A tete-a-tete with born rebel Kishwar Naheed
Kishwar Apa, as she is known among her friends and fans, needs no introduction. Her work has been translated into many languages. Although she has done a lot for women liberation but she does not like to be called a feminist.
She hailed from a conservative Muslim family where girls were not allowed to pursue higher education but being a born rebel she defied the odds with the help of her mother and went to college.
She didn’t stop there as she went on to write several books, including poetry, prose and her autobiography. She is also a regular columnist. Her latest book of poetry is ‘Sheerien Sukhani Say Paray’.
Q: How do you look at your life?
A: Quaid-e-Azam said ‘Kam Kam aur Kam’, I said write, write and write. It was very difficult in the beginning. Everybody told me that “you are washing your dirty linen in public by writing such words”.
But I got into a lot of trouble after I translated Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as the book got banned and warrants were issued against Najam Sethi and me, we got the bail, however, the case proceeded against us. The case only got wrapped up when we showed during the proceedings that the book is about sociology.
Then during Ziaul Haq’s era, Habib Jalib would say that I am a government servant but Faiz Ahmed Faiz would say “let our people work in government”. Faiz Sahib advised me not to leave government service.
Wherever in the world I went they translated my poems but they would ask me to recite my poetry in Urdu. Now it has been published in Italian as well. They also invited me to Rome for a lecture and poetry reading.
But things would have been much better if the government helped us, instead of creating hurdles.
I have visited many universities and whenever I enter those universities, girls stand up and recite ‘Hum Gunhaa Gar Aurtein’.
However, I can never go back to Punjab University, my alma mater, because of Islami Jamiat-e-Taliba.
I am very fond of that place as I met many people, including Patras Bukhari, Faiz, Abid Ali Abid, and Ehsan Danish, there. These people encouraged me to ‘write, write and write’.
Q: What do you think about PTI government?
A: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was bound to come into power as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan People’s Party lost the support of people. People thought they should now pin their hopes on a third party—Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. No one ever said that Imran Khan was progressive and these are the sorts of people who have always managed to exert greater political influence in Pakistan. Religious parties also dictate other political parties.
Q: Tell us more about your work?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I was in government service, however, I was sent home during martial law and they didn’t even pay me my salary. This is when I started working for women in the inner parts of Lahore. There were many women there, who along with doing household work, also used to sew clothes for a living. They were getting paid 8 anas for a shirt and 2 rupees for a shalwar. However, when you asked their husbands what their wives do they would say nothing. In villages, women worked for 18 hours. Whenever I used to tell them that they work for 18 hours and are still able to manage everything, they would reply: “you forgot to mention one chore; we are also beaten every day”. Their men would come home at night drunk and would beat them upon refusal to have sex. I was in awe of these women and couldn’t help but notice mistreatments.
During the course of my work, I encountered many interesting incidents and some I just can’t get out of my mind. For instance, I visited a village once—I used to visit a lot of villages, I think I have visited all the villages of Pakistan—while I was working for a radio and used to talk about women rights, an old woman came up to me and asked: “Could you please tell me if I could buy these rights from any bazaar?”
[Recalling another incident] I and Madeeha Gohar along with some other friends once did a theatre inside old Lahore about family planning. We were going to perform in the vicinity of Masjid Wazir Khan. Moulvi sahib there called Azaan 10 minutes earlier because he also wanted to watch our theatre.
When I used to go to villages to spread awareness about family planning, women would say you should try to convince our husbands, not us.
We need to realise that men need to be educated more. These days what we do is that we would marry off an educated girl to an illiterate man, who is working as a taxi driver abroad, just so that she could get out of this country.
Education is not a priority here but money is.
Q: You were practicing dance at one point in your life. Why didn’t you continue with that?
A: Yes, I was learning it before partition but once we migrated to Pakistan we didn’t have our own house. We stayed at Khala’s house for two years in one room. There were many restrictions at that house. We were not even allowed to talk to the cousins. So, I started spending most of my time reading books. I even read Urdu and English dictionaries. I got addicted to books. I think I love books more than my children.
Q: Who inspired you? Did you start your writing career with poetry or prose?
I used to read a lot of prose and have very fond memories of my mother reciting poetry to me, while I was in her lap.
When Jagghan Nath Azad came I told him that I hear your first Ghazal ‘Tum Nay Kiya Yaad’.
[Talking about her university education and later pursuits]I was offered a bicycle and 75 rupees by Hamid Nizami so that I could cover my university expenses but my family didn’t approve of it.
I wrote short stories for Pakistan Times when Elyse Faiz and Dr Riffat Rashid were editors. Also, I learned a lot during my visits to villages. I consider that as part of my training as well.
Earlier, my work used to get published on children pages. But later Aziz Sidiqi and Beena Sarwar persuaded me to start writing for Frontier Post.
[Recalling a childhood incident] I was very fond of writing so I even made many pen pals. I used to receive many letters. I remember when I was in ninth class, a man even asked me to meet him but my family intervened.
Q: Was Yousuf Kamran your first and only love?
A: Yousuf was my class fellow and we used to go to Mushairas together. Whenever I used to win a trophy in one of these poetry competitions, I used to hide it from my family. While going out of the house, I used to wear burka due to family pressure but as soon as I would step outside the house I would take it off.
And now many women from foreign countries, including Japan, Australia, Korea India and Italy, have done their thesis on me.
Q: India Supreme Court has recently given a verdict in favour of same-sex marriage. You have also narrated your experience in one of your books. What do you think about the verdict?
A: Yes, it was in Burry Aurat Kee Katha and it was childish. I think it is very natural and part of every society.
Q: What inspires you the most?
A: Many things inspire me; partition inspired me.
My father was an active part of the Muslim League and he was jailed for this. So, I was introduced to jail very early in my life.
People used to admire film actresses; we admired girl students of Aligarh who would wear Kala Burka and white Gharara and would go to university dressing up like this.
I always wanted to be like them.
A girl from our town was abducted during the 1947 riots and when she came back the news spread. Everybody rushed to see her. I could just see her feet covered with blood and dust and I cannot take her picture out of my mind.
Women are not treated well since their birth; they are told at a very young age that they had to bring water for their brothers, press their clothes and do all of their chores and even when it comes to food ‘one boti, one aalo’ for girls and two for boys.
All these things had a great impact on me.
I am grateful to my mother for sending me to school.
Q: Do you have any unfulfilled desires?
A: I never desired anything; I was never a big fan of jewelry and didn’t like to wear silk.
However, I developed a taste for saris during martial law. Now I have stopped wearing them too.
I never liked covering my head so never covered. Even during Zia’s regime, I never covered my head and wrote a column when Shireen Mazari covered hers under pressure.
I don’t think so there is any harm in covering one’s head.
Q: If you were given the opportunity to live again, would you have lived it any differently?
A: No. I think I am pretty much content with the choices I have made.
Q: Would you like to give a comment on your work life?
A: My work life has always been very dynamic. Work would find its place even when I was home in the form of different projects. One such project was Dance Festival that I organised in Karachi. The same event led to my resignation because Sheikh Rasheed voiced his opinions over the festival, saying that the event was against the norms of the society. Even when I was pushed to my house after resignation, I kept in touch with different groups trying to make their lives better, and again my work came back into my life, even within the vicinity of my home.
Zaman Khan is a journalist and former staffer at Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.