Stages of bias in Urdu poetry rendered in India and Pakistan

Common concern: Kishwar Naheed

Common concern: Kishwar Naheed  

Indian and Pakistani societies, two bastions of Urdu poetry, inflict subtle discrimination on women poets

We are living in times when “Dadis (grandmas) of Shaheen Bagh” daily shatter all manner of glass ceilings and barriers, yet some stereotypes refuse to go away. Take the case of women poets in Urdu. While Urdu poetry itself attracts enthusiastic mixed audiences across the Hindustani speaking regions, a curious gender divide trips up women poets.

Stages of bias in Urdu poetry rendered in India and Pakistan

Delhi-based poet Ameeta Parsuram ‘Meeta’ is known for her ghazal writing and her annual event “Bazm” in the Capital, an evening she describes as aimed at preserving the traditional form of ghazal gayaki. Pointing out “subtle discrimination”, she says that for every 10 male poets at a given mushaira (festival of Urdu poetry), there would be on average “two or three or fewer” women. “And it’s not as if there are not enough women poets!”

Harder time

Gauhar Raza, another successful Delhi-based poet, agrees that women have a harder time than their male counterparts in getting recognised for their literary skills. “Yes, creating space in any field of art and literature is far more difficult for women in a male dominated world,” he says. “Urdu poetry world is not free of this exclusivity.”

Over years of observation, Ameeta finds that audience reaction to women poets too is often one of “lower energy or indifference,” or of “looking at her as a woman, followed by applause suggestive of ‘celebrating the woman’ — almost as if she was there to entertain them, while ignoring the poet.” Worse, there are occasions like last year when popular male poet Manzar Bhopali made shockingly derogatory remarks about women reciting at mushairas from a public platform in Bhopal.

At the other extreme is the “Khawatiin ka mushaira” (mushaira for women poets), which Ameeta calls “regressive” and “worse than even tokenism”.

Raza feels, “Since there is no mushaira called ‘Mardon ka Mushaira’ or ‘Hazraat ka Mushaira’, it is derogatory to call any mushaira ‘Khawatiin ka Mushaira’.”

Mushairas must not be differentiated by gender, “even if the majority or all participant poets are women,” he avers. When a poet is introduced with emphasis on the gender instead of the quality of the work, “The broad message is ‘it is primarily a display of poets, judge their work on a different parameter’.”

Interestingly, Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed says there are very few mushairas in her country only for women, though they may be held on occasions like March 8 or February 12, designated as Pakistani Women Day. “TV channels often hold such mushairas,” she says, but adds, “Male writers, when invited as listeners, do grumble and try to make jokes. In grand (main) mushairas, quite a few participate and are appreciated.”

Ameeta asserts she has never accepted an invitation to a ‘khawatin ka mushaira’. “At no point can a poet ignore the nagging feeling that she occupies this platform more for being a woman than a poet.”

When a woman’s work does get published and she becomes a literary celebrity, “Often people or literary establishments (controlled by men) talk of it as a special case, as if she achieved whatever she did because of being a woman,” says Ameeta.

Even content is judged according to the poet’s gender. Ameeta cites Pakistani poet Parveen Shakir, whose themes such as the desire for love and intimacy, sexuality, injustice and gender discrimination attracted censure. “To begin with from her own family members — it is common knowledge her father did not want her to write love poetry — and then from the masses.”

Ameeta says Shakir’s nazm “Misfit” represents “the inner struggles, pains and angst of any woman of her times, who dared to express her desires, complaints, ambitions, etc. She shares in this nazm how such a woman faces the consequence of feeling guilty. Parveen Shakir paid a heavy price for her rebellious poetry, which aimed at changing the image of the ‘ideal Muslim woman’.”

Ironically, remarks Ameeta, the same poet denounced by patriarchal reactionaries for being too outspoken was criticised by feminists for also writing ‘weak’ love poetry, “completely overlooking that individual and political cannot be separated. My question is, do men ever go through such internal conflicts to create a space for their creativity?”

Along with Shakir, poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz have been resolutely pushing the envelope, says Ameeta. “Kishwar Naheed has agitated many minds and evoked reactions by presenting in her work a woman who is powerful, has a mind of her own, defies the mould.”

With poets from various communities taking to writing Urdu Shayari, and women constantly breaking stereotypes, would the “ideal Muslim woman” image not become obsolete?

“Times have changed, no doubt, but when it comes to the relationship between a woman and the society, the concept of the ‘ideal woman’ has not changed. It has simply expanded to include more features like ‘she earns too’. But even today a ‘good’ woman is expected not to assert, leave alone demand!”

Meanwhile, women mostly remain primary caregivers to children and family elders, notes Ameeta. “Would that not have implications for the larger chunk of their experiences and their poetry?” But here, the ‘good’ woman’s writing is not accepted as universal enough.

“For a long time, creative work based on women’s perspectives, experiences and sensitivity has been trivialised. According to Ada Jafari, the first shayra to ever write about herself as a wife and a mother, thus impacting the existing idiom for women’s writings, ‘Patriarchy has suppressed women writers and their poetry’.”

Ameeta even quotes a journalist in a south Indian publication who disparagingly referred to the use of the first-person pronoun (the third person is considered more dignified): “I is the resort of neurotic women poets.”

Even “honest and mature poets” feel “good poetry has to be about the bigger issues, issues beyond the individual,” recounts Ameeta. When women write on ‘universal’ themes, “the accusation which follows is that they are trying to be different, trying the masculine terrains! Their authenticity is questioned too,” she says, wondering why poetic themes need be categorised by gender.

Naheed says, “Male writers till recently never approved of or appreciated women's themes. Women poets take up universal as well as themes ingrained in the conflict between man and woman. Right from terrorism to child abuse to honour killings — [these] are more relevant subjects for women poets.” She says while male Pakistani writers do agree these are worthy subjects, they don’t explore them themselves. But, observes Naheed, when women do, like when she and fellow Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz write on themes related to girls’ education, menstruation, marriage and divorce, the “male critics write a one-liner just naming the women poets.”

Naheed says this discrimination is limited to the subcontinent. Still, Raza sees a hopeful change. “Women poets have created spaces for themselves and their merit has been recognised,” he states. “Many of them have refused to be recognised as 'khawatiin' and the quality of their work speaks loud and clear.”

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:56:30 AM |

Next Story