The aim of this paper is to offer some examples of reading feminist agency through an analysis of the poems of Pakistan’s pre-eminent feminist poet, Kishwar Naheed. Some images of women’s oppression and their acts of resistance in Naheed’s poetry are highlighted and illustrated from feminist perspective while utilizing the theory of “Everyday Resistance.” This paper also aims to examine some practical and symbolic tactics of resistance, the female speakers in the selected poems of Kishwar Naheed follow to overcome the patriarchal hegemony over their subjectivity and to gain a sense of self-identity and autonomy. While speaking out against patriarchal norms, Naheed manages to challenge the negative stereotypes of women too in the poems. In her poems, female speakers become their own liberators, and they crave and strive to break the rules and shed the shackles which imprison them while rejecting all male-chauvinistic social orders. This paper follows the development and change of the female speakers and shows how they move from being passive recipients of exploitive patriarchal actions to being active agents of resistance.
Throughout history, women have experienced different kinds of abuse, subjugation, and exploitation, and such sufferings have mainly been a direct result of their gender. In their works, female writers have endeavoured to uncover the negative impact of such structures on women’s main role in the public arena and on their character development and identity formation. Kishwar Naheed is one of those female writers who discussed women’s issues in her works. Naheed is viewed as one of the significant voices writing about feminine subjects during the period when feminists started recognizing women’s oppression and fighting against patriarchal belief that women’s proper place was her home and her proper role was to be a wife and a mother.
Naheed is one of the non-conformist feminist poets and women activists of Pakistan who “actively participated in the agitation against state-dictated atrocities targeting women” (Hashmi 6). Her poems have been widely read and criticized. Some critics have analysed her poetry from a psychoanalytic viewpoint and reduced it to her life story as a supreme example of ‘confessional poetry,’ because it is considered that many of the sentiments expressed in her poems have come out of direct engagement with the seclusion imposed on her as a result of married life within conservative family in Pakistan. Other commentators have examined it from a different angle as a way of exposing oppression against women in a patriarchal society. Naheed’s poetry is also considered by some as a “call to equality and undeniable rights for everyone, especially women as they become the subject of her poetry” (Shoaib 2). This paper analyzes five of Kishwar Naheed’s poems in which some images of women’s oppression and their acts of resistance are analysed from feminist perspective while utilizing Scott’s theory of “Everyday Resistance.” It demonstrates how the female speakers in “I am not that woman,” “Anticlockwise,” “Grass is Really Like Me,” and “Ants Consume the Elephant,” move from being oppressed and manipulated to being empowered and emancipated.
Rukhsana Ahmad in her anthology mentions that “if there is Pakistani feminist who poses serious threat to men through her work, her lifestyle, her manner and through ceaseless verbal challenge, it is Kishwar Naheed” (Ahmad 21). She extensively describes the rigid constraints of a political system imbued with farce religiosity and hypocrisy on women. While rejecting the all-male chauvinistic social order, despite the strong religious convictions of her countrymen, she struggled to redefine the status of women through her poetry. Rashid Masood Hashmi claims that “Kishwar Naheed’s poetry has always been seen as a threat to the patriarchal order” (6). Her poetry is very powerful, not only because of its spirited resistance to hegemonic socio-political structures, but also because it grants power to women’s voices within those very subjugating socio-political structures of Islam and Pakistani modernity.
