Artistic Expression, Male Dominance and Women Poets: Pakistan

September 19, 2006
Raza Rumi

An email from a Pakistan based writer friend made me recall Parveen Shakir. The poem, Tomato Ketchup, written most probably in the memory of Sara Shagufta (the modernist Pakistani poet who committed suicide in the footsteps of Sylvia Plath).

I am not drawing conclusions or imagining comparisons. My writer-friend is neither suicidal nor at the end of her creativity. In fact she is brimming with optimism and energy. However, she faces the constraints and circumstances that are not uncommon. Like Sara and Parveen Shakir she has to mediate between multiple identities, struggles and conflicts. That she lives in a society that is becoming increasingly less tolerant and dominated by fundamentalism is no help either.

Back to Parveen Shakir: she was Pakistan's popular poet who died in a tragic car accident in 1994. After graduating she taught, then joined civil service. Shewas widely read and loved poet. However, she braved the difficult terrain of Pakistani womanhood and more importantly the male defined abd dominated literary world. Her success was attributed to her innate talent and use of language. The literary evaluations of her work have been mixed. The poem below explains this a little. I found here.

Tomato Ketchup
Perveen Shakir

In our country,
A woman who writes poetry,
Is eyed as an odd fish.
Every man presumes
That in her poems
He is the issue addressed!
And since it is not so,
He becomes her foe.
In this sense,
Sara didnīt make many enemies.
She didnīt believe in giving explanations.
Before she could become the wife of a poor writer,
She had already become
The sister-in-law of the whole town.
Even the lowliest of them
Claimed to have slept with her!
All day long,
Jobless intellectuals of the city
Buzzed around her.
Even those who had jobs,
Would leave their stinking files and worn out wives
To come to her,
Leaving behind the electricity bill,
And the childrenīs school fees and wifeīs medicine.
For these are the concerns
Of lesser mortals.
Morning through late night,
Heated discussions would take place
On literature, philosophy and current affairs.
When hunger knocked in at their empty stomachs,
Bread and boiled pulse
Would be bought collectively.
Great thinkers,
Would then demand tea
Declaring her the Amrita Preetam of Pakistan.
Sara, the gullible,
Would be very pleased with herself.
Perhaps, there were some reasons for it.
Those who were responsible for supporting her,
Always fed her on Kafka coffee
And Neruda biscuits.
Because of saliva-soaked compliments,
At least, she could have one meal,
But for how long?
She had to free herself
From the clutches of wolves.
Sara preferred to leave the jungle itself.
As long as she lived,
The connoisseurs of Art
Kept nibbling her.
In their circle,
She is still considered delicious,
But with a difference:
They no longer can take a bite of her!
After her death,
She had been elevated
To the status of Tomato Ketchup!
Translated from the Urdu by Baidar Bakht and Leslie Lavigne

And now excerpts from the email message from my friend that reminded me of this poem:

"... I have been doing a lot of soul- searching! Lets face it there's not much else to do now!! I am so confused as usual, about my writing, which is constantly changing from language based prose-poetry writing to more story based fractured narrative. You see the problem is that I want it to be an honest reflection of life and both ways of looking at life are true. Now here I am lost again. On another note, the good thing in recent times, is that I have decided I am definitely not going to ....

So that chapter has definitely closed.

As for my writing, I got word from my poetry publisher ....who thinks my prose is "brave and lyrical". Quite flattering and inspiring. He wants more poetry from me. I just wish some ....publisher would take a chance on my prose and publish the damn thing. You see the issue is also that I am so taken up with survival and dealing with mediocrity that I can't give all of myself to writing and its killing me. I am longing to just sit in front of the computer and fly. I wish you knew how exhilarating it is for me Raza, I feel like I can see things move and yet I feel damned to be talented, if indeed I am at all. I wish I had none of it. It is such torture and yet I couldn't live without it. I hope I am not depressing you. Even those who are close to me think I am half mad and underrate my writing and its obsession as a figment of my own imagination or just an inflated ego to make up for what I haven't achieved in life."

I am not sure what to write back. One thing is certain - I want her to retain her 'bite'.

Raza Rumi is a Pakistani blogger interested in art, culture and Sufism.
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Artistic Expression, Male Dominance and Women Poets: Pakistan


Author: Raza Rumi


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September 19, 2006
06:51 PM


tell your friend she is not a "odd fish"

she comes from a long line of poets mislabeled as rebels....in urdu fatima hasan, kishwar naheed, the two you mentioned and the doyen of them fehmida riaz

while some may not truly understand what life is for a thinking women and writer in pakistan poets (and writers) have taken on the system successfully

tell her to continue to write

each word, each letter put to paper is a small victory

ps: and someday i hope to see her here

Raza Rumi
September 20, 2006
01:11 PM

Many thanks for the comment. Of course I will tell my friend to keep on writing and also appear on DC :) at some point.

