Last Updated 19 Dec 2022

“We Sinful Women”: Urdu Poetry as Testimony and Resistance

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Abstract

Even though Pakistan has been a site of intellectual and political inquiry ever since 1947 especially in contextof South Asia, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime (1977-88) set a precedent that has impacted generations to follow. Under Zia’s administration, individual civil liberties were threatened; and categories of family, citizenship, kinship, gender equality and sexuality came under direct control of the State as he sought to reformulate these categories through the moral lens of a conservative Islam in what was called the Hudood Ordinance. The promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances had severe repercussions for women’s social standing in Pakistan.

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This moment in the political history of Pakistan between 1977-1988 also marked rebellious attitudes which could be witnessed in arts as well as women’s direct participation and protest en masse against the state’s regulation of the hadd (singular of hudud) punishments, especially as it pertained to women’s bodies and sexualities. This paper follows the repercussions of the military regime of Zia’s administration (1977-88) for then and now, and the simultaneous rise of a movement of intensely feminist Urdu poetry by a host of women poets like Fehmida Riaz, Zehra Nigah, Kishwar Naheed, Ishrat Afrin and so on. What does it mean to be a woman and a writer in times of conflict and dictatorship?

Poetry in the hands of such women poets has become a site for political discourses and an invaluable instrument to negotiate social existence. The paper will precisely look at these moments of conflict and resistance at the backdrop of a systematic dictatorial regime; thereby looking at specific case studies to show how women reclaimed their bodies and public spaces through Urdu poetry/writings. The paper would read these struggles as social transformations within the ambit of the political economy of gender which was so central and integral to the nexus of a dictatorial government of Haq’s in Pakistan.

As Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the single largest party in parliament in the 15th National Assembly elections of Pakistan and the four Provincial Assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently; with the promise to build a new Pakistan as a “model Islamic welfare state” it seems as good a moment as any moment to explore questions of social transformation in Pakistan. The paper looks at a particular moment, that of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime (1977-88) in Pakistan and its impact in circumscribing the movement and limits of bodies within the confines of the Islamist Nation-State.

Under the regime, individual civil liberties were threatened, and categories of family, citizenship, kinship, gender equality and sexuality came under direct control of the State as he sought to reformulate these categories through the moral lens of a conservative Islam in what was called the Hudood Ordinance. The promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances had severe repercussions for women’s social standing in Pakistan in particular.

This moment in the political history of Pakistan between 1977-1988 also marked influences of socialism and socialist movements and their synergy with women’s liberation movements which took many different forms as a counterpart to political conservatism. This could be witnessed in arts as well as women’s direct participation and protest en masse against the state’s regulation of the hadd (singular of hudud) punishments, especially as it pertained to women’s bodies and sexualities. This paper follows the repercussions of the military regime of Zia’s administration (1977-88) for then and now, and focuses on the simultaneous rise of a movement of Urdu poetry by a host of women poets like Fehmida Riaz, Zehra Nigah, Kishwar Naheed, Ishrat Afrin and so on.

Poetry in the hands of such women poets became a site for political struggle and an invaluable instrument to negotiate social existence.

References

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