Swim or sink?

THE Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum at Colombo had organised an interesting conference on New Challenges to Creative Writing on August 27 and 28, this year. This was planned more as a kind of a workshop for Muslim women in Sri Lanka who were either eager to write in Tamil or those who were already into writing. They had invited two Tamil writers as Resource Persons. I was one of them and the other writer was Salma, the poet. Salma's poetry collection entitled Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum, published two years ago, had received very good notices and this was probably the first time that she was going out of Tamil Nadu to share her poetry and talk about creative writing.

Salma's poetry has a quality of evocation. With just a few words, as if they are lazily drawn brush strokes, her poems are capable of creating images of lives lived for centuries. In one of her poems she talks of keeping the doors closed to outsiders and remaining within the confines of the four walls of the house.

She wonders if some angels who had knocked at her door had also been turned away in this process. It was with great enthusiasm and eagerness to talk about creative literature, feminism and other ideologies that all of us met on the first day. Little did we know about the male writers sitting there who had come with their own agenda. After an initial introduction about experience and language and the creative space available for a woman, the session was thrown open for discussion. After all these years of dealing with all kinds of criticism, we were still not prepared for what ensued. A gentleman who belonged to the Progressive Writers' Association got up and told us that he had come for the conference wearing the shoes polished by his wife and shirt ironed by her and that he saw no oppression in all this. It was all loving service (anbu panividai, in his words) and that all of us who were talking about a woman being oppressed at home probably suffered from an inferiority complex.

The initial reaction was just to ignore such interventions and carry on. But it looked like the man would not rest unless he was answered. He was told that there is not much we can discuss with someone who is elated about his wife polishing his shoes and that there was a possibility that he was suffering from a superiority complex. An entire day was wasted in this kind of discussion after which the organisers and the various resource persons decided to take things in their hands and structure the next day's proceedings. The next day, right at the beginning, the men who were raising basic questions were told that if they could tell us what they wanted to know we will suggest books that they should read and that they should not waste time discussing theoretical issues for there were women writers, young and old, who had come from long distances in Sri Lanka to share their work and who wanted very much to talk.

We also told them politely that they should curb their natural desire to advise women, for, none of us really needed their advice. On the other hand, it would do them a lot of good to listen to what we had to say. After that there was a lot of poetry reading, reading of papers on portrayal of women in the media and on ideology and literature and other papers on different aspects of literature highlighting the gender issues. At the end of the day, some of the people who had assembled there came and read their poetry. Some poems were on young girls marrying old men, some on the dowry system and some an appeal to God to change people's hearts. This final session began with some folk songs from the eastern province where women sing about their lives. One of the songs was really moving. It is from a book on the subject written by Professor A. Nuhman. Some women who are educated have the habit of writing what they feel in the form of poetry and sending it to those who they think are responsible for their present situation. A woman who had married a fisherman and was abandoned by him because she was barren writes it. She writes a series of poems to her husband's relatives.

The poem begins with the customary praise to God and then lists her sorrows and in the end she gives her salaam to everybody.

Zulfika from the Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum sang it out:

Ungrateful they became

Plucked the flesh from under my nail

Placed a knife at my neck

What dialogue can there be in future?

Called me barren, Called me names

And chaff I have become

In Raguman Mami's hands

Have become like melting candle

And my heart like wax

Turned the colour of a mustard seed

Ever since this worry has begun

A barren tree will bear fruit

And a bird will offer its feathers

The moon will do me salaam

When my story is told

Even if I write

Turning the sea into ink

And the forest into paper

Sister-in-law, my sorrow won't be over

I sing with sorrow

Because tears flow from my eyes,

My blouse is all wet

Do take a look, sister-in-law

Those who read this

And those who told me to write this

And those who hear it

Let all be blessed

Zulfika does not have a professional singer's voice but this song sung in her untrained voice had a great impact and it totally transformed the nature of the poetry-reading session.

It made the entire workshop worthwhile. The person most affected by the workshop was of course, Salma. Salma's poetry is appreciated here for its quality. And she had come to this workshop with a great need to read out her poetry and talk about herself. She soon realised that not many there had read her poetry and those had read them had a lot of advice to give her about how to write poetry as a Muslim woman. The same people who had disrupted the proceedings the first day kept telling her, "You are a Muslim woman and so," followed by a long list of do's and don'ts. One of them told her, "If you write poetry like this, how will your husband like it?" All the Muslim girls and women who had come there were instructed to say assalaam alaikum first and vanakkam later. Those men sat there as protectors of the Islamic tradition as if all of us women had gathered there with the specific purpose of destroying it.

Something Mahatma Gandhi said echoed in my mind: It is good to swim in the waters of tradition; but to sink in them is suicidal.

I also carried with me the worried look on the face of Salma and her words: I am afraid, because they are looking at me only as a Muslim; my poetry doesn't seem to matter.

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).


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