The future is feminist literature and it's called Behenchara Magazine

Behenchara has big plans but the women behind it don't want to sacrifice their identity as a safe online space for writers.
24 Apr, 2021

Twenty-three-year-old Misha Ali Farhana has an unusual last name. Most people take their father’s name as their surnames. Others go for the slightly confusing hyphenated situation that will only get more confusing down the line. But when you’re destined to start a feminist literary magazine, it’s only fitting that you carry your mother’s name at the end of your own.

This is exactly what Misha does when she writes ‘Farhana’ — her mother’s name — at the end of her name, instead of Nauman (her father’s name).

The credit for this rebellious move doesn’t really go to Misha, however, as it dates all the way back to when she was in utero, and devoid of any preferences, feminist or otherwise. Her parents, however, were not devoid of any such inclinations.

When Nauman — a radiologist — and Farhana — an English teacher — got married, they decided that they would split all household duties 50/50. If Farhana had to go to work, Nauman would pick up all the chores, and vice versa. When Farhana got pregnant, Nauman was determined to give the child his wife’s name as the surname, regardless of gender.

“Even before I got married, I knew that if I ever had a child, I would want the mother’s name to be attached to it, even if it’s a boy. Mothers are the ones who put in the hard work and actually struggle,” he told me over Zoom one day, joined by his wife, from their house in Lahore.

Both of their families disapproved of the idea, so much so that on the day Misha was born, Nauman’s father was caught whispering in the hospital orderly’s ear to include his son’s name on Misha’s birth certificate — an act which Nauman did not permit.

Misha is very cognisant of the role her parents played in her feminist upbringing. She says she’s lucky to have parents who are staunch feminists and never really made her feel like she couldn’t do something just because she was a girl. “My parents actually call themselves feminists, and they’re quite blunt about it too,” Misha said.

Growing up in a household where womanhood and equality were valued and honoured seemed to add to the anger she felt at the world, which did not always value those things the same way.

The idea

During her time at Formanite Christian College, where she is currently a senior, Misha joined a women-only listening circle hosted by two of her peers, where members talked about that weeks’ topic. As she heard about all the atrocities being committed against women and minorities, she realised that people her age wanted to express their anger, fear and hurt through their words and their art, and that there wasn’t really a space where they could safely do that.

Sure, secret support groups for women like Soul Sisters were popping up on Facebook daily, and there was Aurat March, the annual political demonstration held in cities all over Pakistan on International Women’s Day but none of these places served as a concrete platform that would be easily accessible to everybody.

Misha envisioned a neutral online space that could be taken in any direction: an archive of thoughts, ideas and opinions, a database of important resources, a place to host events and talks and discussions, and perhaps most importantly, a safe space to host people’s contributions, in whatever shape they took. Then she met Alina, and things took shape, fast.

The chance encounter and execution

Alina Anjum was a junior at FC College when she first met Misha, who was then in her freshman year. According to her, their story started with a chance encounter and an offhand remark that turned into a sisterhood.

Having spotted each other at university, they found out they were interested in the same things, passionate about the same causes and enjoyed being angry at the world together. And to truly drive in the fact that it really was Fate that brought them together, they discovered they lived only one street down from each other.

Misha, who had by now decided that the safe online space she was envisioning would be a feminist magazine, knew in her head that Alina was the best person to do this with.

Alina had been a longtime volunteer at the Aurat March, was a member of the Tehreek-e-Niswan, a woman’s organisation in Pakistan, and ran her own organisation that supported survivors of sexual harassment and abuse called 'Chadar'. She was fairly well-known in feminist circles, and Misha knew that people would trust her.

Their idea for the magazine was to have people send in their contributions. Everything from poetry to artwork to book reviews was welcome. Misha and Alina would then sift through the submissions to filter out any purposefully spiteful content because as they told me, they like to post every submission they get.

“Apart from correcting typos, we don’t even fix grammar. Because it’s your written expression, we don’t want to change the way you’ve written it,” Alina said. “Also, it’s your goddamn colonisers' language, it doesn’t have to be perfect at all. If you want to write in broken English or broken Urdu, write it! We’ll publish it.”

The only time they feel obliged to censor anything is when it’s homophobic, transphobic, or just generally defies the principles of intersectional feminism. In March 2020, they published the first digital issue of Behenchara Magazine, an online literary feminist publication that is now five issues strong and has almost 2,000 followers on Instagram.

Behenchara, sisterhood and the act of rebellion

Behenchara means sisterhood but interestingly, the word doesn’t really exist in Urdu. The actual word that behenchara stems from, is bhaichara, which means brotherhood and unity (bhai is the Urdu word for brother; behen means sister).

In a way, just the act of coining the term behenchara is an act of feminist rebellion: I believe in the Sisterhood and I believe it deserves a word of its own, thank you very much. It’s not too different from the kind of questioning that turns a chairman into a chairperson, or mankind in to humankind. Just one more attempt at inclusivity and representation in a seemingly never-ending chain of such attempts.

The choice of name was a good one. It serves as a blunt explanation of what the magazine stands for. Still, Misha is taking no chances. She doesn’t want there to be any confusion, which is why the ‘About Us’ section of the magazine’s website is actually a PSA announcing that the crux of the magazine may not need too much explaining. ‘If it must be stated, then we stand for feminism, minorities and all victims of unnecessary discrimination, but primarily, feminism/womxn.’