Acts of Resistance and Persuasion
“I am not that woman” is one of the best examples where we can find images of female exploitation and resistance of woman against patriarchy. In this poem, Naheed represents the ambivalent relationship between men, who symbolize patriarchy, and the female speaker, who signifies the victim of patriarchal society. The female speaker expresses her hatred and resentment toward patriarchal figures who have oppressed her and controlled every aspect of her life. While talking about the oppression which women have to face in patriarchal society, Naheed, as a representative of all the oppressed women, claims that “I am the one you hid/ in your walls of stone, while you roamed free as breeze… I am the one you crushed/ with the weight of custom and tradition…I am the one in whose lap/ you picked flowers/ and planted thorns and embers.” These lines exactly exemplify the oppression women have to face in patriarchal structures, where women are oppressed and chained in domestic roles and men roamed free and do whatever they want. Women have to face a lot of restrictions in society but there are no restrictions and limitations for men. These lines are full of violent imagery and Naheed has used very strong words and phrases like “chains,” “thorns and embers,” “commodity,” and “crushed with the weight of custom and tradition” to show the strength of the oppression. She also gives us the hint that men have tried to replace her flowers of hope and aspiration with thorns and chains of contempt and oppression. This is another sign of entrapment and discrimination. This poem shows the issue of discrimination against women and how men treat them in patriarchal society but at the same time this poem is also directed towards empowerment and liberation of women. Naheed boldly asserts that women are being oppressed everywhere but they deserve to be respected and they are not “commodities.”
On one side, the female speaker continues to tell about her victimization under patriarchy but on the other side, she shows her potential to break the shackles of patriarchal norms. Thus, for her to achieve relief, independence and autonomy, she needs to break away from patriarchy and get rid of male figures who have deformed her sense of self-identity. She finds no way but to perform the symbolic rejection and resistance of being a submissive and inferior woman while claiming, “I am not that woman/ selling you socks and shoes… No, no, I am not that woman.” She refuses to disrespect herself while rejecting to objectify her body for others to see and receive pleasure. This is an act of resistance by a female speaker and these words are clearly seen as a threat to the patriarchal structures as the woman becomes her own liberator and she craves and strives to break the rules imposed upon her by men. The speaker is fighting with the thoughts of the men by asserting again and again that “I am not that woman.” This sentence demonstrates that the female persona is rejecting to be the woman according to the will of men and she is going to stand up for the rights of equality. She might be the one whom patriarchy has crushed under the weight of custom, bought and sold in the name of chastity, married of to get rid of burden; but she re-emerges and resurfaces like “light cannot be hidden in the darkness.”
Challenging Negative Stereotypes of Women
Kishwar Naheed uses different metaphors and symbolism to show the acts of resistance more clearly in this poem. The female speaker uses the metaphor of “light” for herself. This metaphor of light against dark shows the potential and courage of speaker to break away patriarchal norms. This light can also be described as a light of knowledge which gives us the hint that female speaker can lighten the darkness through her knowledge and abilities. Women are usually considered ignorant and inferior in patriarchal societies and this image breaks the negative stereotype of women as ignorant, submissive, and inferior being. This metaphorical comparison of a woman with the light can be described as one of the “hidden transcripts” of what James Scott calls “weapon of the weak,” who are reduced to limited options, which signifies the “vital role of power relations in constraining forms of resistance,” but at the same time her symbolic and metaphoric act has “revolutionary implications” (“Everyday form of Resistance” 33). Scott believes that resistance exists between all kinds of subalterns, and it is a “matter of the less visible and small actions by subalterns” (Vinthagen and Johansson 72). Scott refers to two types of resistance available to all subaltern subjects: the “public/ practical” and the “disguised symbolic” resistance. Scott includes the assertion of worth by gestures, dress, and speech in public declared resistance whereas he refers to the disguised resistance as “hidden transcript of anger, aggression, disguised discourses of dignity, symbolism, gossip.” (Scott 94).
Naheed was writing in an environment in which the prevailing view of women was of seductress or immoral, she specifically resists this negative stereotype of the woman as immoral seductress and counter this perception by presenting herself as a virtuous and moral woman who is not ready to objectify herself while “selling socks and shoes half-nakedly” to the men for the sake of their pleasure and claims, “No, no, I am not that woman.” She conducts herself with integrity ascribes her ability to resist temptation and preserve her innocence.
Defiance of Submissive Roles
Through her metaphorical resisting act of “lighting in the darkness” and “walking on the water,” the female speaker develops a personal fantasy of freedom, courage and confrontation to defy the submissive roles and values represented by patriarchal figures in the society. Consequently, she affirms her psychological victory over the men by expressing her anger, which is another hidden transcript of resistance, against the whole patriarchal and political system and insulting its representative when declaring at the end:
I am the commodity you traded in,
My chastity, my motherhood, my loyalty.
