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Journey from oppression to liberation: acts of resistance in kis hwar naheed poetry

Abstract

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 Scott’s 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. In her poems, women 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 types 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. Others 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 three 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”,” “Ants consume the Elephant” move from being oppressed and manipulated to being empowered and emancipated.

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Many of Naheed’s poems deal with women and their sufferings under patriarchy. Her images are heavily loaded with the images of female exploitation and oppression. In her poetry, Naheed expresses her anger against male-dominated society which limits women to stereotypical roles. She extensively describes the rigid constraints on women of a political system imbued with farce religiosity and hypocrisy. 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.

“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 claims:

I am the one you hid

In your walls of stone, while you roamed free as the 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 exemplifies the oppression of women 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. Naheed has used very strong phrase that women are ‘crushed with the weight of custom and tradition’ to show the strength of the oppression. She also claims that men have tried to replace her flowers of hope and aspiration with thorns and chains of contempt and oppression. These lines demonstrates that men can crush women whenever they like as they are always considered inferior to men. This is another sign of entrapment and discrimination. In this poem, the female speaker gives us many hints about female oppression while using different harsh words like “chains”,” “thorns and embers”,” “crushed”,” “commodity.” This poem exemplifies the issue of discrimination against women and how men treat them in patriarchal society but at the same time tis 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.”

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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 enslaved woman while claiming, “I am not that woman/ selling you socks and shoes… the woman on the posters, half-naked/ selling socks and shoes/ No, no, I am not that woman.” She refuses to disrespect herself and her body, refuses 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 order 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 clearly 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.

Kishwar Naheed uses different metaphors and symbolism to show the acts of resistance more clearly. The female speaker uses the metaphor of “light” for herself and claims that she is a “light that cannot be hidden in the darkness.” This metaphor of light against dark shows the potential and courage of speaker to break away patriarchal norms. 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).

Through her metaphorical resisting act of “lighting in the darkness” and “walking on the water”,” the female speaker develops a personal fantasy of revenge and confrontation to defy the submissive norms 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 system and insulting its representative when declaring at the end:

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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 socks and shoes-

No, no, I am not that woman!

This disguised emotional act of resistance 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. 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 “my voice cannot be smothered by stones.” She claims that “I can walk on water/ when drowning” and also refuses to be seen as a woman who objectifies herself while selling socks and shoes half-nakedly to please men. 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.

Anticlockwise is the poem by Kishwar Naheed that shows the “ugliest side of dominancy and marginality” (Mahboob 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.” In patriarchal societies, women are objectified for the male gaze. They 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. This poem basically presents repeated and ceaseless authoritarian attempts of annihilation, sequences of her unwilling prostration and surrender to the will of men that keep her trapped in her body and sexuality. She has been reduced to the do exotic 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 foot, she can still “think” if not “walk.”

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