By Rafia Zakaria
May 3rd, 2017
SHE was a poet in a country where both women and poets are persecuted. Farzana Naz, 36 years old, mother of two, was the author of one volume of poetry published last month. She was just beginning to find her voice, to participate in the literary events taking place in the capital. On her Facebook page, she shared some of her words, some of her work and some of her life. Last week, she was attending a literary festival held at the Pakistan-China Friendship Centre in Islamabad with her husband and children. The first day of the festival passed and the second came along. Farzana Naz, along with several other poets, were on the stage for the closing ceremony. Many spoke; there were praises and platitudes, and then it was over.
For Farzana Naz, it was really over. According to eyewitnesses, the crowd rushed towards the three-metre-high stage. Farzana Naz moved toward the back to make an exit. As we all know, crowds in Pakistan can be dangerous, even murderous, particularly where writers are concerned. But Farzana could not escape; she fell from the stage and was gravely injured.
According to a news report that aired on a TV channel, no one among the dignitaries who had been in attendance came to assist in the situation. The journalists and writers in attendance gathered some money, and Farzana Naz was shifted to the intensive care unit at Shifa Hospital. A post on her Facebook page asked for prayers from her fans and supporters. They did not work; Farzana was lost to the serious injuries she had sustained. On Friday, this young, vibrant and talented woman was buried.
Accidents happen, people always say after someone perishes the way Farzana Naz did. Untoward and sudden deaths are common in Pakistan, and so is the fatalism with which people shrug and move on — at least most of the people who are not personally devastated by the passing. Patience is prescribed, acceptance is recommended. Not all these suggestions are bad ones; a dose of fortitude is undoubtedly helpful in moments of mourning. There is, however, a difference between accepting the inevitability of death and turning a blind eye to the carelessness that may have caused it. It is this last aspect of Farzana Naz’s death, the carelessness or negligence underlying the fatality, that deserves more attention.
First, consider the height of the stage at the event itself. Like many stages in Pakistan, the height of the stage construction was likely not based on any safety considerations, but to raise the performers and speakers inhabiting it far above the audience. In simple terms, it was based on visibility rather than accessibility. This is common in Pakistan, where even stages at wedding receptions are shoddily constructed by event planners who have been taught to make things look good rather than make things safe.
Undoubtedly, the stage at the Pakistan-China Friendship Centre looked great, as do the steep stages all over Pakistan. The fact that it apparently did not have a safety railing or any means by which participants on stage could safely exit via a back entrance did not seem to be a problem that perturbed anyone.
It should have; reporting on the incident, several television news channels mentioned the fact that this was not the first time that someone has been injured on this particular stage. Allegedly, in the past a journalist and two children have also been injured after falls. Even more crucially, given that the event was a public one and the venue routinely holds various events, some effort to ensure the safety of those participating should be considered. But ‘should’ is a limp and feeble word in Pakistan, one that follows catastrophe, provokes assurances but never any action. It is not a problem of ignorance: everyone knows what ‘should’ be done but nobody ever does it.
Second, this event and Farzana Naz’s death also reveals just how difficult public events are for Pakistani women who must navigate them. A crowd moving toward a stage may perhaps not be intimidating or ominous to some Pakistani men, but it is for Pakistani women. This means that while the men on that stage may not have been eager to get off it (indeed Pakistani men and men in general are great lovers of unending attention), women on that stage, or on any stage, have to consider their own safety.
It is a great irony that a consideration of her own safety is likely what led Farzana Naz to try and leave the stage. These may seem pointless quibbles to some, but they pertain to a larger issue: if public spaces and forums are to be truly open to women, truly welcoming of their participation (as they should be), then these considerations require urgent attention.
Pakistan has few pauses or prayers to spare for its women or for its poets. At the very least, the management of the centre can spare a moment to consider the safety of their premises. Others, particularly event planners who now charge exorbitant prices to organise parties and events for hundreds and thousands, can take a moment to consider the safety of their arrangements. Poor lighting, rickety stairs, uneven carpets and shaky chairs hurt real people and cause actual pain.
Farzana Naz is gone, but she left behind her words; may those who heard them and who read them be moved to remind others to be more careful, less negligent, more attentive to the risks they create for others. Small mistakes can add up to huge losses, forever silencing voices.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.