By Jawed Naqvi
GHALIB the 19th-century poet was capable of Himalayan vanity and grovelling modesty. He captured a nadir moment in his fluctuating emotions thus:
‘Ghalib e khasta ke baghair kaun se kaam band hai’n
Roiye zaar zaar kya, kijiye hai hai kyun’
(The world didn’t come to an end without Ghalib, the heavens didn’t fall/Why then lament the absence of a useless man, why this gloomy pall?)
The lament turned out to be an invitation to Majaaz Lucknavi to draw a vicarious conclusion. The younger poet (and wit) admired Ghalib immensely with all the 100 years that separated them. But he could not help offering his impish intuition about Ghalib’s self-deprecating lines. “They were written by his wife,” he proclaimed to a poets’ congregation in Lucknow.
Majaaz who died in the 1950s did in fact exhort women to reclaim their dignity at home and also on the battlefront spawned by an unequal society.
‘Tere maathey pe ye aanchal bahot hi khoob hai lekin
Tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achcha tha’
(The headscarf looks lovely on you, sweetheart, but yield!
Why not make a flag with it for the battlefield?)’
As always the International Women’s Day on March 8 will draw women and men to seminar halls, debates and symposiums to discuss the gender divide, the unequal distribution of work and pay between the sexes, the shackles placed on women’s rights, primarily their right to reclaim the freedom that men have cornered for themselves like a bad host at the breakfast table.
There will be the inevitable discussion about the relevance of marriage and family. Considering that it was the early socialists in Europe who first spoke up for women’s rights, it was not surprising that Marx and Engels frowned on the institution of the bourgeois family.
That theme will remain of vital importance for South Asian women and men, not the least because Tehmina Durrani among others has put the subject high on the agenda. In fact, a good reason why the issue is of crucial importance to South Asia flows from the reality that the region experiences feudal as well as bourgeois onslaughts on women.
Germaine Greer might have been describing the prosperous Indian or Pakistani woman or perhaps a Nepali or a Sri Lankan ‘homemaker’ when she wrote in The Female Eunuch:
“In that mysterious dimension where the body meets the soul the stereotype is born and has her being. She is more body than soul, more soul than mind … Egrets, ostriches and peacocks, butterflies and beetles yield her their plumage. Men risk their lives hunting leopards for her coats, and crocodiles for her handbags and shoes. Millions of silkworms offer her their yellow labours; even the seamstresses roll seams and whip lace by hand, so that she might be clad in the best that money can buy.”
The consumer society being inaugurated as the way forward in our region is designed to inevitably obstruct the women’s advance, not spur their march for emancipation.
The debates and discussions will get crude at times, because some women will flaunt Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, even Benazir Bhutto as role models.
I heard an untenable argument at a debate in Delhi the other day. The side with an Indian army officer’s wife in its midst won. She had argued how the nation’s armed forces trained the soldiers to respect women. And she got a loud applause for that. The interjection — why then does the Indian state not remove the nefarious laws that protect the soldiers from charges of rape and murder — was drowned in the din.
The Israeli army has done one better. Its recruitment of women at key levels of its hierarchy is matchless and flaunted as a rare achievement for women’s equality.
Should one ask a Palestinian girl what she thinks of this exclusive privilege for women in Israel? It is, however, heartening to see much of the world admiring Rachel Corrie, and not the Israeli women soldiers.
The brave American girl was crushed to death by a bulldozer in Gaza as she stood her ground against Israeli columns that tried to seize some more Palestinian land.
I believe the year 2014 will be of rare importance for the badly stymied and much-awaited revolt against the hegemony of reactionary men, particularly in the political and economic realm in South Asia.
We have had women leaders in South Asia and there may be several more to come. However, we have to look beyond the cheering acolytes of a consumer society they invariably are or have been.
Women leaders have hitherto proven to represent the status quo for their own gender, their homeopathic doses of welfare schemes notwithstanding. I am betting on Fawzia Koofi, a brave heart from a difficult terrain. The women’s rights activist from Afghanistan has survived several assassination attempts but she remains an outspoken member of the Afghan parliament.
Ms Koofi has announced herself as a presidential candidate to succeed Hamid Karzai. If she is laid low, a possibility she is prepared to face, the Taliban will have done a hatchet job for their fellowmen elsewhere.
If Ms Koofi does succeed in crossing the Rubicon, she will give us a rare glimpse of a world in which deep-seated patriarchy is truly challenged — not merely in a poetic plaint of victimhood that Ghalib flaunted with a possible wink, but with the unconditional support and care that the struggle of Afghan women deserves.
Her main challengers, the Taliban, are after all just another breed of men. They can’t be any different from their ilk elsewhere. And men, as Ms Koofi’s candidature forcefully argues, need to be shown their place. Enough of men. Enough of Taliban.
Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.