Engendering the Nation: Women, Islam, and Poetry in Pakistan

By Anantharam, Anita | Journal of International Women's Studies, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Engendering the Nation: Women, Islam, and Poetry in Pakistan


Anantharam, Anita, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

In this essay I offer some examples of reading feminist agency in Pakistan through an analysis of the poems of two of Pakistan's preeminent feminist poets, Fahmida Riaz (b. 1946) and Kishwar Naheed (b. 1940). Rather than gesture to their poetry in a strategy of recuperation 1 contend that their powerful narratives compel us to reevaluate the parameters of contemporary feminist historiography and discourses of nationalism in South Asia. The poems of Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed are informed by a different set of paradigms about self and community (Islam) and at the same time reflect an archive (poetry) as crucial to feminist critiques of nationalism. They have thus been able to reach a large audience of women and articulate an explicitly feminist politics in Pakistan. Their poems necessarily take center-stage in this essay. However, a detailed analysis of the larger context and space their work occupies sheds light on how they, as feminists, have used poetry to revise subtly the complex relationships between women and men, and gender and nationalism in Pakistan.

Keywords: Transnational feminism, poetics, Islam, Pakistan, Urdu

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What are the limits of feminist inquiry, or to put it another way, what is the yardstick one uses to evaluate women's agency and autonomy? If we can assume that feminism, as it has developed over the last century-and-a-half in the United States and Europe, has thrived on liberal notions of agency, self-determination, and autonomy (Benhabib 1987, Brown 2002, Freedman 2002, Mahmood 2005, Scott 1988), what standards should we uphold to evaluate feminist agency in countries like Pakistan, where notions of self and sovereignty emerge from a different set of motivations and traditions? As Saba Mahmood (2001) has forcefully articulated, liberal notions of feminist agency, which seek to locate a self-actualized subject acting in her own self-interest "sharply limit our ability to understand and interrogate the lives of women whose desire, affect, and will have been shaped by nonliberal traditions"(p. 203). Alternate rhetorical traditions like Islam, for example, serve as the wellspring of social consciousness for the women poets discussed in this essay. Far from the "nativism" and parochialism often associated with Muslim women, this essay illustrates that women in Pakistan have sustained a vibrant women's movement and have articulated a nuanced feminist consciousness quite outside of liberal notions of women's agency and sovereignty. If the touchstone of contemporary feminist analysis necessitates the triangulation of liberal, radical, or transnational notions of feminism alone, voices of women who do not ascribe to these positions will be relegated to the "imaginary waiting room of [feminist] history" and regarded as "not yet" ready as self-actualized subjects of historical inquiry but rather, as feminists in the making (Chakrabarty, 2000, p. 8).

In this article, I offer some examples of reading feminist agency in Pakistan through an analysis of the poems of two of Pakistan's preeminent feminist poets, Fahmida Riaz (b. 1946) and Kishwar Naheed (b. 1940). Rather than gesture to their poetry in a strategy of recuperation I contend that their powerful narratives compel us to reevaluate the parameters of contemporary feminist historiography and discourses of nationalism in South Asia. The poems of Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed are informed by a different set of paradigms about self and community (Islam) and at the same time reflect an archive (poetry) as crucial to feminist critiques of nationalism. This is not to rule out liberal feminist analyses as unimportant or as irrelevant to women's lives and experiences in Islamic states; nor do I want to suggest that their poems are not "resistant" to hegemonic constraints of gender, class, religion and nation--because I believe that they are on all these registers. I seek to highlight that the point is to not foreclose Islam, and the women who embrace it, as fundamentally at odds with notions of feminist agency, or dismissed because they seem to be advocating for "a movement that seems inimical to their 'own interests and agendas,' especially at a historical moment when these women appear to have more emancipatory possibilities available to them" (Mahmood, 2005, p. …

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