Kishwar Naheed: I am not that woman

Kishwar Naheed is an eminent Urdu poet known for expressing bold feminist and political concerns. She was born in 1940 in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh (then United Province), into a Sayed Muslim family. Her contribution to the literary field is exemplary. Her gazals and nazms have made many people fall in love with Urdu literature yet again. For generations, this Pakistani poet plays a principal role in speaking about the issues of the oppressed and the condemned of the society, especially the woman and children.

Kishwar Naheed’s work expresses her own experiences and individualistic concerns, and such an intimate utterance is what gathers together the sorrows and travails of all the women of the ‘third world’. Recognized as the Simone de Beauvoir of South Asia, Kishwar Naheed Aapa’s voice of resistance has spread across the ‘Third World’.

“We regard Kishwar Naheed as Aapa because she is the patron saint of not only all women in Pakistan but also the feminist movement across South Asia!”

Raza Naeem, a historian and translator of a few of her works, spells out the prominence of Kishwar Naheed in an interview with Kala Chaupal.

Find the Interview at the end of post.

The bad woman

“I am today because of what I experienced between 1947 and 1949.”

Kishwar Naheed, in an interview with Herald, stated that her experience between 1947 and 1949; had influenced her ideology and writing. The things she saw during those two years had a lasting impression on her mind and her heart. During the Partition riots, some Muslim girls who belonged to Bulandshahr were kidnapped. They either escaped or were rescued from the captivators and got back to Bulandshahr. She has accompanied her mother and sisters to visit few women who were attacked. They were exhausted and broken. She witnessed women who were bruised and soaked in blood. It was then, she apprehended the vulnerability of her section of people.

“That was the moment when I stopped being just a child and became a girl child.”

She was made to wear Burqa at the age of seven. However, she was amused when asked to remove it to avail of the air ticket concession. But as soon as she landed in Lahore, she had to wear the Burqa again. 

As a young girl in Bulandshahr, she was inspired by the girls who went to Aligarh Muslim University in those times. She found her ambition to go to college, to read and write from the women under the ‘Burqa’. She was a daring woman who went against her family for her education and to marry the love of her life, Yousuf Kamran.

Kishwar Naheed’s poems are mostly reflective of such incidence, where a woman resists against her social conditions to achieve what she wants. Such women are usually called out as ‘bad’ or ‘sinful’. One of her remarkable poems embraces such titles given to the woman and makes a prominent stance.

ye hum gunahgar aurten

Audio: Rakhta
We sinful women

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear
who don't sell our lives,
who don't bow our heads,
who don't fold our hands together,
It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become exalted
become distinguished
become the just princes of the material world.
It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
against barricades of lies on the highways
who find the tongues which could speak have been
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don't insist now on raising it again.
It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear
who don't sell our bodies,
who don't bow our heads,
who don't fold our hands together.


Her iconic autobiography, Burri Aurat ki Katha (‘Story of a Bad Woman’), is seen not just as the autobiography of a poet but the story of an entire generation. In saying so, Raza Naeem also delineates that the term ‘bad woman’ denotes the modern woman as someone whose biggest crime is her intelligence. Last year on Kishwar Naheed’s 80th birthday, Raza Naeem wrote a personalised tribute to her. He translated the radical Pakistani writer Ahmad Bashir’s long incendiary sketch of Kishwar Naheed. Chhappan Chhuri, is a notorious sketch of Kishwar Naheed, presenting Naheed in her intense and striking character. The book is yet to published in India. But it has been published in The Friday Times in four instalments.

She faced several hardships in her journey as a poet. During Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship rule (1981-1986), she wrote her concerns on the political situation in Pakistan and the martial law, critical of the rule. There was a ban on her book and a possibility of her being arrested. She and her children lived under constant surveillance and threat. This incident forced her sons to leave Pakistan. During his reign, her husband, Yousuf Kamran was in jail under martial law. 

The familiarity with jail for Kishwar Naheed Aapa goes back to her childhood. 

Partition of India,

She was seven years old when Partition happened. Her abba (father) – Syed Ibne Hasan, the secretary of All India Muslim League in Bulandshahr, was arrested for distributing sweets at Pakistan’s birth. He was in jail for two years. She belonged to the Sayed family in Bulandshahr with seven children, four girls and three boys. Just before partition, during World War II, there was a shortage of resources. The children were sent to collect rations for the family, since they had easier access. 