As you rightly noted, outspoken and/or creative women face severe challenges in getting recognized. Once they establish their creative credentials, they are easily labeled as rebels and much more.

It is changing now as more women have entered the workforce and occupying top positions in the government, academia, the private sector and other professions. But most often their success entails some cost or a sacrifice. Gender biases will not go easily as we know from the global experiences of women. Pakistan is no exception to the larger trend except that the retrogressive interpretation of Islam by an agressive clergy and entrenched socio-cultural practices make things a little more difficult there.

and my friend is exasperated and trying to come to terms with her circumstances. I just wanted to share this on the blogosphere via the Desi Critics.

The friend
September 21, 2006
04:50 AM

Raza can you kindly correct a word in my email- it has been slightly misquoted and it is therefore changing the meaning of the sentence.

It is currently- " my writing and its obsession is a figment.." It should be

" my writing and its obsession as a figment.."

Thanks Raza.

September 21, 2006
12:34 PM

I will request the DC editors if it is possible.
thanks for the comment though. Temporal - comment #1- has hoped that you will appear on DC one day!

September 21, 2006
12:40 PM


September 21, 2006
01:11 PM

I am so glad that Raza touches upon issues which are really important but unfortunately are not yet attended to by the Pakistani people.It is a sad reality in Pakistan that women who are expressive are judged a lot. Whereas no one even remotely criticizes pervert best seller poets like Farhat Abbas Shah. I hope that through expressin and dialogue we can change perceptions and attitudes of people towards women poets in Pakistan. it may take a long time but atleast we have the ball rolling. And pls tell your friend to continue to write as people like her have to act as leaders to achieve a cultural reform.

September 21, 2006
03:10 PM


the issues of freedom are intertwined and enmeshed royally there

while one can argue that both countries started off at the same time...there is a functioning democracy in india while the same cannot be said with a straight face about pakistan

the occupying army has strained the fabric to the degree that even a remote thought of a functioning democracy are hazy dreams for now

freedom is an empty word when its manifestations are denied and trampled upon daily:

--of expression
--of gathering
--of demand
--of exercise

even of dreaming

is denied under the heavy khaki boots (shall continue this shortly)

September 21, 2006
03:32 PM

(part ii)
am not fooled by platitudes and phony smiles...

there is more freedom today then under zina ul haque
papers and magazines are freer to expose and criticise

it is all hogwash and hood winking the gullible - -yet again

what matters is what the occupying army does time and again - actions -- their actions speak louder than any manifestation of idle protests

mushy and the nine cats have shown a remarkable survival instinct...consistently doing 180 degree turns...to appease and sail with the wind....the latest on the women's bill of rights...


in such a stifling atmosphere any voice that yearns to dream - and to express -- is a welcome voice

the women writers suffer a double whammy there...they have to face not only the male dominated administration


also they have to sail against the forces unleashed by fundamentalist forces that want to push the baby back into the womb

for a woman - it is increasingly hard to co-exist in today's pakistan....notice the word? co-exist?...they can exist in one of two ways:

either they acquiesce and accept fifth class status in a third rate state (harsh words - i might apologise later)


they fight back

this they do in two ways -- within the system - which maybe effective in the (very) long term or do it subversively

(no, they cannot do it openly - or they cannot survive - again - harsh reality)

end of rant---(am sure my friends beena, bina, and others would disagree - if they read this they are invited to write a rejoinder)

September 21, 2006
06:50 PM

Temporal, are you from Pakistan?

September 21, 2006
06:53 PM

i am from T.O.

belong to, read about, and have travelled extensively in both countries

September 21, 2006
07:27 PM

Being born and raised in pakistan, I would slightly disagree with you.It is not as bad as you think it is.Pkaistan has a lot of problems but it is certainly not a third rate country and neither are women fifth class over there.Yes it should have been a fully democratic country like India but that has nothing to do with women poets' plight. Even though India is a fully democratic country but there is a disgusting caste system present there. Here we are talking about women poets in Pakistan , there we have humans who are belittled, if you are a dalit you remain a dalit for centuries to come. It is just not Pakistan but the entire third world- and each region faces its own problems.Parveen Shakir was a very well respected poetess in Pakistan and so is Kishwar Naheed, even though labeled as a rebel- but that label does not make her a fifth class citizen, she successfully and respectfully runs an NGO, the last I knew of her.
I guess the author is just trying to in Paulo Coelho's terms persuade his friend to follow her personal legend.

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