslated by Ameena Yaqin, The Annual of Urdu Studies, 434.

like the songs that sailors sing liek the ragged hands of the tillers like a mothers prayer like the childrens calls.12 Yet, as Afreen writes, these are pagan temples of thought13 where they stand, and the words of the Lord that have been handed down to them often ring hollow and futile. Hearing the call to prayer at twilight sinking into silence, Riaz asks in O God of Heaven and Earth: Why do my prayers become meaningless on my lips, As if all within me were desolate and uninhabited? The refrain of this poem, Praised be God, the God of all the worlds/ All praise to God who is very great14 recurs with a hollowness, unable to infuse the poets voice with hope and strength. Yet it is through the religious idiom that the woman is finally given freedom, a freedom: with a rebellious gesture, as she throws her alleged impurity back on the face of God, claiming for herself and her tribe, unhallowed freedom: She is a woman impure .. But, O Ruler of land and oceans, Who has seen this before? Everywhere your command is supreme Except over this woman impure No prayer crosses her lips No humility touches her brow.15 Fahmida Riaz and Ishrat Afreen are both poets who are part of Kishwar Naheeds tribe of sinful women who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns16. They draw the magic of their words not only from religious idioms, but also from the idioms of romance,

12 13

Words, Ishrat Afreen. Ishrat Afreen, Ghazal, Hidden inside me lives this Translated by Prof. C. M. Naim, 14 O God of Heaven and Earth, K. Satccidnandan, Gestures: An Anthology of South Asian Poetry, Sahitya Akademi, 2001, 245. 15 She is a Woman impure, Translated by Ameena Yaqin, The Annual of Urdu Studies, translations from Dhup, (Karachi: Maktaba-e Danial, 1976), 427. 16 Kishwar Naheed, We Sinful Women;, The Distance of a Shout, ed. Asif Farrukhi, Oxford University Press, 2001, 76

of domesticity and motherhood. As they labour with various words and languages, these women writers endeavour to shape and forge the uncreated language that will be their own. And in so doing, through their struggle with the language, they are also creating the uncreated conscience of their community:17 a conscience that sanctions self-love and dignity, even as it sanctions sacrifice and kindness.

Sipra Mukherjee Associate Professor, West Bengal State University, INDIA.


In this last paragraph I have, of course, borrowed freely from the language of James Joyces novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.