Muhammad Ali Jinnah wrote to the public that Muslim League needed money and asked people to contribute. She and her siblings sent their pocket money to Jinnah. Every afternoon and evening, her mother, along with other Muslim women, would take a fistful of flour before kneading it. The children would go collecting the flour house to house and deliver it at the local Muslim League office.

Bulandshahr then had two parts – upper and lower (it still has Upar Kot and Moti Bagh Kothiat). The upper part consisted of Muslims, mainly Sayeds, and few Hindus. They were largely business people. When her father was in jail, his Hindu friends would enquire about the welfare of the family. Everyone in Bulandshahr – the Muslims, Christians, and Hindus spent time together. The children went to each other’s house and still had a slight fear about any uprising. 

Once her father was out of jail, with the help of his Hindu friends he reached Pakistan. They were suggested to take a flight to Lahore since the train was unsafe. The family upon reaching Delhi stayed for a while in their Hindu friend’s house. They were able to meet the exorbitant air fee to reach Pakistan by selling her mother’s jewellery. 

She saw women were more independent in her new home and this little girl from a small town felt Lahore more liberating. She went on to do Masters in Economics and secure a job in the government service. 

An invisible boundary arises in such moments

Kishwar Naheed has visited India several times after Partition. She had been to her grandmother’s place and what was her father’s house. A lot of things that she remembered had vanished. 

When Bangladesh was formed (1971) she was in Moscow working for the Information Ministry. A colleague of her (Bangladeshi) had accompanied her. She was surprised to experience the detachment so deeply. 

“Yet when we would stand next to each other, even though there was no one between us, we would stand apart. We couldn’t bridge the space between us.”

Kishwar Naheed has witnessed both the partition – British India (1947) and Bangladesh (1971). Now that the partition has become the reality, she suggests that everyone must work towards building a good relationship. During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, she and her friends argued that war can never solve problems between the two countries. 

“It was the same moon that people on both sides of the border see, that the same birds sing both in India and Pakistan. If we cannot stop the birds singing or shut out the moon from shining its light in either of the two countries, then why should Indians and Pakistanis stop meeting each other?”

She believes that love transcends boundaries, while hate stays fighting at the borders. And in her case, her poem is one such tool that aids in spreading peace. 

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Retired from the information service as the director-general of Pakistan National Council of the arts in 1998, Kishwar Naheed established an NGO Hawwa Crafts as a cooperative for women artisans. 

She has also addressed various issues across the horizon, like the Chinese Revolution, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 9/11. More recently, she wrote on the murder of the African-American George Floyd – George Floyd – Mein Amar Ho Gaya (George Floyd – I Became Immortal), the growing Talibanization and saffronization of Pakistani and Indian societies and on the COVID-19 pandemic – Kon Inka Maseea Banega (Who Will Be Their Messiah)

Through her individualistic experience, Kishwar Naheed put forth bitter and harsh comments on the present period. She not only fought for her love and her right but urges that it is in love that we find peace. Her poems continue to celebrate the universal human struggle for equality, justice and freedom. Kishwar Naheed is a prolific and great scholar of our times. She continues to give wings to many women and works for a greater cause. 


The following page contains the interview with Raza Naeem.

Interview with Raza Naeem

Raza Naeem – Pakistani social scientist, literary activist, blogger, book critic

1 Why is Kishwar Naheed referred to as ‘Aapa’? 

Aapa is a fond honorific used across South Asia (especially in the Urdu-speaking community) to denote that someone is like an elder sister in terms of her age and experience. We regard Kishwar Naheed as Aapa because she is the patron-saint of not only all women in Pakistan but also the feminist movement across South Asia!

2. Kishwar Naheed’s work, engrossed for decades, people appreciate it for generations. What makes her work so relevant? 

Her work is relevant because it not only reflects her own personal journey as a poet and feminist but rather more than autobiography – as I have also argued in my piece on her in The Wire which you cited – it is the voice of a whole generation which came of age in the 1960s (both during the dictatorship of Ayub Khan in Pakistan and broader currents of resistance across the Third World). In her poetry, Naheed has universalized her Pakistani identity by striving to gather together the sorrows and travails of all the women of the Third World. That is why her work is read and translated from Delhi to Buenos Aires.

3. In her work, she usually presents herself (and other women) as a ‘Bad Woman’ or ‘sinful women’. How does this characterisation reflect on South Asian gender dynamics? 

