Fahmida Riaz, the woman who decolonised feminism

by ASAD ALVI


Through translation, Fahmida could move across temporalities and geographies. She was dictated by no singular logic

She used to refer to herself as a midnight’s child: those unfortunate few born on the stroke of the midnight that produced a crack in the Subcontinent, leading to the newly formed modern nation states of India and Pakistan.

In a single moment, the fabric of human co-existence was undone: a country where many cultures had existed in a synchretised fashion for eons, were suddenly marked as communally different: Hindus on the one hand, Muslims on the other. This communalisation of medieval Indian history, fabricated through colonial historiography, became naturalized the moment the two communities internalised the myth and decided that they wanted separate homelands.

The grounds of Meerut, where the Ramayana took root, had to be abandoned, and Riaz-ud-Din Ahmed, Fahmida’s father and a teacher, was transferred to the province of Sindh to help the new country develop a national education scheme. Men of the new country were desperate for a ‘Muslim’ national culture, just as their neighbours were desperate for a ‘Hindu’ national culture.

And Fahmida, woman, Other, would soon come to know that the men’s desires to protect the new nation would find a metaphor in the woman’s body.

This is, in fact, what happened. On both sides of the border. First, it began with the violence of Partition itself. Men on either side abducting the women they saw as belonging to the Other, so as to indicate that they had defiled the nation of the Other. Rape became a metaphor: penetrating into the enemy’s nation, as the woman’s body. Subsequently, to save one’s nation from the threat of the Other was to protect “one’s” woman.

The period between the 70s and the 80s marked the zenith point in such post-colonial trauma. In India, posters were released on the eve of Indira Gandhi’s death depicting her as a bleeding mother on the shoulders of an Indian soldier.

During 1971, Lata Mangeshkar took the stage in a saree, the hem of which was the Indian flag, as she prepared to sing ‘Ai mere watan ki logon’. The woman’s body was India incarnate. In Pakistan, similar representations followed suit: Zia emerged on the political scene, with a particular embellishment of a Muslim nationalism the likes of which we had never witnessed. The Hudood laws were enacted in 1979. The women had to be disciplinarised into culturally authentic subjects. Fahmida was thirty-two at this time. Only five years ago, she had published Badan Dareeda (Torn Body), and all hell had broken loose.

Badan Dareeda was called pornographic, at odds with the values of “Muslim culture” – whatever that meant for the men.

Fahmida wrote the collection in London, where she found herself in an unhappy marriage which was arranged shortly after her graduation from the University of Sindh. She did not consider herself a politically conscious person at this time. She settled into life and marriage with the resignation of a passenger who quietly settles into an empty chair on a moving train.

Dawn for more

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