The Reluctant Feminists II

Unlike Jamila Hashmi, Kishwar Naheed’s feminism came in bright colors and was audible even from miles away. She comes out as a woman passionately advocating empowerment of the female. Now that Kishwar Naheed, whom I call Maasi is in her 70s, one can sometimes only see traces of the vivacious and rebellious young woman she was during the 1970s. The Pakistani society, especially the intellectual circle in Lahore, was liberal and it was fashionable to claim to be left of center (some prominent female writers even used the movement to find right husbands). Kishwar Naheed of those days was known less for her poetry and more for her brazenly bold persona. She was also quite sought after due to her position of director Pakistan National Centre Lahore. Those were the days when writers were not as affluent as they later became under Zia’s regime. Poets and fiction writers took pride in their ideology and had a lot of darveshi in them. Most intellectuals would gather in the evening at Pak Tea House or those who could afford it used to go to Shezan at the Diyal Singh mansion on The Mall, Lahore. During the day, Kishwar Maasi’s office in the Alfalah building was a much sought after place for all. It was fascinating to see her conduct the business of her office efficiently while entertaining her visitors at the same time. She was a tough taskmaster and not a boss to be toyed around with. Later, she was made editor of the official literary magazine Mahe Nau. Her last position in Lahore was as the Director-General of the Urdu Science Board to which she was appointed by the first Benazir Bhutto government. Her appointment to the Board created a lot of consternation amongst the Ashfaq Ahmed-Bano Qudsia gang because up until then Ashfaq Ahmed was of the view that the military dictator Ziaul Haq had appointed him DG for life. Kishwar Maasi confronted this opposition and propaganda most gracefully like a real dervish while Ashfaq Ahmed filled with anger could not even be the shadow of the Sufi he so pretended to be.

Left to right Bano Qudsia and Begum Intizaar Hussain
Left to right Bano Qudsia and Begum Intizaar Hussain

[quote]Ashfaq Ahmed, filled with anger, could not even be the shadow of the Sufi he so pretended to be[/quote]

The literary scene in the country, which was dominated by Lahore, comprised of gangs or prominent individuals. Even the ideologically oriented groups were structured around personalities. For instance, there were the Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Wazir Agha, Ashfaq-Bano-Qudratullah Shahab-Mumtaz Mufti and Faiz Ahmed Faiz groups, among a few others. The more liberal and socioeconomically mobile used to congregate around Faiz sahib. There were times when inter-group battles akin to gang warfare would take place (all verbal). There were also personalities beyond politics like Sufi Ghulam Mustafa. Tabassum. I would place my own mother and Kishwar Maasi in the last category. In fact, Maasi Kishwar could have made a gang of her own since she was very social. Her house, initially in Krishan Nagar and later Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore was a center of activity almost every evening. She would return from work and cook for herself and husband and poet Yusuf Kamran, and their two sons Moazzam and Faisal. But there were always plenty of guests. She used to host great dinner parties and would really go out of her way to take care of people. There were those like Zahid Dar who were fascinated by her and would come to her house every evening as if they would to the astaana of a pir. Then there were others, who would benefit from her hospitality yet talk behind her back.

Dar was not the only one fascinated by her. There were youngsters like me who were overawed by her glamour. She was certainly the saviour every year on my birthday when she would come to temporarily rescue me and my friends from the milad party my mother organized. It was unimaginable to think of her joining a religious event. She would silently open the door of the room where milad was happening and gesture to me and my friends to come out. What a happy moment it would be for me, short lived though, as we would soon bump into my mother who would stare at Kishwar Maasi and protest Kishwar tu mera milad na kharab karya ker (Kishwar don’t ruin my milad) and take us back into the room. However, she would do her spoiling act every year and would get invited by my mother without fail. As mentioned earlier, the two women were very different from each other yet very good personal friends. Their relationship certainly did not depend on shared ideologies or views but loyalty towards each other that was passed on to me after my mother’s death in 1988. Indeed Maasi is one of the few people from amongst my mother’s friends who accompanied me twice to Bahawalpur to bury my parents.

Referring to my fascination with her you can imagine the excitement when she once landed at our house to stay there for three days. She had some issue with her husband so had left her house to be at ours. Later, her husband and in-laws came to negotiate her return. Perhaps, people around would take this aforementioned incident as something that was normal in those days but it is obvious that there were limits to the freedoms of even a feminist. Though one should certainly not take this incident as reflecting on the personality of Kishwar Naheed whom Ahmed Bashir referred to as chappan churi or about whom others said, Kishwar toN tey biwiyaaN nooN parda karwana chahhida hey (wives should be hidden from Kishwar). Indeed, she had two worlds (or maybe more) – the one that people so talked about was the only one they could see, then there was the other that I had a chance to meet sometimes, if not too often, and which I found equally strange.

