Female poets recall years of struggling with stereotypes

Nigah and Naheed spoke about how they also used their poetry to highlight discrimination against women.


Arshad Shaheen February 06, 2011

KARACHI: In the pre-Partition era, the common notion in Urdu literary society was that women cannot write good poetry. Even though female poets were given a chance in mushairas and were not discouraged, most people secretly believed that these women presented poems written by other people.

As they recalled their struggle to make themselves heard in literary circles, Zehra Nigah and Kishwar Naheed told an enthusiastic audience that even the people who would help them recite their poems in literary gatherings were convinced that it were not original work.

At an event titled Nai Shaeri, Nia Lehja, Nigah and Naheed spoke about how they also used their poetry to highlight discrimination against women. "Sometimes seniors would advise me not to use the third person singular feminine. 'Don't make it too obvious. Or you use we rather than I', they would say," said Nigah.

Kishwar Naheed said that when she won the first prize in the inter-collegiate mushaira in Aligarh at the age of 17, her father politely told her that since she had achieved the goal of earning fame through reciting other people's poetry in literary gatherings, it was time to stop or Naheed and her mother would have to face the consequences. She said she would find rhyming words in the Quran while pretending to recite it, which earned her a slap from her mother when she discovered this.

Kishwar Naheed said that activism influenced her creativity. When she lost her job during General Ziaul Haq's era, she started surveying and later helping out the poor working women of Lahore who were being exploited.

Much has changed since the time that poets like Nigah and Naheed were considered to be reading other people's work. At the event, they read out their new and old work to the audience, who were in raptures and made repeated requests for encores.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2011.

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