Inspiring Thursday: Fahmida Riaz

Born in 1946 in Meerut, India, Fahmida Riaz was a human rights activist, feminist, and one of Pakistan’s best known progressive writers and Urdu poets. Author of over a dozen books on poetry and fiction, she was often regarded as a controversial figure for her use of erotic and sensual themes and allusions in her writings.

The soft fragrance of my jasmine
Floats on the breeze
Plays with the hand of wind
Is setting off in search of your body

She started writing poems at the age of fifteen. Her first collection, Patthar ki Ziban (“The Language of Stones”) was published in 1967, when she was only twenty-two, and launched her as one of the most influential voices within Urdu Poetry. Patthar ki Ziban already showed early traces of a feminist consciousness that would rip through Pakistan’s culture of patriarchy six years later with the publication of her second collection, Badan Dareeda (“Torn Flesh”). Badan Dareeda was Fahmida’s first collection of explicitly feminist verse. The prevalent themes of her poems were considered a taboo by the society of the time: Fahmida wrote about sex, religion, womanhood, pregnancy, menstruation, spirituality and desire. She refused to conform to what were generally regarded as the boundaries of “proper” literary and creative traditions of feminine poetry. In her choice of themes, allusions and similes, Riaz broke out of the inhibitions imposed on her gender. She used her femininity as a weapon to expose the prudishness of the male-oriented traditions of Urdu poetry.

Her verses were written in an extraordinary burst of creativity while she was living in London, trapped in an unhappy marriage. When Badan Dareeda was published in 1973, it received a series of harsh criticisms by conservative literary critics, including being labelled as “pornographic”. However, Fahmida always defended her writings, affirming that they reflected her female identity and experience as a woman, and that there was no reason why she couldn’t express herself when men encountered no such resistance. Since then, Riaz has published four more collections of her poems, has authored several short stories and novels in Urdu, and has translated the writings of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare and the Sufi poetry of Rumi into Urdu.

However, Riaz was not only a writer and a translator. She was also a tireless social critic and an advocate for human rights. Fahmida and her second husband started a political magazine called Awaz, which was closed after the military coup conducted by General Zia-ul-Haq succeeded. She was among the writers who campaigned against Zia’s dictatorship, and because of her political ideology, more than 10 cases were filed against her. Fahmida’s husband was arrested and put in jail under the charge of sedition, while she was able to flee to India with her two children and her sister. After her husband was released from jail, he joined them, and the family lived in self-imposed exile in Delhi for more than seven years, under the protection of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. They returned to Pakistan only after General Zia-ul-Haq’s death. She was greeted with a warm welcome upon her return from exile.

Riaz has travelled widely and lectured at universities and cultural forums in England and the USA. She was given the Himmett Hellman Award for Resistance Literature by Human Rights Watch in 1997 and the Al-Muftah Award for Literature in Karachi in 2005. She also received the Sheikh Ayaz Award for Literature from Sindh Government, and the Presidential Pride of Performance Award for Literature by the President of Pakistan.
She died at the age of 72 in Lahore.

have measured me,
waist, hips, breast,
and all the rest.

The curves
held a heart
and the round skull
a brain.

If I’m valued
just by the inch,
why do you shrink
from tit for tat,

When I start
to measure
some of your

By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern