The Dawn: Dec 04, 2015

Punjab Notes: Classical literature: female voice, imagined and real

Mushtaq Soofi 

No doubt man has an unbreakable bond with female voice. The first thing he hears is female voice, the voice of his mother when he is unable to even open his eyes as a newly born baby.

For many years the same voice, affectionate and soft, remains the magical voice for the growing male child. But as he grows up, he begins to be attracted by another voice, the voice of his father, firm and emphatic, that has a tinge of authority emitting an unmistakable sign of soft power. Slowly and gradually the voice of affection starts receding and that of authority becomes loud with its alluring reverberations. It’s not that a male child in the process of growing up stops hearing the female voice. He does hear it but develops the habit of taking it less seriously as he sees and experiences important matters of family and social life being decided by the patriarch’s voice in ‘full throated ease’. Affection pitched against power loses its pull. The phenomenon is socially structured rather than natural. It’s a product of long historical process driven by undeclared war between genders the end of which is still not in sight. What we see is fully entrenched patriarchy and its dominance taken by men not as a social construct but as a socio-biological reality. Woman’s acceptance of male domination is to a large measure by osmosis. So the world inherited and constructed is surrounded by noise created by male’s lungs which proclaims the division of humans into two unequal groups of men and women. In the historically created cacophony female voice remains submerged and if ever it emerges, it sounds as if it’s either a cry or a sigh. Whenever it carries an undertone of protest it’s taken as an appeal, not a challenge to what compels it to protest.

Woman’s cry, sigh and protest all find intensely nuanced expression in our diverse classical literary genres showing the constant intellectual struggle to bring women oppression on the socio-cultural stage. In our ‘Qissas’ (tales/stories/legends) woman is the main protagonist and thus plays the central role; she is the leader not the led, lover not the beloved. Heer and Sahiban both represent new type of woman; independent and defiant. While being conscious of cruel reality of woman’s historical situation, they are determined to challenge the prevalent class structure and patriarchy which reduce woman to mere housewife and a baby making machine. The dream these heroines are committed to is not just distressingly alien to the established order but also utterly incomprehensible for those who run it. Here is how it happens. Heer after her forced marriage elopes with Ranjha and is captured. When She is presented in the court, the Qazi (Muslim judge) orders her tell him her story. In the words of inimitable Damodar she replies: ‘listen you judge, mine is indescribable story’. The story per se is not indescribable but it’s so because the male judge, the custodian of norms and morals, is absolutely unable to understand how an upper class young woman can decide independently to have an unshakable human bond with a buffalo herder who is nobody in the social hierarchy. In the case of Heer class question is of paramount importance while in the matter of Sahiban patriarchy plays the central role. Sahiban elopes with Mirza when her marriage ceremonies are in full swing. When both are tracked down by a huge horde of tribal fighters, Sahiban’s brother confronts her and shouts: ‘how could you commit such a misdeed? Why did you prefer the icy jungle to the cosy comforter of your bed’? She without an iota of fear retorts in an ironic tone: ‘listen my able brother, I can die for Mirza but how an ignoramus can ever understand the significance of love’?

Punjab’s saintly poets frequently employ female voice for their mystic and non-mystic expression with haunting beauty that on the one hand signifies her historical oppression and on the other her yearning to have an independent existence as subject, not object. In the verses of Baba Farid, Madho Lal Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast and Khawaja Ghulam Farid we hear the voice of woman; oppressed but defiant. In our society regulated by strict gender division woman always appears at the receiving end whether she is daughter or sister, beloved or wife, housewife or whore.

All the highly conscious mystic poets no doubt are the voice of the voiceless but what they do is the representation of woman. The question however is where in our literary tradition the actual voice of woman who has been rendered voiceless is? Representation is fine but who can represent woman better than herself? In the absence of female poets and writers can representation of woman by man show ugly contours of enduring gender gap? Can man act as a proxy for woman in a world that denies her as fully human? Man with his entire empathetic and imaginative faculty cannot experience the experience of woman who has hitherto been forced to live on the edge despite many a social transformation. If we want to decipher the coded reality of the world experienced by woman, we need woman to express it in her own voice, in her own words. Man tells one side of the story. The other side of the story has to be narrated by woman. Fragments grasped by man will continue to reflect just a facet of human reality. The holistic view of reality cannot be achieved without the inclusion of what woman grasps and grapples with. —

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