Now it is time for me to flower free.
The woman on that poster, half-naked,
Selling you socks and shoes-
No, no, I am not that woman!
This disguised emotional act of resistance and defiance of submissive role is necessary for her to be able to establish a new life free of the images of her oppressors, and to be her own self without any patriarchal forces around her. She decides to free herself from the patriarchal structures and forces that had oppressed her for so many years. The female speaker rejects to be the victim of patriarchy, denies vehemently to be commodified and declares herself free while claiming that now “it is time for me to flower free” which gives the hint of her liberation from male-dominated society. This is also an act of resistance as she rejects the idea of remaining within the four walls of house and chooses to enjoy freedom while going against the typical norms of society. So, from a feminist perspective, “I am not that woman” can be considered a poem of a female transformation from oppressive victim to emancipation, as the speaker who was once “hid in the walls” blatantly claims that now “my voice cannot be smothered by stones.” So, it can be said that Naheed’s “I am not that woman” is imbued with “feminist triumph, exemplifies the stereotyping of women in a typical patriarchal society with the help of chilling images and morbidity to let the world know that her identity is no more to be decided by men” (Hashmi 12). In this poem, the female speaker moves from the state of material victimization and subjugation to the state of psychological emancipation and empowerment.
Speaking Out Against Patriarchal Figures
Anticlockwise is the poem by Kishwar Naheed that shows the “ugliest side of dominancy and marginality” (Hashmi 22). In “Anticlockwise,” Naheed, who is the female speaker too, identifies herself as a victim of patriarchal society. She says, “You have tied the chains of domesticity/ shame and modesty around my feet… You have paralyzed me.” These lines in the poem gives us a clear-cut idea how women are treated in patriarchal societies and they are not allowed even to move freely outside of their homes. The female persona claims that the patriarchal figures have tied the chains of domesticity around her feet and she has been restricted to roam freely in this world. In this poem, Naheed has given the message in a very clear-cut way, though she uses personal pronouns in this poem, still she is the representative of all the supperessed women in male-dominated societies. Women are victimized and exploited by the patriarchal norms of society, and so is the female speaker who sees herself as a victim of patriarchal system. She has been reduced to the domestic chores. But regardless of this perception of the female, she asserts her sense of self as she declares that even if men have “tied the chains of domesticity” around her feet, she can still “think” if not “walk.” This act of.thinking is an act of resistance against patriarchy to recapture her sense of self-identity. The female persona asserts that patriarchal figures can control her sight, sense of smell, they can control her from going outside or from walking even but they cannot control her thoughts. The lines, “even though I cannot walk/ I can still think” raise the issue of “embodied resistance from within, both conceptually and literally” (Ananthram 32). While asserting her ability to find new ways to come out of oppression and her potential to think, Naheed resists the negative stereotype of women as ignorant, submissive, and inferior being. Thus, we can say that this is a symbolic form of resistance the female speaker manages to perform her rebellion towards patriarchy as an oppressive ideology.
Kishwar Naheed draws attention to women’s exploitation and abuse in patriarchal society but she also portrays that every time the female persona finds a new way to come out of her deformed sense of self as she says:
Even if my eyes become the soles of your feet
Even so, the fear will not leave you
That though I cannot see
I can feel bodies and sentences
Like a fragrance.
These lines demonstrate that the speaker is not the woman who can be restricted by men. Her sight can be controlled by men but she claims that she would smell everything and find another way to survive and come out of oppression. Through her potential to “think” freely, she shows her resistance and refusal to adapt to the restricted values of patriarchy to be a submissive and weak woman who does not think but act according to the will of men.