Yes it is true that Kishwar Naheed was the first truly bad woman or sinful woman of Urdu poetry.But in Urdu prose her predecessors were the communist doctor Rashid Jahan (who died early) and the fearsome writer Ismat Chughtai, who was hauled before a British Indian court for addressing the theme of homosexuality in one of her stories. More recently, Naheed has had counterparts of the bad woman across other cultures and continents. One thinks of Simone de Beauvoir (whose book The Second Sex Naheed pubblished in an abridged translation), Nawal El Saadawi (who passed away earlier this year) and the likes of Germaine Greer, Eve Ensler and Betty Friedan, etc. In terms of South Asian gender dynamics, the bad woman represents how many girls of the middle-class in traditional households were restricted, and women like Kishwar Naheed had to fight for the basic right to study further. This struggle was later reflected in various stages of freedom and expression which Naheed negotiated successfully. Naheed’s struggle gave way to other successful ‘bad women’ in Urdu poetry like Fahmida Riaz and Sara Shagufta. Today the term ‘bad woman’ has taken on a different meaning in South Asia because we are theoretically living in a modern age, but women’s rights across South Asia are being rolled back by patriarchy and conservatism. Take the case of the Aurat March in Pakistan, which has been held successfully across our major cities despite overt and covert threats, intimidation and court cases being instituted against them. The term ‘bad woman’ has become the new normal for young women in South Asia, who had taken for granted the very rights women like Kishwar Naheed had fought for. Even these rights are now being rolled back in the 21st century. But the bad women are mutiplying!

Naheed had once referenced the French poet Saint-John Perse saying: ‘My story is the story of that street woman who recites the fatiha amid sorrow, bites the wayfarers, proceeds with the prince or the dagger held in her arms.’

The term ‘bad woman’ thus denotes the modern woman whose biggest crime is her intelligence.

4. Tell us a bit about your work on the sketch of Kishwar Naheed.

Oh that came about last year on Kishwar Naheed’s 80th birthday. I wanted to write a personalized tribute to her. But having already written two essays on her and being a contributor to a book of her translated poems released on her 80th birthday, I wanted to do something different. So I came across the radical Pakistani writer Ahmad Bashir’s long incendiary sketch of her which was published when she was in her 40s, just before the early death of her husband, and just starting to become notorious. It is a no-holds-barred sketch of the poet which was originally titled Gashti (Prostitute), later changed to Chhappan Chhuri; and it became so notorious that its repute spread from Lahore to London, as soon as Bashir had read it in the presence of the poet herself and her husband and Intizar Hussain write about it in his column. Everyone wanted to have a copy of it.

So in 2020, on Naheed’s 80th birthday, I wanted the younger generation to get to know her better, so I thought the sketch fulfils that purpose. It has been published in The Friday Times in four installments:

My only regret is that it has yet to be published in India. But I tremendously enjoyed translating it! 

5. Recognised as an eminent feminist Urdu-Poet, Kishwar Naeed discusses a lot about the man-woman relationship. What other issues does her work highlight? 

Well yes, any woman poet is immediately expected and stereotyped to produce poetry related to man-woman relationships or exclusively women’s issues. Many excellent Urdu poets have achieved this to perfection like Parveen Shakir, Ada Jafri and Zehra Nigah (who is still living and active); among contemporary poets you have Tanvir Anjum, Yasmeen Hameed, Ambreen Salahuddin, Fatema Hasan, Shahida Hasan and Azra Abbas, but Naheed has also written about other issues and continues to write about them. The circle of her poetry has been getting wider since a long time ago. Other issues she has explored in her poetry are her marital life, employment, the creation and destruction of united Pakistan, the political and social landscape and feminine sensibility, as well as some of the cardinal events of our time like the Chinese Revolution, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and 9/11. More recently, she has addressed the Donald Trump phenomenon as well as the murder of the African-American George Floyd in Minnesota last year; the growing Talibanization and saffronization of Pakistani and Indian societies respectively; and built up a significant body of work on the COVID – 19 pandemic and its local and global ramifications. I believe that Kishwar Aapa is the most prolific and varied Urdu poet of our time!

6. She has witnessed both the partitions – British India (1947) and Bangladesh (1971). Do you see any correspondence to such experience in her work? 

Not really! Yes she did witness the depredations of partition as a 7-year old girl of a conservative middle-class family uprooted from her native Bulandshahr, but she quickly assimilated within the Pakistani Punjabi culture upon migration to Lahore. So partition itself does find a mention in her celebrated memoir Buri Aurat Ki Katha but it does not affect her work per se like it did her distinguished contemporaries like Intizar Hussain (also a fellow Bulandshahri), Abdullah Hussein or Quratulain Hyder. who are known for addressing such themes in their most important works. I mean Naheed is not known for her poems on partition; she hasn’t written any!