Kishwar Naheed and Jillani Bano
Kishwar Naheed and Jillani Bano

I was in my early teens that I had my first chance to meet the other Kishwar Naheed. This was early 1980s and writers from all over Pakistan were invited to the Writer’s Conference by Ziaul Haq’s Academy of Letters in Islamabad. Since my mother had no one at home to leave me with she had no option but to take me along. The only problem being that they couldn’t find me a seat in the same airplane to Islamabad as my mother. I finally got a seat in the next flight with Kishwar Maasi who was asked to bring me along. Perhaps, my mother knew the other Kishwar, else why would she trust her with me? The reason I emphasize this is because the mutual trust wasn’t as obvious in ordinary days, especially when I was taken to dinner parties at Maasi’s house and made to sit in another room because the conversation in the main sitting area used to be free flowing. My mother’s gripe was that Kishwar doesn’t realize when not to say something in front of children (you can consider this my mother’s over-protection but also those were different times. Those were the days when you were told not to read D.H. Lawrence or Francoise Sagan until you were of age. Now people would consider the fiction of these writers as barely worth raising an eyebrow over). But going back to my journey to Islamabad, as we arrived at the Lahore airport, which was basically a big hall with kiosks spread around it and check-in counters in one corner and a small waiting area in front before you went into an equally small departure lounge, I insisted on buying a bottle of 7-Up. Not that I wanted the drink but was craving for an opportunity to go make the purchase from one of the kiosks myself, a novel thing for me. I remember the shock I felt when Maasi looked at me, made sure that I desperately wanted it, and then sat me in a secure corner before she trooped off to buy my the drink.

[quote]She told me sternly that ours was not a culture that allows time for a man and woman to get to know each other[/quote]

Maybe it was just an accident! But I met this Kishwar Naheed again many years later when my mother was long gone and my personal life was in turmoil. I had gone to ask her a simple question – whether a woman could live on her own and survive. After all, she was one person who had been living on her own since her husband’s death in the 1980s and especially since she moved to Islamabad. It took her seconds to fathom my problem but her response was, “Women go through a lot, even get physically abused to keep their houses together. Don’t think you can’t do it”. Was this the author of ‘Buri Aurat ki Katha’ talking to me? With this kind of answer it was natural for me to hide from her when proverbially the ‘shit hit the fan’ in my life. When we did eventually meet after a few days she repeated her advice. But when I convinced her that I had reached my threshold she stood by me like a solid rock. Yet the reaction of a lot of people who knew her, my mother and I was, “Surely Kishwar must have advised you to take the drastic step?” It was moments like these I knew they didn’t know my Kishwar Naheed who was not even her own ‘bad woman’. A few years later I introduced her to the person with whom I am now happily married but who was only a good friend at the time. I remember getting a phone call from Maasi that evening telling me sternly that ours was not a culture that would allow time for a man and woman to get to know each other. “Just get married” was her order. It is almost that I lived all my life with two Kishwar Naheeds – one who rebels for a woman’s independence, and the other, that willingly conforms to the abhorrent cultural norms of the society. But should we see this as an inner contradiction or a sign of social schizophrenia? Or is it that when Kishwar Naheed says:

“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”

It is less about empowerment and more about lamenting the plight of womanhood, which she is also a part of.

Left to right Muhammad Saleem Akhtar, Kishwar naheed, Ali Ahmed Talpur and Jamila Hashmi
Left to right Muhammad Saleem Akhtar, Kishwar naheed, Ali Ahmed Talpur and Jamila Hashmi

Indeed, the woman of her poems is a creature in pain as if she echoes the trauma of all injustice done to womankind by several generations of men sometimes as a father, a brother, a husband, a son or even a lover. Her characters certainly scream of the pain of being jilted. Yet Kishwar Naheed turned into a matriarch who has protected all colors and shape of men in her life and continues to do so. Intriguingly, she never evolved into the modern happy-go-lucky feminist who couldn’t care less about man-kind. Somewhere, the young girl who wants to be taken care of by strong hands and an embrace and thinks that life could be lived happily ever after, remains. No wonder, she got bruised more. But this is also why she is quick in informing the random hawwa ki beti, who happens to be close to her, how tough is the journey to empowerment.

“Inhey patharun pey chul ker agar a sako tu aawo,

Merey ghar key rastey mein koyee kehkashan nahee hey”

Nisar Aziz anfd Kishwar naheed at a dinner at Jamila Hashmi's
Nisar Aziz anfd Kishwar naheed at a dinner at Jamila Hashmi’s

For both Jamila Hashmi and Kishwar Naheed, their paths were certainly not strewn with any galaxies. What they did, however, was to place the pebbles on the way, under their feet to reach their individual creative and personal universe. What I have learnt from these two women in my life is that no amount of theorising can explain feminism because it comes in varied shapes and forms. Let not your theoretical bias fail you in not recognising a feminist when you see one.

Note: This article originally published here.