Fahmida Riaz, the woman who decolonised feminism

Through translation, Fahmida could move across temporalities and geographies. She was dictated by no singular logic
Updated 01 Dec, 2018

She used to refer to herself as a midnight’s child: those unfortunate few born on the stroke of the midnight that produced a crack in the Subcontinent, leading to the newly formed modern nation states of India and Pakistan.

In a single moment, the fabric of human co-existence was undone: a country where many cultures had existed in a synchretised fashion for eons, were suddenly marked as communally different: Hindus on the one hand, Muslims on the other. This communalisation of medieval Indian history, fabricated through colonial historiography, became naturalized the moment the two communities internalised the myth and decided that they wanted separate homelands.

The grounds of Meerut, where the Ramayana took root, had to be abandoned, and Riaz-ud-Din Ahmed, Fahmida’s father and a teacher, was transferred to the province of Sindh to help the new country develop a national education scheme. Men of the new country were desperate for a ‘Muslim’ national culture, just as their neighbours were desperate for a ‘Hindu’ national culture.

And Fahmida, woman, Other, would soon come to know that the men’s desires to protect the new nation would find a metaphor in the woman’s body.

This is, in fact, what happened. On both sides of the border. First, it began with the violence of Partition itself. Men on either side abducting the women they saw as belonging to the Other, so as to indicate that they had defiled the nation of the Other. Rape became a metaphor: penetrating into the enemy’s nation, as the woman’s body. Subsequently, to save one’s nation from the threat of the Other was to protect “one’s” woman.

The period between the 70s and the 80s marked the zenith point in such post-colonial trauma. In India, posters were released on the eve of Indira Gandhi’s death depicting her as a bleeding mother on the shoulders of an Indian soldier.

During 1971, Lata Mangeshkar took the stage in a saree, the hem of which was the Indian flag, as she prepared to sing 'Ai mere watan ki logon'. The woman’s body was India incarnate. In Pakistan, similar representations followed suit: Zia emerged on the political scene, with a particular embellishment of a Muslim nationalism the likes of which we had never witnessed. The Hudood laws were enacted in 1979. The women had to be disciplinarised into culturally authentic subjects. Fahmida was thirty-two at this time. Only five years ago, she had published Badan Dareeda (Torn Body), and all hell had broken loose.

Badan Dareeda was called pornographic, at odds with the values of “Muslim culture” – whatever that meant for the men.

Fahmida wrote the collection in London, where she found herself in an unhappy marriage which was arranged shortly after her graduation from the University of Sindh. She did not consider herself a politically conscious person at this time. She settled into life and marriage with the resignation of a passenger who quietly settles into an empty chair on a moving train.

In London, Fahmida did things to pass time: she read news on the BBC radio, and enrolled in a film-making course at the London Film School. But the drudgeries of middle-class married life soon closed in on her. The period between 1969 and 1974 was marked by a sense of personal tragedy. Badan Dareeda was written in an extraordinary burst of creativity during these six years, at the end of which Fahmida was able to obtain a divorce and return to Pakistan, into the limelight of literary circles.

But there are certain shades of limelight, as wrote Truman Capote, that can destroy your skin. This is what happened to Fahmida. The poems were about sex, religion, womanhood, pregnancy, and menstruation. Pakistan was not ready for a book such as Badan Dareeda: quickly changing as it was under the law of Zia, who had decided to place the nation’s honour inside woman’s bodies. 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 Zia’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 an 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, who had read Fanon and Assia Djebar at the University of Sindh, knew that the veil was a crucial motif in several contexts of decolonisation. She loathed this male form of decolonisation. Fanon himself has spoken of the colonial project as “Algeria Unveiled” in A Dying Colonialism, describing Algeria as a veiled woman threatened to be unveiled by the coloniser, a metaphor for rape, as Rita Faulker later observed.

In such male iterations of the decolonial, Algeria was depicted as a woman who must refuse colonialism, in response, by taking on the veil. The woman was nothing but an object, a commodity in the nation making of men.

Fahmida’s first poems, therefore, were haunted with what Gayatri Spivak would call “a knowing, in her gendering, that nation and identity are commodities in the strictest sense: something made for exchange. And women are the medium of that exchange.”

