Women & Freedom: Pakistani Poet's Ode to Mahsa Amini Is a Blow to Patriarchy

As Iran celebrates 44 years of revolution, urdu poetry documented how women's curtailed freedom sparked a movement.

3 min read
Hindi Female

Today marks the 44th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, one of the most important events and certainly the last great revolution of the 20th century. Despite the revolution’s early gains and achievements over the last four decades, women’s freedom have been steadily curtailed and eroded in Iran.

This was starkly proven last year on 16 September when a 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was brutally tortured to death over having her head improperly covered, leading to widespread ongoing mass protests against the regime in Tehran.


Women's Protest Stirred The Iranian Community

Since the unfortunate death of Amini in police custody, not only have Iranian women been at the forefront of the protest movement but their daring step has found massive support among Iranians from all walks of life—from the Iranian soccer team at the 2022 FIFA World Cup to the members of Iran’s much-vaunted film fraternity.

The memorable slogan of the Iranian protest movement Zan, Zindagi, Azadi (Woman, Life, Freedom) echoes the rallying cry of another martyr in a different part of the world, the unfortunate African-American George Floyd whose last words before being asphyxiated to death in Minnesota on 25 May 2020— ‘I Can’t Breathe’, gave rise to the powerful Black Lives Matter movement across the United States.

As Women's Protests in Iran Brews, Feminist Urdu Poet Remembers Young Martyr

Among Urdu poets, Kishwar Naheed (b. 1940) has the distinction of being one of the greatest living Urdu poets. Her life, writings, and activism against patriarchy and dictatorship in Pakistan as one of the pioneers of feminist Urdu poetry, are well-documented.

She is probably the first Urdu poet to give voice to Mahsa Amini, the young martyr of Iran’s rekindled feminist movement, with one of her latest poems simply titled 'Mahsa Amini'.

She begins her poem by noting that even in Biblical times while the Egyptian women were cutting their fingers, smitten by Joseph’s beauty, nobody dared make them captive by invoking religious injunctions:

Jis vaqt zanan-e-Misr

Yusuf ka deedar karte hue

Apni ungliyan kaat rahi theen

Unhen kisi ne mazhab ki

Zanjeer nahi pehnai thi

She then goes on to appropriate the Iranian feminist pioneering poet Forough Farrokhzad, her contemporary resistance poet Ahmad Shamlou and the just-released acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi to the cause of her heroine,

Forough Farrokhzad ke mulk mein

Auraten scarf aur dopatte jala rahi hen

Ehtijaj mein baal kaat rahi hen

Shakhsi azadi ke liye…

Ahmad Shalou aur Jafar Panahi

Keh rahe hain ‘Zan, Zindagi, Azadi’


Before finishing her poem by reminding the custodians of morality that as per Muslim beliefs, it will be by their mothers’ names that they will be identified on the Day of Judgement; she says but even on that greatest Day of all days, these bearded grandees will be running after unveiled women rather than caring for their own salvation:

Aur dunya ke tamam

Imam-o-shuyukh ko yad dilaun

Jab qabr se uthaye jayenge

Maan ke naam se pukare jayenge

Is din nasiheen ko

Apni bakhshish ki fikr ho gi

Ke is vaqt bhi auraton ko

Hashr ke maidan mein

Hijab pehnane ko bhagte rahen ge.

So on the 44th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution today, Kishwar Naheed’s posthumous tribute to one of its youngest martyrs Mahsa Amini, is being presented here in an original English translation, which is also a paean to Iranian women, Iranian lives and Iranian freedom.

At the time

The women of Egypt

While beholding Joseph

Were cutting their fingers

No faith had placed them in fetters

The Guardians of the land of Hafez and Saadi

Killing a young girl while warning her

Consider it real Islam

In the land of Forough Farrokhzad

Women are burning scarfs and stoles

Cutting their hair in protest

For personal freedom(s)

Women around the world are chanting slogans

Ahmad Shamlou and Jafar Panahi

Are saying ‘Zan, Zindagi, Azadi’

Those who have made the meadow of faith into a wilderness

Would make even the trees veil themselves had they power (over them)

They begin to lick their lips even

Upon seeing the waving branches

In the corridors of beliefs

To those who imprison women

And all the leaders and aged men

Should I remind

That when they will be raised from the grave

They will be called by the mother’s name

That day the preachers

Will be worried about their forgiveness

In that at that time too

In the field of Doomsday

They will be running to veil the women.’

(Raza Naeem is an award-winning Pakistani researcher and translator based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He tweets @raza_naeem1979. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Urdu poetry   Mahsa Amini 

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