Meeting the Kashmiri poet leading the feminist fight against oppression

Meeting the Kashmiri poet leading the feminist fight against oppression
Nighat Sahiba's poetry punishes the patriarchy and reveals true life for women in a hyper-masculine highly militarized warzone.
7 min read
07 March, 2018
Nighat Sahiba has been dedicated to her craft, despite the chauvinism she has faced [AamirAliBhat]

Indian-administered Kashmir has seen brutal armed conflict between the Indian military and Kashmiri rebel fighters since the late 1980s.

In a bid to crack down on armed Kashmiri movements, India has stationed hundreds of thousands of troops in this long-disputed territory, and they have been engaged in human rights abuses against the Kashmiri people.

Women in Kashmir are the victims of both direct and indirect systemic state violence. On one side, Indian forces have been accused of rape, molestation and other sexual abuses. On the other side, the extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers by Indian troops continue to haunt the women ofKashmir.

Alongside the long-running conflict, the highly patriarchal set-up of Kashmiri society places a double burden on Kashmiri women.

Being a part of a highly discriminatory and male-oriented society, women in Kashmir continue to be maltreated both at home and outside. In every sphere of life women face both physical and psychological oppression - from gender inequality to domestic violence, harassment, discrimination, dowry-deaths and more.

Under these circumstances, a 32-year-old emerging poet named Nighat Sahiba is raising the silenced voices of Kashmiri women through her poetry, sharing their grief, sorrow, melancholy, desperation, misery, dejectedness, hopelessness and helplessness.

Born and brought up in a rural village in South Kashmir's Islamabad district, Nighat has blazed onto the contemporary poetry scene in this male-dominated society controlled by India's hyper-masculine militarism - and has given new hope to the feminist fight.

  Barren land

"A barren land you are," you said, "Yielding nothing!"
Oceans welled up in my eyes,
The drop that remained concealed, turned into a pearl,
The drop that found vent, turned into a river.
Bearing a torch in my hand I roam in the compounds,
The smears they gave me became my apparel.
This anguish is for me, than pain is for me
And then the standard of truth, too, is only for me.

I am Eve’s sister, I alone am Christ's mother,
Born of no one I bear forth many a prophet,
Wherever thorns pierce me, there I find flowers,
Where I receive gashes, there sprout my verses,
Where lances penetrate me, there founts gush out.

This very poor heart, my woeful heart,
The very anguished eyes, the very sterile body,
Bearing pain: the water of life.
It may not change, let it not, I am a lit candle.
Those who bear swords, be told:
I shall keep surviving until the end.
Let them slay me every day,
Every day they shall find me born again.
The sun, there, belong to you,
That river too is yours;
That sword like fierce wind too is yours.

I for myself am a pine tree, self-rejuvenating,
Nor do I grew up in spring,
Nor I wilt in autumn.

I cry, I laugh,
I fall, yet I rise up again,
But, I swear by you, O my Lord,
I burgeon better than your flowers

Written by Nighat Sahiba
Translated from Kashmiri by Shafi Shauq

Her first collection of poems, Zard Paniek Dair ["Piles of Pallid Leaves"], which she has written in her Kashmiri mother tongue, has received great plaudits from readers and experts.

To become a well-known poet, the indomitable Nighat has overcome tremendous obstacles with bravery. She never succumbed to the male chauvinism she encountered both at home and everywhere else.

Reading her poetry, one cannot hesitate to call her feminist; a rebellious and resistant poet in a male-dominated and highly militarized warzone. Her poetry reflects on gender inequality, existentialism, feminism, love, suffering and loss.

Having started writing poetry in school, Nighat is now writing poems in Kashmiri as well as Urdu - and much of her work has been translated into English. 

"Thinking of becoming a female poet or author in your teenage years is so difficult in the society we live in. Rather than admiration, I faced discouraging comments from my family members and from others. I thought it could be difficult for me if I published my poems," says Nighat.

Dejected by the reaction of her family and others, Nighat found solace in reading books; looking at the world around her through the prismic lens of the written word. It took her years to sum up the courage to publish her first poem in her college magazine - but Nighat felt a bitter sting when the male editor turned gave her "discouraging compliments".

Although Nighat stopped publishing her work,she did not stop writing. Writing poetry became her obsession. In 2011, Nighat started posting the verses of her poetry on social networking sites. She received a great response, and within months social media boosted her audience.

"Initially I was writing poems in Urdu language only," says Nighat. "But when I made my poems public my readers advised me to write in my mother tongue, Kashmiri. Some of them even recommended me to publish my work in Urdu newspapers and sent me contact addresses."

Nighat's poems went on to appear frequently in the literary pages of one of the leading Urdu dailies, Kashmir Uzma, operating from Kashmir's capital, Srinagar. In 2012, Nighat poems were published by Naeb, a Kashmir-focused magazine in the United States.

Initially Nighat was writing on love, grief and separation, but, she says, being a witness to the violence against her own native women compelled her to write about their suffering and raise her voice against male chauvinism.

"At a certain place, a writers feels to write about those things that happens around him or her," says Nighat.

In a society such as Kashmir, Nighat says, girls face discrimination from when they are in the lap of their mother. She says in a highly discriminative and systemic patriarchal society when a mother gives birth to baby and if it turns out that it is a girl, it makes the whole family upset: "Is not it a kind of discrimination?"

Nighat's book, 'Piles of Pallid Leaves' is
now available in Kashmir [Aamir Ali Bhat]

Nighat says there are strict rules for girls in Kashmir. They are supposed to do household chorus before they think to do anything else. "I am supposed to cook, clean house, wash clothes - and my male relatives are supposed to enjoy all this. I can only read a book after completing my household work," says Nighat.

"Besides, girls are not considered wise in our society. Being a girl they can't be decision-makers, travellers, singers, employers or writers.

"We don't even enjoy the equality that our religion has given us."

Once in her village a girl with a smiling face and youthful charm was being oppressed at home and compelled to marry - even though she was not yet 18 years of age.

"She was being tortured, even beaten for laughing," Nighat says. "After marriage, when the girl got pregnant, she died because she was incapable of giving birth to the child. Her smiling face always haunts me.

"I want to write what male-dominated society doesn't want me to write," says Nighat. "I want to write that which hasn't been written until now, I want to express that which has been buried in my heart, I want write different from our male poets because they live a different life from us."

Among other themes on which Nighat's poetry reflects are the pain and suffering of her fellow Kashmiris due to the ongoing bloodletting in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Living through this deadly conflict, Nighat has experienced killings, maimings, blindings, disappearances and the torture of her native people. Nighat says the Kashmir conflict has severely affected its women, who are being mostly neglected.

"In a conflict, death and destruction occupies our subconscious mind and gets stored into it like a book. That is why a poet or an author in conflict zones dedicates his or her pen to the suffering of the people," says Nighat.

Nighat is also a schoolteacher. She graduated in history and education and enjoys the work of prominent feminist poets such as Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed from Pakistan, Kamala Das from India and Sylvia Plath from America.

She has also been awarded several prestigious prizes for her contribution to Urdu and Kashmiri poetry.

Besides the conflict, Nighat says, women in Kashmir are suffering at the hands of their own people.

"Humsai Log Yu’en Pyaar Kartey Hai, Paltay Hai, Shikar KarteyHai ["People love us strangely; they cherish us, in pursuit, and hunting"]," she says, reciting one of her verses.

Aamir Ali Bhat is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist who reports on human rights abuses, culture and the environment. He regularly writes for The New Arab, Kashmir Ink and Free Press Kashmir.

Follow him on Twitter: @Aamirbhatt3

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