Badan Dareeda became the first expression of a decolonialisation which was not male: 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 my generation would call decolonial feminism. But Zia was not happy. Following the publication of this book, and a dozen other poems that she published in literary journals, Fahmida was charged with sedition under Section 124A of the Pakistan Penal Code, and labelled an Indian agent, a traitor.

And thus, like all traitors, she was exiled, as outcasts are exiled from clans: clans that always operate a logic of sameness. And the Other is not the Same. The Other shatters the illusion of Sameness from within.

But she was no Indian agent: for India had emerged as the post-colony through the same processes as Pakistan. And the same forms of male decolonisation that Fahmida resisted were beginning to emerge there, as in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, 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. It is here that 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

It is rare to find someone treat with polemic the country which was once the host of one’s own exile. But not with Fahmida. She had no country. Language was her only country. She created a world for herself in language.

There, she was no different from her female Hindu counterparts: all of them knowing, in their gendering, that they belonged more so to each other, in body and blood, than to their men, or to their nation.

General Zia died in a plane crash. Fahmida returned to Karachi in 1988. She published two novels, and several collections of poetry. At this point, 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.

Who could possibly forget, for instance, the way in which Fahmida took an audience quite by surprise at a literary reading at the PEN America Asia Society in New York in 2011, where 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”, a remark which sent the room roaring into laughter. She continued: “You see, we don’t see the US as a Christian country. But you see us as Muslim.’ She went on to cite Edward Said and said: “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, etc.” Eventually, the organisers of the event publicly issued an apology to Fahmida.

Fahmida, cathected ideologically on both ends, found herself in a double-bind, in a “precarious position”, to echo Spivak, “within a divided loyalty: being a woman, being in the nation, and without allowing the West to save her.”

In this manner, Fahmida resisted the very binary of secular/religious, which she saw as central to the workings of colonialism.

Colonialism is a process operationalised through orientalisms 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”.

And Fahmida, cathected ideologically on both ends, found herself in a double-bind, in a “precarious position”, to echo Spivak, “within a divided loyalty: being a woman, being in the nation, and without allowing the West to save her.”

So, how did Fahmida resolve this apparent contradiction? She did not need to. Because, we are forgetting, Fahmida was a translator, after all, and a translator knows, that culture, in the strictest sense, has no essence. And how is culture expressed except through language? Language moves; cultures moves.

Fahmida’s beautiful ideas on translation were expressed not only through her prefaces to her translated works of Attiya Dawood, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Mevlana Rumi, and Forough Farrokhzad, but also through her eye-opening interviews.

She was fluent in English, Urdu, Sindhi, and Persian, having internalised these languages to such an extent that to root her to one cultural or linguistic tradition became a near impossibility.

Often, interviewers would try to do this and impose a nationalist teleology onto her work. If transcribed and read textually, these interviews are marked by a tension between the interviewer and interviewee. She refused to elide into the figure of the interviewer, to mirror him; just as she had refused to mirror the nation through a logic of sameness.

This tension was also gendered: the male interviewer convincing her to claim a “native” culture; she sabotaging this attempt. Sabotage is the main rhetorical device that guides the movement of these interviews. It was always like game of chess with Fahmida. She liked playing such games during our conversations. These conversations were cyclical and vertiginous. I should like to remain silent about them.

"You have to understand that culture can have no essence," said Fahmida. "Cultures move, flowing into one another, forming new cultures. Culture is born this way. There is no clash of cultures.”

I return to sabotage: the deliberate ruining of the master’s machine from the inside. Fahmida would respond to the interviewer in a manner which would sabotage his question by exposing its internal, faulted logic. This was an exercise in deconstruction. Who can, for example, forget that seminal interview with Rekhta, where Fahmida was asked by a male post-colonialist: “Why did you primarily write “modern” nazms? You could have also written ghazals… the problem is, “Eastern culture” has its own classical forms, why imitate “Western” forms?”

At this point, Fahmida is not so much looking at him but rather looking through him. It is an intuitive, piercing look, with a sly smile hanging from the edges of her lips. It is a look of those who know.