The hefty PSA goes on to declare that Behenchara is an independently run magazine that doesn’t allow for any interference. It is for this reason that Misha and Alina are the only ones on the Behenchara team; they have a distinct voice of their own and adding other people to the mix would dilute it. The end result is complete autonomy over what goes out.

The PSA also mentions that they ‘neither seek nor shun controversy’, which is part of why Behenchara has managed to escape from the kind of onslaught that is typical of any forum where feminism is the topic being discussed, front and center.

Feminism can be a hard topic for people to talk about anywhere in the world. In Pakistan, complications arise, as they almost always do, when religion is brought into the mix. But strangely, Behenchara has been able to evade any and all sorts of criticism, which is highly unusual for a forum discussing women’s rights, a topic which everyone seems to have an opinion on.

The underdogs

One reason for this is that Behenchara hasn’t blown up and become a household name yet like other media entertainment websites have. It’s unlikely that they will attain that kind of attention because their entire ethos and mode of operation is so different. Behenchara is more of a social venture in an e-magazine’s clothing. They try very hard to stay as far away from being commercial.

“I don't think [Behenchara] can get that mainstream success because mainstream channels would probably not want to come to us. We don't allow for advertisements on our website,” said Misha, adding “If it ever does get this sort of fame, though, then yeah, definitely. We’d definitely get a lot of backlash. That should be expected.”

Alina has another theory. She believes the way Behenchara is packaged saves them from the ire of the internet. The fun colours, the doodles, the informal witty language scattered throughout their Instagram posts and their website all seem to signal to people that this is not a serious publication, and hence isn’t deserving of their hate or anger.

The contributors and content

Their latest issue is called ‘Violence, Bodies and Shame’ and was intended to allow women to decompress and share their anxieties and concerns after the news of a particularly horrific sexual assault case shook the country.

“We’ve got the contributions for it, but it’s packaged in the traditional Behenchara way, which is like there’s a doodle on it and there's a specific way to write on it and we have our own quirky spin on it,” Alina explained. “That kind of makes people think that it’s not serious, which means when trolls want to engage, they just don't. But people still find it relevant, they contribute, and they still talk to us and share their stuff.”

To me, it seems like the real appeal of Behenchara lies not in the publication’s quirks or how non-commercial it is but rather because of how palatable and inoffensive the content and its language is. As a literary magazine, the focus is more on creative pieces and personal essays rather than hard-hitting heavily opinionated pieces that are rich in discourse and academic jargon.

There’s never an air of passive-aggressiveness, or blind rage, and the website gives people no reason to feel intimidated or defensive. This happens organically, according to Misha, who insists that it is not a deliberate move on their part.

“I don't want to sound vain, but we are very kind to our contributors, and we're very welcoming, so even they don't feel any sort of tension. Obviously, there are certain things that can trigger and anger and enrage, but when they know that there is this sort of calm welcoming fireplace-lit sort of place to sit down and just talk, they’re not very enraged.”

The funding, or lack thereof

Irtifa Nasir believes that Misha is being modest about her own role in the positive reception of Behenchara. Irtifa was one of Misha’s professors at university in Lahore and is the only benefactor the magazine has had so far. Earlier this year, she donated Rs10,000 to the magazine so that Misha and Alina could pay for a new website. She thinks the reason that Behenchara can connect to people so easily is because Misha herself has that ability.

“I see the way she markets it on social media, the way she writes, the posts, doodles, everything and because it's Misha's signature style, it's her personality, she projects it onto Behenchara,” Irtifa told me. “Obviously with somebody who's so genuine and so raw and real, it's hard to not like such people, right?” She thinks the awkward, self-effacing but witty style of Behenchara’s Instagram posts help to not intimidate people, which can be a huge thing when you’re talking about a topic as serious as feminism.

So far, the magazine is on the right track. They’ve had a steady stream of at least nine contributions each issue, sometimes even more. They run an advice column, where the mysterious and anonymous ‘Aapa’ (older sister) dishes out advice on topics ranging from boyfriends and husbands to unyielding parents. They host interviews with celebrities and industry experts. Things are going well. But still, Misha feels like there is a lot yet to be figured out.

For starters, they aren’t paying contributors yet, which both women feel very strongly about. “We feel even worse that we can't pay the people who make cover art for us because, God bless them, they do it for free, and they do it voluntarily,” she said. But in order to start paying people, they’re going to need money, which might prove to be difficult because they don’t want to turn Behenchara into something that makes money.

The future

So then, what does the future look like for a feminist literary magazine in Pakistan?

A lot of applications for grants, and a lot of unpleasant words about capitalism. “Now every time we make a decision, it's like, wait, what about 10 years from now, will we have the funds for this? Okay, so if we apply for a grant, how long will it last?” Alina said grimly. But beyond grants and the financial realities of the real world, Behenchara has big plans.

Misha wants to someday expand to an actual print publication, maybe one with lower quality paper, but hey, at least you can hold it in your hands, right? They’re thinking about starting a podcast sometime next year. Till that happens though, Misha will be working hard to keep Behenchara going with its current model, one inoffensive doodle at a time.

Cover art from Bhenchara Mag/Instagram