Years Ago, Two Urdu Poets Had Spoken on the Dishonour of Honour Killings

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, translations offer a glimpse into Kishwar Naheed and Zehra Nigah's protests against the practice.

In the jungle of the Upper Paraná, the prettiest butterflies display their black wings enlivened by red or yellow spots, and they flit from flower to flower without worry. After thousands upon thousands of years, their enemies have learned that these butterflies are poisonous. Spiders, wasps, lizards, flies and bats admire them from a prudent distance.

On this day in 1960, 60 years ago, three activists against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic were beaten and thrown off a cliff. They were the Mirabal sisters. They were called ‘Las Mariposas’ or ‘The Butterflies’. This brutality took place fewer than two weeks after another incident under another brutal dictatorship, thousands of miles away in Pakistan. The brutal murder and disappearance of the communist leader Hasan Nasir under the Ayub Khan dictatorship on November 13.

In memory of the slain sisters, in memory of their indelible beauty, today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. 

In contemporary South Asia, brutal honour-killings are regular. Karo-kari is a type of premeditated honour killing, which originated in rural and tribal areas of Sindh, Pakistan. Here homicidal acts are primarily committed against women who are thought to have brought dishonour to their family by engaging in pre-marital or extra-marital relations. Contrary to popular opinion, these honour killings are more a function of cultural and feudal mores rather than having anything to do with religion.

To mark this important occasion, I am presenting original translations of two recent poems by two of South Asia’s greatest living women Urdu poets, Zehra Nigah and Kishwar Naheed. Both poems were published in 2018 and relate to the practice of honour killings.

Also read: The Poetess of ‘No’: 50 Years of Kishwar Naheed’s ‘Lab-e-Goya’

Nigah’s poem titled Sindh Ke Aik Be-naam Qabaristan Ke Naam (‘To A Nameless Cemetery of Sindh’) is from her collection Gul Chandni (‘Gardenia’, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2018). In the subtitle, she informs us that the cemetery of the title is where Kari (black or blackened) women are buried according to tradition. Nigah invokes the legendary Sufi saint of Sindh, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai who is beside her slain heroines. This is because Bhittai has celebrated and commemorated the seven heroic women of the Indus Valley in his verses. In a similar way, Amrita Pritam too had invoked the bard of Punjab, Waris Shah, to honour slain women in her haunting partition poem Aj Aaakhan Waris Shah Nu (‘I say to Waris Shah today’).

‘There are many mounds of earth

The ones hidden in the mounds

Are girls without a mark or trace.

Every evening Bhittai the master comes here

Comes and sits after squandering

The pearls of tears on all of them

And the fragrance of his consolations

Springs from the depths of the earthen desolations.   

He says, you my daughters

Will not be without name or trace

This will rather be the fate of those

Who have surrendered you without a bath or a shroud

To the earth’s repose

He says the culprits of love

Have indeed always suffered

But like my poetry

They too have always attained immortality.

You are that song of my art

Which I am writing with the blood of my heart.’ 

Meanwhile, Kishwar Naheed’s poem Kari Qabaristan Ki Sadaaen (‘The Cries of the Kari Cemetery’) is longer and is from her collection Shireen Sukhni Se Pare (‘Away from Sweet Talk’, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2018). In contrast to Nigah, it is a masterful soliloquy of the Kari with her murderers:

‘What was my crime

Just this to put henna on my hands sometime

Then sometimes on my own while alone

Moving my bangles and legs

Gathering the blooming buds

Of my dreams and joys

And laughing

My father and brother

Saw, moved forward

And seized my throat

Those who saw had told

That the marks of the veins of my neck

Had been imprinted on their fingers.

Baba, the one who you had nursed

Watching her wither like a red leaf

Prostrating in gratitude

You never even sweated

You never even buried me

They were some strangers definitely

Who brought me to the Kari cemetery.

Now when the evening arrives

From the grave every uncomfortable dream thrives

In the whole cemetery the lamps of desires

Light so many fires

Those who were released from life

With their Saanval in the name of honour

They had been buried as they were within the earth.

Those who saw have told that every evening

A pair of pigeons arrives at their grave for mourning.

All the stars in the sky

Are watched by angels from up high

In the lanes, quarters and bazaars

The people wearing higher turbans

In the form of intoxicated slogans

Speak in unison

Upon a girl being made Kari

“Thanks God! Our honour is still virgin.”

Oh my God!

Do you also consider my complaints

To be my sins

My mothers had covered me with many a curtain

You had given me the power to raise my pen

Upon all patriarchal, so-called men

Now to those who behead, do teach a lesson 

Open the bundle of the day when

The wish of my Punoon, my Ranjha, my Umar be fulfilled

Grant me again the twitter of parrots

Give me, not a black shroud

But a striped scarf, which is embroidered!’

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He has previously written on, and translated the selected work of Kishwar Naheed and Zehra Nigah. His most recent work is a contribution to the edited volume Salt in Wounds: Poems of Kishwar Naheed (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2020). He can be reached at [email protected].