Remembering the zealous - Fahmida Riaz

  • 01 Dec - 07 Dec, 2018
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Obituary

For the literary world, she was a renowned poet with an established a literary paradigm, but the mere words do not do justice to the fearless soul that Fahmida Riaz was. Following the footsteps of feminist and progressive female writers like Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Riaz’s pen inked powerful words and stances. Not to mention that she paid heavily for it, to the point of being served multiple court orders and was forced to live in exile in India for seven years. Despite all the intimidation and disapproval of a woman penning words that were considered too bold for taboo topics, she never stopped writing her heart out only to carve out a legacy for the future generation to follow. Her books are a testament of how well she fared.

Riaz authored 15 books of fiction and poetry, the latter always keeping her front and centre of controversy. Among her notable works are also various editions of translations including the Masnavi of Jalaluddin Rumi from Persian to Urdu and the poetry by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai from Sindhi to Urdu. Some of the other books written by Riaz include Pather ki Zuban, Godavari, Karachi, Dhoop, Zinda Bahar and more. Her works also include erotic poetry, Badan Deedar, which was considered too bold to digest and that too coming from a woman.

Other than the bold literature, her political inclination was another factor that contributed to her tense poetic collections and writings. Apna Jurm Sabit Hae was a collection of verses against General Zia-ul-Haq, on how the country was quelled under his dictatorship and led to near 10 lawsuits being filed against her and her husband. Later, her husband was jailed while she was bailed out by a fan. Riaz proceeded to flee to India upon being granted asylum by the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Riaz’s life was a collection of achievements, starting with working as a newscaster at Radio Pakistan and later, establishing her own Urdu publication, Awaaz. Due to the political genre and her anti-establishment views, Awaaz was not a voice that people heard for long. The publication got banned for the anti-establishment content and liberal views.

Nor ban, neither exile could stop the strong-headed Fahmida Riaz or intimidate her into hiding. Later in her life, she continued her career as an Urdu literary prodigy. She also served as Managing Director at the Urdu Dictionary Board and National Book Foundation.

Whenever questioned about her preferred genre, she would quote the real meaning of art. “One should be totally sincere in one's art, and uncompromising. There is something sacred about art that cannot take violation. One should read extensively to polish expression. I read Platts’ Urdu-Hindi to English Dictionary like a book of poems. I love words”, said Riaz.

Besides making her name in the prominent literati of Pakistan, Fahmida was also a human rights activist and a vocal feminist. Over the years, she advocated for women’s rights and was quoted saying the simplest and basic definition of feminism without complicating it with modern feminist ideals.

“Feminism has so many interpretations. What it means for me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities. They have to achieve social equality, much like the Dalits or the Black Americans. In the case of women, it is so much more complex. I mean, there is the right to walk on the road without being harassed. Or to be able to swim, or write a love poem, like a man without being considered immoral. The discrimination is very obvious and very subtle, very cruel and always inhuman.”

She was an advocate of promoting bold writings and was often seen talking about what the next step for Pakistani authors should be, always highlighting the positive change, improvement and budding talent. As a writer who was so largely misunderstood by the masses for exploring expression in the Urdu language, where certain words are unacceptable arranged together, the misapprehension drove her into isolation. Despite all of that, when she got back on Pakistani soil after exile, she was given a warm welcome.

A life like that must be cherished and honoured. Although she has left us, there was a path of change she embarked on, one that may be she set foot on alone, has become a course for new authors to express and showcase their art in a more positive light to a little more tolerant audience.