Born in Meerut in 1946 and brought up in Hyderabad, Fahmida Riaz was a Pakistani feminist poet, writer, and human-rights activist. She was an important pioneer of women´s writing as well as for her radical and feminist political positions in Pakistan, a male-dominated state.
Fahmida published her first poem in the literary magazine Funoon at the age of 15. While attending Zubeida College, she joined the anti-Ayub Khan movement at a time when the military dictator had banned student unions. She wrote against the military action in Balochistan and in favour of the Sindhis who were denied human rights. In the preface of her collection, Dhoop, Fahmida wrote that Pakistani writers expunged Hindi words from Urdu to give a religious colour to the language. She deliberately used many Hindi words in this collection.
Fahmida had to pay a huge price for her unconventional writings. Her first poetry collection, “Paththar Ki Zaban” (Tongue of Stone), was published in 1967 in London, and developed a feminist consciousness. When she returned to Pakistan, after the collapse of her first marriage, she published her second poetry collection, “Badan Dareeda” (The lacerated body), which dealt with female sensuality. It was Fahmida’s first collection of explicitly feminist verse which was revolutionary for a female poet writing in Urdu. The poems were about sex, religion, womanhood, pregnancy, menstruation, spirituality and desire, all themes considered taboo for women writers. Eventually, she was accused of using erotic and sensual expressions in her poetry and her poems received a series of harsh criticisms, including being labelled as “pornographic”. On the other hand, Fahmida said it described how the ‘natural desire and the longing of a woman for a man… is completely disregarded by social customs.’
Pakistan was not ready for a book such as “Badan Dareeda”. Fahmida was blacklisted but she was determined to stay, transformed as she had been during the writing of the book, and her emergence out of her marriage. A string of bitingly critical poems came one after another in literary journals, aimed at General Zia -ul-Haq’s figuration of women’s bodies as the honour of the “Islamic” nation. When Zia made the black chador compulsory for all women across the country, Fahmida responded with the poem: ‘chadar aur chaar diwari’. ‘Four Walls and the Chador:
Master, what do I do / with this black chador / why do you robe
me in it a hundred times / I mourn nothing / to mark my body
with this blackness / let me utter a profanities tonight
there is a nude body in my Master’s house / its naked stench
pulsates in the city’s lanes / witness the nakedness
of the Master / take this black chador / drape it over him
The poem became polemical, and was recited during protests for the restoration of democracy across the country. Fahmida knew that the veil was a crucial motif in several contexts of decolonisation. “Badan Dareeda” became the first expression of a de-colonialization which was not male and which did not exclude the female subject. Fahmida, quite literally and all by herself, heralded a new movement in the Urdu language: she practically started what is now called “decolonial feminism”. Following the publication of this book, and a dozen other poems that she published in literary journals, Fahmida was charged with sedition under the Pakistan Penal Code, and labelled an Indian agent, a traitor. So, she was forced to live in exile for over six years in India during the regime of General Zia -ul-Haq.
Fahmida went into exile in India with the help of her Indian feminist writer friend, Amrita Pritam, under the veneer of becoming a poet in residence at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, and a Senior Research Fellow with Jawaharlal Nehru University. There, Fahmida learnt Sanskrit, and when she re-visited the country in 2018, she took quite an audience by surprise when she produced a poem critiquing Hindu nationalism in India. The poem was titled, ‘Tum bhi hum jaise nikle’. ‘You, too, are Like Us’.
You, too, are like us / the ignorance of this century
that we consumed / you consumed / to decide
who is Hindu and who is not / like a string of fatwas
hail Mother India / Hail Mother India
When Genaral Zia died, Fahmida returned to Karachi in 1988. She published novels and several collections of poetry. Fahmida became an important voice in the transnational feminist circuit, frequently visiting Europe and the United States for literary readings. And where she was critical of the various forms of Islamophilia and Hinduphilia that emerged in the context of decolonisation, she was equally critical of forms of Islamophobia that emerged in the works of secular-liberal white feminists post 9/11. This period of her career consisted of producing a string of poems against the IMF and America’s imperial policy, included in Aadmi ki Zindagi.
At a literary reading at the PEN America Asia Society in New York in 2011, the organisers introduced her as one of the “greatest women’s voices in the Islamic world.” Fahmida took the stage and responded sarcastically: “I cannot resist the temptation to say that it is a great pleasure for me to come to a Presbyterian Christian country, and to see that Protestants are living in peace at last with the Roman Catholics and not butchering them. You see, we don’t see the US as a Christian country. But you see us as Muslim. This is, in fact, what Edward Said might call some kind of orientalism, right? First you define them as such, then you make them feel like as such”. In this way, she resisted the very binary of secular/religious, which she saw as central to the workings of colonialism. Colonialism is a process operationalised through orientalism that could be both phobic, as well as philic. Phobic orientalism was displayed when the white feminist wanted to save the ‘Third World Muslim woman’, casting her as backward, traditional, regressive, and in need of saving. Philic orientalism was the reverse: it was displayed by the male-postcolonialist who wanted to convince the brown feminist that feminism was a “modern” concept and that therefore she needed to return to her own “native culture”. Fahmida, cathected ideologically on both ends, found herself in a double-bind, in a “precarious position”. However, Fahmida did not need to resolve this apparent contradiction since she was a translator knowing that culture has no essence “Language moves; cultures moves, flowing into one another, forming new cultures. Culture is born this way. There is no clash of cultures”.
Fahmida was also appointed managing director of the National Book Council of Pakistan during the first Peoples Party (PPP) government, in 1988 – 1990. In Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure as Prime Minister, she became associated with the Ministry of Culture. In 2009, she was appointed the chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board in Karachi. She was also known as a supporter of progressive causes such as the Woman´s Action Forum and other movements against inequality in Pakistan. Despite failing health in her later years, she continued to comment on politics for as long as she was able. She was particularly despondent about increasing religious fundamentalism in South Asia. She was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition in 2017, and died in November 2018 at the age of 73 after a succession of strokes.
Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights, described her work as showing a unique ‘sensitivity and often sensuality of expression’ in challenging traditions, and reflecting the hidden emotions and experiences of women.
By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern