Islamabad - Kishwar Naheed is an icon of feminist Urdu poetry.  She has authored several poetry books over a period of four decades including Lab-igoy?, Buri Aurat Ki Katha, and Raat Ke Musafir. Contained in her moving volume of poems ‘Lips that speak’ is a narration of the rigid constraints imposed on the women of our society. A progressive leftist, Naheed has served as the Director General of Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA).  Currently, she runs a charity organization by the name ‘Hawwa’ which aims to support village women by embroidering clothes. Kishwar who has a witty sense of humour, also happens to be a good cook and is fond of hosting frequent dinners for close friends at her house. Her specialties are ‘paaye’, ‘saag’ and ‘makaiki roti’.

Q1) What was the inspiration behind your seminal poem ‘We Sinful Women’?

Back in the day when the Lahore High Court, under Zia-ul-haq’s rule, proposed a bill declaring the testimony of two women equal to that of one man, members of Women’s Action Forum (WAF) carried out a march towards the high court. The police arrested us and the next morning a short news report was publishedabout the women protestors being baton-charged. The bigger, more prominent news was that some religious scholars claimed that the wedlock of these protestors had been broken. We were thus considered sinners. I decided to embrace the label and got the idea for – ‘We Sinful Women’.

Q2) You wrote a book called ‘A bad woman’s story’. How do you define a bad woman?

I use the term ‘bad woman’ in a satirical way. Any woman who breaks a family or social taboobecomes a ‘bad woman’. The first female in the family to gain an education is considered a ‘bad woman’, the first to remove her veil in a family of covered women is a bad woman, the firstto marry of her own will is a bad woman. By that logic, all non-conformist women are bad women because they have made their own choices. The title also reflects my own life story.  In defiance of my householdnorms, I fought to receive higher education, and to marry of my own choice. Because of me, my older sisters in the house also acquired education. Therefore, I was the bad woman in my family.

Q3) Many poets or creative writers remain confined to their artistic sphere. You, on the other hand, went beyond your primary area of interest and took part in several political and feminist movements. Why was this important?

I’m a Gemini. It is said that a Gemini woman has seven different women inside of her. I play these seven rolescommittedly – I’m a poet, an activist, a mother, a housekeeper, an employee, so on and so forth. I am an active member of Women’s Action Forum and have taken part in various movements to advance women’s rights. Such movements are essential in helping us claim our place in society. To sit and protest is not enough – to bring about a gender revolution, we must engage in action and influence policy-making. I will continue to do and write a lot more to advance women’s rights.

Q4) You served in various administrative posts during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. Being a progressive, leftist how did you manage to do so? Wasn’t there a conflict of interest?

I was an employee of the state, not of a person.  In Zia’s regime, I was under surveillance and given a night duty of 11pm to 5am at work. So there were definitely all attempts to repress the progressive voices and eliminate us from holding significant positions.

Habib Jalib criticized me for calling myself a revolutionary poet, and then working for the government. I consulted with Faiz Sahab. He said that we should support and encourage the progressive, leftists wherever they are because quitting their jobs would not help anyone. If anything, vacating their positions would create space for more conservative, rightists.

Q5) What are the challenges you faced as a woman in a male-dominated literary scene?

Poets such as Ada Jafri and ParveenShakir, celebrated as they are, didn’t make an effort to depart from the traditional notions of womanhood in their poetry. They talked about the virtues of love and beauty –like their male counterparts. Male poets never theorizea woman as an independent being – their manifestation of her is as anideal of beauty and elegance. True feminist poetryisone that gives voice to the real experiences of women; challenges patriarchy and helps women carve out their own identity. I decided to shape my identity – and of course in doing so I faced lack of acceptance. I was told that the meaning of ‘ghazal’ was to express love to a woman, so how could a woman herself write a ghazal. Ahmed Faraz was probably the biggest critic of female poets. Even as a female employee, I faced discrimination from men. When I was promoted to an independent post, the staff members wrote a letter, raising objections to working under a woman.




zoya nazir