The World Beyond Faiz: Meet The 'Sinful' Female Urdu Protest Poets Of Our Times
The crowd at Shaheen Bagh sat in rapt attention as the protest poet Iqra Khilji spoke truth to power, poetically. Holding the government accountable for alleged atrocities on the protestors uniting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, she recited – “Tifl bhi na jisne bakshe tum use badnam kardo. Is hukumat is police ki tum haqeeqat aam kardo (Expose those who were not kind to even the children)."
A law student from NLU, Khilji grew up reciting Ghalib and Iqbal. She started writing in English at 6, and Urdu poetry came to her at the age of 11. After school, her interest died down and returned only in 2018. “I think the turmoil within and around me, the multiple crises and the anger as a woman, the despair as a Muslim, revived the poet in me,” said Khilji on how protesting in Urdu poetry happened to her, again.
Women protest poets aren't new. And the ever-increasing list of these women often gets missed even by the likes of Roger Waters. But their voices are not to be ignored.
For many of them, now, the joy is finding their work in graffitis and in being quoted at protest sites are satisfaction enough. Urdu protest poet Nabiya Khan, a student of History, has found people using her latest poem “Ayega Inquilab pehenki bindi, chudiyan, bura, hijab” as graffiti, in posters, and on placards. She has seen videos of women reciting it with fervour in different sit-in protests.
“I believe there is nothing more indomitable than poetry is. Amidst the ubiquitous misdemeanor to silence dissent, I have gotten my voice in the work of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Agha Shahid Ali,” said Khan.
As a woman, she said she is “moved by empathy and disturbed by hate.” “My poetry is my protest against the tyranny of our times. I dream of a world that withholds metaphors and the pen becomes mightier than the sword has become and that too in the most actual sense of the phrase,” said Khan.
Impressed with the work of the young Muslim women protest poets like Iqra and Nabiya is a law student, a poet, and a clapper to qawwalis-- Shraddha Meer from Ahmedabad. She pointed out the celebrated Urdu women poets are majorly from Pakistan and in the current political turmoil, the contemporary Indian women are finding a voice in Urdu speaking truth to power. “I feel this could be another moment of Urdu poetry, where women are finding a voice unique to womanhood and beyond that,” she said and added, “… there are so few women Urdu poet, most are from Pakistan.”
An ardent supporter of Urdu poetry and Mumbai based organization Katha Kathan Jameel Gulrays has seen the protest poetry in times of fight for citizenship by young Muslim women. The assertion by them is the sign of a community socially improving – “There was a time when women were not educated. If educated, then they would not be allowed to move out of their homes. They were expected to write munajatand nath (devotional/supplication). Parvin Shakir composed ghazal… bas toofan aagaya. The tradition of breaking boundaries continues with young girls as protest poets,” he said.
In these times, he is reminded of Pakistani poet Fehmida Riaz who sought asylum in India under the Indira Gandhi regime to run away from the repression of her voice in Pakistan. He revisited her work – “Tum Bilkul Hum Jaise Nikle”, which is more relevant than ever. The poem compares the rising Hindutva in India and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan during Zia-ul-Haq's regime.
She wrote a moving poem in the wake of Babri mosque demolition in 1992.“This is a poetry that Riaz sent to LK Advani during rath yatra… everything she said in it is coming true.” On 8 March 2014, against the backdrop of rising concerns over intolerance in India, Riaz recited her poem “Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley” at a seminar called ‘Hum Gunahgaar Auratein’.
The protest poets Khilji and Khan are influenced by Riaz, Shakir and famous poet Kishwar Naheed who wrote, “We sinful women” – “Hum Gunehgar Auratein.”
The poetry is about the sinful women who raise the banner of truth as translation by Ruksana Ahmad highlights: “It is we sinful women who come out raising the banner of truth up against barricades of lies on the highways who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.”
Dr. Mahwash Shoaib, instructor English and Humanities Division, Central Piedmont Community College Central Campus, North Carolina who wrote a paper “A Dictionary to Define My Dreams”: The Politics of Remembrance and Forgetting in Kishwar Naheed’s Poetry” told News18 that earlier, many women writing Urdu poetry fell into the traditional mode of romantic poetry. "Then, Naheed and Riaz employed alternately classical Urdu diction and colloquial terminology, and consciously broke from the ghazal tradition in Urdu poetry to write in azad nazm/free verse and nazm muarra/blank verse to appeal to the common reader."
Naheed and Riaz--The two poets led a group of women poets in Pakistan. The protests poets in India are inspired by their work as well. “Besides gender segregation, the two women poets questioned the suppression of justice and the legal framework created to invalidate civil rights during the martial law in Pakistan. Not all women poets of their generation and after wrote in this overtly political, feminist manner (the division between ‘feminine’ and ‘feminist’ in Urdu poetry has been lately challenged by academics even as Naheed and Riaz evolved as poets to challenge global imperialism and find transnational allies in like-minded writers.”
The academic pointed out that their “resistance poetry confronts authority and is an affirmation of hope simultaneously, the tone remains triumphant even to the end.”
The noted literary writer and critic Ashok Vajpayee said that there has been a tradition of Urdu protest poetry – not just Urdu but in other Urdu languages. Vajpayee noted that there is a certain kind of fearlessness and with this have recourse to writing their own lines, using phrases coined by others in “in an emotional and poetic way, which is creating impact and drawing attention to their plight.”
“There has been protest poetry by the under-privileged like women, Dalits and minorities. They have their own experience of living in growing majoritarian India, which has been behind this provocation to fight,” he said, adding, “Citizenship is seen by them under jeopardy, which makes them cite the constitution. It is being cited by Muslim women, the preamble is people charter, the national anthem is being sung and tri colour flourished. All the symbols of patriotism which Hindutva brigade tried to usurped have nullified by them through a kind of symbolism, which is deeply poetic.”
Challenges as women Urdu protest poets
The young protest poets find themselves under-celebrated as male voices still bask in the attention.
Khan said, “We were at a place recently reciting with other poets. And when we left the event, we discovered that we were not even covered by the official handle of the event page for reasons better known to them. We have also seen influential media houses with big names covering only male poets while ignoring us. There is a bias and we cannot deny.”
Khilji, however, sees it differently. Though the past three months since the protests against the CAA began, poetries “have altered the optics of our society drastically. Completely different worlds have mixed together.”
The protest poet found that women who never left their homes are out on the roads. "Women from very different worlds have come to meet them and share their pain and fight alongside them.”
This celebration of the proclamation of freedom from patriarchy and fascism is best done in the voices of women. “However,” she added, “the challenge is in the fact that we're fighting multiple battles and if we speak of patriarchy one day and fascism the other, our allies in one battle will fight us in the other. But we must fight all the battles. No cause can take a backseat.”
Writing poetry in the Urdu language is itself an act of revolution for Khan. “Right wing governments have always tried to portray it as a foreign language and otherized it. They have propagated the view that this language belongs to Muslims which is not true. It was originated in India,” she said.
The Muslim women protest poets imagine a world free and fair. Their poetry brings the oppressed to the platform of empowerment but will they see the lines of rebellion translating into reality?
The question can be dealt with the way Khilji’s friend from Kashmir compared her to Agha Shahid Ali. He said, “But Agha never saw peace in his homeland, I hope you do.”