“Dekhen, baat yeh hai”, she begins, “If you think that literary forms are tied to a historical context, you are simply incorrect. Forms are iterable: forms have no essence. Let me ask you a question: who did the ‘West’ imitate, then? Ghaliban, their literary forms came from what you are calling the ‘East’: from France, and French forms came from Spain, and Spanish forms evolved from Arabic forms. Take, for example, fourteenth century Spain. We know, historically, that this was a period when Europe and the Islamic civilisations syncretised immensely. This is a historical fact. If such a fusion did indeed take place, what therefore, remains ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’, pray tell? How will you trace the origin of forms?”

“And by your logic”, she continues gleamingly, “Parliamentary democracy is also a ‘Western’ form of governance. So should we return it to the ‘West’? No. Because we can use it. We have used it for sixty years without any problem. We use it because it is a useful form of governance. You have to understand that culture can have no essence. Cultures move, flowing into one another, forming new cultures. Culture is born this way. There is no clash of cultures.”

Through her brilliant prefaces and interviews that are now part of an immense archive for readers to use and learn from, Fahmida theorised culture as translation. Culture can have no essence because culture, like language, is always in-translation. Raymond Williams knew this. Fahmida, a committed cultural theorist and feminist, came to recognise this movement within her own work. Translation became, as it were, the decolonial, feminist tool through which the colonial periodisation of history and cultures into traditional/modern, Hindu/Muslim, East/West, as well as Philic/Phobic orientalist periods, was all thrown into question. Through the work of translation, Fahmida could move across temporalities and geographies. She was dictated by no singular logic.

This was the brilliance called Fahmida Riaz.

When the hour of death was near, Fahmida wrote a particularly well-know poem called 'Inquilabi Aurat'. In this poem, an old woman regrets the fact that so many years of her life were taken away from her by becoming embroiled in controversy, politics, and resistance. But in the pen-ultimate line of the poem, this regret is loathed over, in the realization that history is greater than personal good-will. This is the meaning of democracy: to efface one’s self and become the life of the Other. To work for the collective good. Woman in/as Revolution:

She looks at her face in a mirror of water:

white strands of hair peeping out, bones cracking

like papad, teeth rotten, she feeds a malal.

I had not thought of old age, she thinks,

if I could live again, I would not be so mad

as to summon revolution.

but then, she thinks, this was my fitrat:

to always summon madness.

There are those of us who take the privileges we enjoy as granted. We have to understand that so much of our sense of comfort and security stands on the pain and sacrifices of the feminist mothers who came before us.

Fahmida could have lived her life like any other person, and “not be so mad as to summon revolution”, in her own words, but then, many of us would not have the literary fiza to breathe in, to write in, to decolonise in, to think in. To think freely. Fahmida sacrificed a slice of her age to create this fiza.

I dedicate this essay to her memory.

All translations are by the author

Portrait of Fahmida Riaz by Hafsa Zubair


harcharan bains Nov 30, 2018 12:22pm
Great write up about a great human being. Haven't read much of her but after this, can hardly wait to get my first copy of any of her works.
M saeed Nov 30, 2018 12:29pm
Excellent struggle by female doubly colonized by petriarchy and western Civilization. Truly a revolutionary female. A symbol of resistance, peace and modernization. No doubt, to bring a wholescale change in the mindset one life is a paltry effort yet her struggle will be remembered in the time hereafter.
Ali Dec 01, 2018 03:55am
What a brilliant piece on the life and work of the beloved poet who left us. Great work by Dawn Images, for publishing such pieces, especially in a world where we don't read and engage with the work of writers once they are dead. Hats off to the writer of this piece for bringing Fahmida to life and introducing us to her poems. Had not read her in depth before but after reading this will surely go and pick up her collections!
Peter Jacob Dec 01, 2018 11:02am
Absolutely superb piece on Fahmida Riaz, a soul who fought prejudices and bounds of all construct.
Asad Dec 01, 2018 11:39am
Fact check: Zia never made the “black chador” compulsory.
Sabir Hussain Dec 01, 2018 03:51pm
Excellent write-up!! Well done!
realist Dec 02, 2018 07:54pm
Brilliant piece on a remarkable Fahmida Riaz, a great human spirit with a message.
TOUQEER HUSSAIN Dec 03, 2018 01:41pm
No words for her: She is outstanding.