In the case of 1971, there are just a couple of chapters in her memoirs but no poetry. She has herself told me that there was a news blockade imposed by the Pakistani military dictatorship on any news coming from East Pakistan and so even when she accompanied a delegation of Pakistanis on a fact-finding mission to Dhaka at the height of the bloodbath there, she fled in horror from the carnage on a plane. So again she hasn’t really addressed this second partition in her poetry as well.

7. How has her work influenced the field of history? 

I would say it has to a certain extent, and more directly in the context of her poems from the dictatorship period of the Zia-ul-Haq regime, Pakistan’s worst military regime. Read any of her poems from that period from 1981 to 1986 and you wll understand what I am talking about. Let me give the reference of just one of her poems, Mein Kaun Hoon (Who Am I?, in which the echo of a whole movement can be heard which especially in the regime of Zia-ul-Haq had spread like a wave of consciousness in reaction to the trampling of women’s rights.  

8 How has translation helped her work reach a larger audience while not losing the ethos of the author?

I think Kishwar Naheed is really lucky that she is one of the most translated Urdu poets of the 20th century, if not the MOST translated. As far as I know, she has been translated into most of the great languages, including for the United Nations. I can only speak for the quality of her English translations, which have been appearing regularly since 1972. They are of varying quality as is usually the case, but they have helped establish her as the representative voice of Pakistani feminism, much like you would say about Simone de Beauvoir and Nawal El Saadawi. I mean to me she IS Pakistani feminism! The writer herself is actually not very satisfied with the quality of her work in translation. In my own humble translations of her work, I have consciously tried to bring out her daring political and feminist concerns, but I also believe in maintaining a certain jauntiness of ryhme.

9 According to you, what makes Kishwar Naheed’s work distinct from others? 

Kishwar Naheed is identified as a distinct voice in modern Urdu poetry. Her tone is individualistic but it has the echo of the widest collective experience:

‘Meri aavaaz, mere shahr ki aavaaz hai

Meri aavaaz, meri nasl ki aavaaz hai

Meri aavaaz ki baazgasht nasl dar nsl chale gi…’

(My voice, is the voice of my city

 My voice, is the voice of my generation

 The echo of my voice will continue from generation to generation…’

Further she writes in this poem:

‘Main payambar nahi hoon

 Main toa bas aaj ko aankhen khol kar dekh rahi hoon.’

(I am not a prophet

 I am just watching today by opening my eyes)

Kishwar Aapa has narrated these conditions seen with open eyes in her poetry. Alongwith the continuous narrative of individualistic experience, her poetry can also be read as a bitter and harsh comment on the present period; where the incident of this era becomes poetry after being molded into personal experience. The poetry of Kishwar Naheed achieves it distinction from the illustration of this very couple of facets of experience, the individualistic and the collective. After reading Kishwar aapa’s poems from the 1960s, one could say with confidence that Urdu poetry became able enough to endure a woman.

10 What is your favourite work of Kishwar Naheed? 

There are 3 poems which are all recent that I would like to mention here. Incidentally I have also translated all three. One is a poem not written by her, but about her Kishwar Naheed Ko Zinda Rehna Chahiye (Kishwar Naheed Must Live), written by Dr Najiba Arif, which is also on the back cover of the special anniversary volume commissioned for her 80th birthday last year. Then there is a long poem on COVID – 19 in early 2020 titled Kon Inka Maseea Banega (Who Will Be Their Messiah) which is probably the first poem she wrote on the pandemic and I had the honour to translate it; I had the honour to recite the translated poem at an online talk I was invited to give on the ramifications of COVID – 19 in Pakistan at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, one of Russia’s most prestigious universities. The third one is very special because when the unfortunate George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota in May last year, I rang Kishwar Aapa up and insisted that there must be a poem on this. So she wrote the poem George Floyd – Mein Amar Ho Gaya (George Floyed – I Became Immortal) on the tragedy and then amended it later. She later told the late Asif Farrukhi that this is Raza’s poem. he wrung it out of me. This will always be a source of great pride and honour for me!

Translated by Raza Naeem

Author – Manashini M

This is Manashini M. She is a 3rd-year History research major in Shiv Nadar University, Noida-NCR.

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