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Kishwar Naheed looks back



Khalid Hasan


As Kishwar resisted getting a divorce, despite fears of her husband�s infidelity, she was terse in her self-analysis, �It�s as if you keep a dog at the gate. Just keep the husband at the gate and stop people from making up stories about you�


ishwar Naheed has not been known for mincing her words or prettifying the ugly. Afraid neither of the holy terrors who rule the roost in an increasing number of places, no more so than in the columns of the Urdu press, nor of the coercive agencies that run Pakistan�s inner establishment, Kishwar has had more than her share of detractors. At the same time, she has not been, and is not, short of friends who admire her for her courage, her tenacity, her work for the cause of women and the powerful poetry she has written.

To someone like me who has long known and admired Kishwar, it was no surprise, therefore, to find her in full flow in a book recently published here in America by the Iranian-born Shahla Haeri who runs the women�s studies programme at Boston University. �No shame for the sun� is a collection of five long interviews with �professional� Pakistani women, the four besides Kishwar being Quratul Ain Bakhteari (a social worker from Balochistan) Rahila Tiwana (the PPP activist who was tortured and raped in 1990), Ayesha Siddiqa (who writes every week in the TFT) and Sajida Mokarram Shah (a feminist and mystic from Peshawar).

Shahla Haeri, who spent extended periods in Pakistan in the 1990s conducting her interviews with these five women, reproduces her conversations with them as they took place. Since all these women come from different backgrounds and have undergone different experiences, collectively their stories open a whole new window on the life of the Pakistani woman, never before put together so comprehensively and with such authenticity.

Kishwar�s account of her life is the most brutally frank, something characteristic of her. She rebelled against her middle class, deeply conservative family, Sayyeds from UP, by falling in love with her university classmate, Yusuf Kamran, a Punjabi Kashmiri, and declaring to her shocked parents and siblings that she was going to marry him and marry him right away. He hesitated initially but then relented. She moved into the single rented room where Yusuf lived. When she went back home later to pick up her things, her brother said to her, �You cannot have them. You do not belong to the family. You have nothing here.� Yusuf�s family was no nicer. One of his sisters-in-law raided their room one day and took away what little she found there, including the single quilt that kept them warm and a bag of lentils that would have produced several meals.

Kishwar had already made her name as a poet. She soon found a part-time job, as did Yusuf. The first time she got paid for a mushaira, they bought a cupboard, their only material possession. Kishwar writes, �The whole night I looked at that cupboard and thought how beautiful it looked; how nice it was having it there.� If Kishwar is cynical about men, she has more reason to feel that way than most women. She writes that Yusuf never let her forget that it was because of her insistence that he had got married, otherwise he had no such plans. He also constantly suspected her of behaviour bordering on infidelity. Three months after they were married, he took off for America. Her mother-in-law offered no consolation. �This is the profession of men, to go out. There is nothing new in it. He will come back. Why are you crying?� Then she added that Yusuf was a handsome fellow (which he indeed was) and it was only natural that women would fall for him. So there.

He returned but paid little attention to her, happy with his friends and chasing women or being chased by them. But that notwithstanding, he made her bear him two children, both boys. Realising that she had made a mistake, she asked Yusuf for a divorce. But he was adamant: �I will never divorce you. And I�ll take away the children.� So Kishwar went on with the marriage. She told Haeri that she did not want people to say that she had been defeated and thrown aside and, secondly, in Pakistani society, a single woman was the butt of scandals. �It�s as if you keep a dog at the gate. Just keep the husband at the gate and stop people from making up stories about you,� she added tersely.

Meanwhile, she was doing well professionally. She was quite famous now and she had a nice government job. She had her own fully furnished house. Her family began to make overtures to her but she could not forget the way they had treated her. She says she never received any love from her mother and she felt none for her. She gave all her other children jewellery and valuables but not a red cent�s worth to her.

Kishwar told her interviewer, �Life for me is in the toil. I never wished to be a begum. I never wanted to be a person with jewellery or with cosmetics. I wanted to be myself.� Yusuf went off to Saudi Arabia and died of a heart attack there in 1984. He was just 45. When he left, Kishwar says, �I knew he was running off, and I knew this was the end of our relationship because I would never go to him and he would never ask me to do so�. He was also having a serious affair with an Anglo-Pakistani woman from Lahore. When he died and his papers were sent over to Kishwar, she found much evidence in them for the affair. He had left no money, just letters, including an unfinished one to his girlfriend. She says she did not stop crying for six months, although when she had heard that he was dead, she had felt both �pain and relief�.

But love often moves in subterranean ways. Three days after his death, she wrote a poem about him:

�From the tree on which two sparrows were wed

He chose the timber for his last journey

The same silver shade

Under which lovers are joined

He chose for his last robe

With the same blind belief

Which turns trust to worship

He closed his eyes

In a new surrender

He was an ocean

Yet he appeared confined

I, a small stream

Spilled over the banks

Till the wedding of that age of sparrows

He will still live in the soul of that tree

And I shall search for him

On the island of my ignorance.�

Kishwar told Haeri in one conversation, �You see our society is not a uniform society, unlike Western societies where the process of development has been smoother and on a much grander scale. Twenty percent of our population is going towards the 21st century and 80 percent of the population is still living in the 14th century. The faces reflect the Western image but their background is rooted in their body. The dichotomy of the two systems that are in them does not let them behave as civilised people � It goes for both men and women.�

Well, as always, Kishwar Naheed hit that big nail on the head with the dainty but unerring hammer she operates with such deadly accuracy.

 (Friday Times)

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