ISLAMABAD: A discussion on the representation of women in literature in various languages of the country quickly devolved into the speakers romanticising fictional women’s acceptance of their subjugation during a session at the Pakistan Mother Languages Literature Festival.
The seminar, ‘Treatment and representation of women in mother languages’ literature’ was part of the two-day festival, which started at Lok Virsa on Saturday.
Columnist and novelist Zahida Hina gave a chronological account of the development of Urdu literature in terms of how women are treated, starting off with how the first novel written by a woman in 1881 was not published for 11 years and was only printed when her son grew up and printed it in his name, to more recent examples from Ismat Chughtai’s Nanhi ki Naani and Qazi Abdus Sattar’s Hazrat Jan.
She said the earlier works produced in Urdu were mostly fiction, in which the beauty and features of a woman were talked about in great detail. “A woman’s intelligence and her other abilities were not important, her intoxicating beauty was,” she said.
The writer said important historical figures and giants who had left their mark on the history of the region and on the development of literature and languages, who were considered progressive, were also against the empowerment of women. For example, she said, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan only talked about educating men and was against women’s education.
“We cannot forget the language that most of our poets have used in describing and fantasising about women, including Sufi poets. I cannot imagine men like Mir Dard describing women and their bodies like one looks at meat at a butchers shop,” she said.
There are also writers such as Mirza Azeem Chughtai, who was one of the first to respect women in his writings, she said. He wrote about the mistreatment of women in various regimes and about how women that one cannot marry, a man’s moharramat, were also disrespected.
She also spoke about Allama Rashidul Khair, who wrote about the feelings of women and the hardships they face. “It is true that he wrote about pardah but this was in 1908 and it could not be expected of him to write about the woman of today though he no doubt paved the way for the woman of today,” she said.
After this, the discussion turned to the romanticisation of how women bear torture and how strong women fight oppression with silence and perseverance.
Sultana Vakasi, who was invited to talk about the representation of women in Sindhi literature, said many Sindhi writers celebrated women in their work.
“For example, Shah Abdul Latif addressed women when talking about his woes because he knew that women care more. He created the character of Sohni, who is married off against her will and still goes to meet the man she loved. In our society, women like that are condemned and killed but he brought Sohni to life because he wanted people to understand women’s feelings,” she said.
“We have characters like Umar and Marvi, where Umar is a king and kidnaps Marvi, whom he loves. He could have done whatever he wanted to her but he waited for her to consent,” she said.
She spoke of Umar as a positive character, one who should be celebrated because he finally let go the strong willed Marvi, who stood up to her captor with silent resilience. “If Umar kept Marvi against her will, he also let her go,” she said.
“It is important to acknowledge that however they were – strong or weak – women were represented in writings. It is true that we have treated women badly but she is there, whether it is a man infatuated with a woman’s beauty and writing poems about her. A woman was his weakness and his need and his support,” she said.
Shahnaz Hunzai spoke about Broshaski and said no written works were produced in the language until recently and that it was one of the 12 languages in the world known as isolated languages.
Since there is not much literature in the language, Ms Hunzai supported her argument for the respect women are given by citing a few everyday idioms, most of which appeared to give respect to a woman by comparing her to a man.
For instance, a woman will show how proud she is of her daughter by saying her daughter is equal to 100 women and if she is very proud of her she will say her daughter is equal to 100 men.
Mussarat Kalanchi talked about the treatment of women in Seraiki literature, saying writers like Khawaja Ghulam Farid expressed their pain from a woman’s point of view which, she said, “shows how strong our mother language is”.
Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2017
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