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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.