But Naheed refuses to be that kind of submissive and inferior woman who is a play doll in the hands of men. As a bold and emancipated female figure, the poet bluntly claims:
Your fear of my being free, being alive
And able to think might lead you
Who knows into what travails…
Here, we notice how she moves from being the passive victim of patriarchy to the effective woman who issues a threat to the men of society, as she claims that this fear of her freedom might lead the men of society into different troubles and laborious efforts. She portrays how a liberated woman arouses fear in man who cannot rest until he is able to confine and manipulate all her abilities. This threat or warning which she has issued can be considered as a form of ‘public declared resistance.’ While claiming, “though I cannot smell/ I can still feel… though I cannot speak/ I can still walk…though I cannot walk/ I can still think,” the female speaker of the poem becomes the vigorous agent of resistance, who cannot be oppressed by men. Naheed writes that even if all her senses die away under the grinding doctrines of patriarchy, she will still be able to access her thoughts. Although, the patriarchal figures try to exploit her because she is a woman, she becomes her own liberator and moves from being caged and confined by the chains of domesticity to being liberated and psychological emancipated. Through the symbolic acts of resistance, this poem can be described as a journey from oppression and nightmares to one of liberation and empowerment.
Resistance Through Assertion
Kishwar Naheed, an iconoclastic poet and a social activist has always been at the forefront as far as women’s issues are concerned. “The Grass is Really Like Me” is a very powerful poem in which Naheed portrays the way women are treated in patriarchal societies. In this poem, she draws an intriguing and innovative analogy between grass and herself. The message of this poem is clear-cut in the very beginning when the poetess declares that “the grass is really like me/ it has to unfurl underfoot to fulfill itself.” Through these two lines, it is presented that whatever may be the tactics adopted by patriarchy to uproot or suppress woman, she will rise again and again unbeaten and undaunted in her spirits like the grass. The choice to identify oneself with the grass is very significant. Naheed claims that in this patriarchal society, by “getting soaked,” a woman similar to grass will prove nothing except a “scorching sense of shame,” and “heart of emotion.” Here, Naheed wants to give us this idea that whenever women try to rise or do something on their own, these attempts make them an outcast from society and they receive nothing except shame. Because, women are not allowed to go against the will of their men. According to the OED, the word “soaked” means “to be exposed to something” (1152). So, in this context, we can say that the word ‘soaked’ in the poem gives us the idea that whenever women try to have the exposure of the outer world, they are badly criticized and labelled as ‘bad women.’
This poem articulates how men levels woman down like grass, restraining her rhizomatic growth to infinity. Lawnmower cutting the grass reminds the poetess of men suppressing women’s desire of freedom. She claims that numerous attempts are undertaken to flatten the grass to a velvety beauty. In a similar manner, many attempts have also been made to make the female persona, who represents oppressed women, subservient. Any attempts to raise that bent head are met with violent repurcussions like the flattening of the grass. Kishwar Naheed writes:
The grass is really like me
As soon as it can raise its head
Obsessed with flattening it into velvet
Mows it down again.
The efforts of the gardener to “mow” down the raised grass is compared to the politics of male dominated society manifested in many ways to level down the women. The image of women’s oppression is being depicted in this stanza through the comparison of woman with grass. Just like the grass is razed again and again, women are also not allowed to raise their heads and if they try to raise them, women are crushed or razed down by patriarchal figures and structures. The speaker also asserts her subjectivity and autonomy through resisting the concept of being inferior and enslaved. The aggressive assertion and opposition to repressive customs and traditions continues in this poem too, as she asserts:
How you strive and endeavor,
To level women down too
But niether the earth’s nor women’s
Desire to manifest life dies.
