International Women’s Day: Urdu Poetry & Its ‘Beloved’ Women

In Urdu poetry, she appears in all her resplendent glory, her manifold beauty, her many guises.

4 min read

While it can be argued that the ‘beloved’ is a bit of a conundrum in Urdu poetry, for it can refer to not just the lay or the divine lover but equally to a man, woman or child, there is no such ambiguity about the woman. She appears in all her resplendent glory, her manifold beauty, her many guises: temptress, seductress, tease, beguiler, goddess, teacher, mother, daughter, and yes occasionally, companion and fellow traveller. Sometimes, the ‘she’ in a seemingly romantic ghazal, especially of the Old Masters, might appear to be about a woman, whereas couched in the vocabulary of the ghazal (the ghazal itself being an amatory ode meaning ‘talking to women’), it could be about tasawwuf, or mysticism, where the ‘beloved’ is God.

On International Women’s Day, let us concentrate on the ‘progressive’ representation of women in Urdu poetry, one that is unequivocally about women.

But here, let us extend the argument to the decades preceding the arrival of the writers associated with the powerful literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Association that burst upon the literary scene in the mid-1930s.

Let us see if there was a ‘progressive’ view of women in the pre-modern age and how that led up to what we see as a modern view of the modern woman in the 21st century.


Women as Prized 'Possessions'

Forming a bridge between the traditionalists and the modern poets, Altaf Husain Hali, for all his hortatory zeal, was exhorting fellow men to see women as prized possessions, as repositories of ‘grace’:

Tum ghar ki ho shehzadiyan mulkon ki ho abadiyan

Veeraan dilon ki shaadiyaan

Eimaan salamat tumse hai

Ai maaon, behnon, betiyon, duniya ki zeenat tumse hai

(O you princesses of our homes

You bring happiness to desolate hearts

Our faith is intact because of you

O mothers, sisters daughters you are the grace of the world)

Allama Iqbal, too, presented a somewhat similarly flattering though ‘flat’ representation of women;

Wajud-e-zan se hai tasvir-e-kaenat mein rang

Isi ke saaz se hai zindagi ka soz-e-darun

(The existence of women fills the world with colours

It is the instrument that creates the innermost songs)

The Big 'Isms' of the Day

Coming now to the progressive wave that rippled through the Urdu world from the 1930s onwards, when the poet made common cause with all the big ‘isms’ of his day, that is, anti-colonialism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, nationalism and yes, feminism. The most often quoted sher from this period is, of course, this by Majaz:

Tire maathe pe ye anchal bahut hi ḳhuub hai lekin

Tu is anchal se ik parcham bana leti to achchha tha

(This veil on your forehead is very pretty indeed

It’d be better still if you turned it into a pennant)

And this long poem entitled ‘Aurat’ by Kaifi Azmi, exhorts the woman, too, to rise up and throw away the shackles of modesty and tradition, to discard false notions of shame and elegance that have kept her a willing captive, and to walk beside the man as a comrade-in-arms, as a friend and fellow-traveller:

Utth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe

(Arise, my love, you have to walk beside me)

In much the same vein, Ali Sardar Jafri is discarding the age-old notions of romance symbolised by Laila-Majnu, Shirin-Farhad and scores of others from history and mythology when he holds up the example set by himself and his partner:

Har aashiq hai Sardar yahaan, har mashooqa Sultana hai

(Every lover here is a Sardar, every beloved a Sultana)

A Sher By Sahir Ludhianvi

Then there is Sahir Ludhianvi, raised by a divorced mother, acutely aware of the inequities faced by women. He was one of the most vocal advocates of women’s equality who wrote a great deal on women, the suffering they have faced at the hands of men, as in this sher:

Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko mardon ne usey bazar diya

Jab ji chaha masla kuchla jab ji chaha dhutkar diya

(Women gave birth to men while men gave her the bazaar

They crushed and trampled her or rebuked her at their will)

Habib Jalib extends a hand of solidarity towards all women who have silently faced injustices and inequities for centuries:

Tu aag mein ai aurat zinda bhi jali barson

Sanche mein har ik ġham ke chup-chap dhali barson

(For centuries you were burnt alive in a fire, O Woman

Silently, you poured yourself in the mould of sorrows)

But how do women see themselves? Here is Zehra Nigah putting a women’s role in a man’s life in the simplest words:

Ek ke ghar ki ḳhidmat ki aur ek ke dil se mohabbat ki

Donon farz nibha kar us ne saari umr ibadat ki

(She served the household of one and loved the other’s heart

Having served both her duties she devoted her entire life to prayer)


'Nickname' & 'Hum Gunahgaar Auratein'

And here’s Parveen Shakir admitting the benign patriarchy that women have been party to in a luminous nazm entitled ‘Nickname’:

Tum mujh ko Gudiya kahte ho

Thiik hi kahte ho!

(You call me Doll

And rightly so!)

Kishwar Naheed’s poem, Hum Gunahgaar Auratein, became an anthem of protest during the worst excesses of General Zia's dictatorship and, in the decades since, it has become an enduring symbol of resistance:

Ye hum gunahgar aurten hain

Jo ahl-e-jubba ki tamkanat se na roab kha.en

Na jaan bechen

Na sar jhukaen

Na haath joḌen

(It is we, sinful women

Who refuse to be intimidated by the authority of men in robes

Who don’t sell our lives

Who don’t bow our heads

Nor fold our hands)

Finally, it takes a rare man, a truly ‘woke’ man, to empathise so fully with women as to bring out his inner woman, as Farhat Ehsas does here:

Qissa-e-aadam mein ek aur hi wahdat paida kar li hai

Main ne apne andar apni aurat paida kar li hai

(I have created a new singularity in the story of Adam

I have given birth to my own woman inside myself)

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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