Through these lines, the female persona issues a warning to patriarchal figures that they cannot curb her desires and emotions. Her desire to manifest life does not die like earth. While comparing herself with grass, on one side she shows us that women are crushed by men’s dominance just like grass is crushed under foot but on the other side she also shows us, even if she would be crushed by dominance, she would still grow again and again as the real grass does. This reminds me of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise in which she draws an innovative analogy between air and herself. Angelou mentions that even if men would kill her, she would rise again and again like air. In this poem, Naheed compares herself with grass and boldly claims that even if men would crush her or raze her down, she would grow again and again like grass. These two poems have some sort of similarity with eachother as both the poems are considered resistance poems and the acts of resistance are present in these two poems. The female speakers in these poems have achieved a sense of self-identity and they cannot be suppressed by men now. What Naheed offers in the poem is a complete subversion. She defies the conventional role of feminity under patriarchy through her metaphorical act of resistance that indicates her determinism to not let anything crush her or draw her back to darkness. Her intention in this poem thereby is to offer her resistance to the process of “level women down too.” The female speaker moves fom oppression to emancipation as she claims that “her desire to manifest life” cannot die or suppress by patriarchal forces of society. Thus, we can say that this poem represents its female speaker’s resistance against such kind of oppression that has ghettoized her potentialities and abilities. Such activities and tactics can be considered as “acts of resistance that…exploited people use in order to both survive and undermine repressive domination” (Courpasson and Vallas 229-230). As a feminist writer, Naheed advises women not to bear the sufferings and grow again and again as grass keeps on growing even if it is flattened by someone.
Journey From Oppression to Liberation
In “Ants Consume the Elephant,” the female speaker also tries to assert her subjectivity and autonomy through resisting the concept of “good and submissive woman” as a patriarchal institution when refusing to remain silent. She defies this conventional role of feminity under patriarchy and chooses to speak up for and decides to continue her journey toward independence and freedom. The lines of this poem that “I will speak, I will sing/ Try if you can stop/ the drops of the first rain!” show the practical act of resistance through the act of speaking and singing freely that also indicates her determinism to not let anything trap her again or drag her back to the “darkness.”
In this poem, Naheed boldly claims that the restricted roles have paralyzed women and deprived them of selfhood and individuality. The poet complains the forceful condition of marriage for Pakistani women in which they have no choice and will to choose their own husbands. Force marriage is the bitter fruit of Pakistani radical patriarchal and male-governed society that deviates the fundamental and natural rights of women. Naheed says:
On whom should I write a poem now
Who cannot marry of her own accord
And those who point fingers,
Her own blood,
Are petitioners of justice.
Naheed realizes that she herself needs to cross the borders of patriarchy and be her real self. While revolting against these stereotypical roles assigned to women by patriarchy. She breaks away the shackles of patriarchy as she boldly challenges men to dare to stop her from speaking and singing. She decides to break silence and speak up for herself. Thus, we can say that this poem presents female speaker’s resistance to remain silent which has “ghettoized and degraded her potentialities” and undermined “women’s intellectual and spiritual importance” (Shoaib 24). The state of the female speaker at the beginning of the poem is one of stability and gloominess where she feels that women are imprisoned by their roles in society but this poem ends with a very strong and challenging voice as Naheed claims that nobody can stop her from speaking and singing as it is her innate right.
In conclusion, it can be stated that Kishwar Naheed uses her poems such as “I am not that woman,” “Anticlockwise,” “Grass is Really Like Me” and “Ants consume the Elephant” to express her critique of the patriarchal social order which limits women and reduces them to terms of passivity, submission, dependence, subordination and inferiority. In her poems, she exposes the images of women’s exploitation and oppression in the hands of men. Women are depicted as the victims of patriarchal ideology. In these poems, Naheed also draws images of resistance and revolt against the oppressive patriarchal system and its representative male figures. The different form of “public,” “symbolic,” “metaphoric” and “disguised” acts performed by the female speakers in these three poems can be regarded as a “form of individual everyday activism to resist social controls that subjugate them to others’ values and expectations” (Simi 106).These four poems present how the female speakers move from being victimized to being triumphant and victorious over patriarchy, along with its restricted roles and its narrow perception of women. The female speakers eventually come to realize their real situation as being trapped and also realizes their urgent need to free themselves from the oppressive bandages, psychologically at least. However, I argue that Naheed’s poems reveal not only multiple sites of oppression for women, but also opportunities for transformation, resistance, and liberation. The poet carefully employs both persuasive and resistant strategies to combat the stereotypes and negative views of Pakistani women. She resists and combats gender discrimination and social inequalities, inspiring her audience to join the fight against patriarchal structures and social injustices. Naheed’s poetry shows that she is resisting both current negative stereotypical perceptions and century of violent discrimination against women.
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