Fahmida Riaz is a well known Progressive Urdu writer, poet, and feminist of Pakistan. Along with Zehra Nigah, Parveen Shakir, and Kishwar Naheed, Riaz is amongst the most prominent female Urdu poets in Pakistan. She is author of Godaavari, Khatt-e Marmuz, and Khana e Aab O Gil, the first translation of the Masnavi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi from Farsi into Urdu. She has also translated the works of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Shaikh Ayaz from Sindhi to Urdu.
Fahmida Riaz was born on July 28, 1946 in a literary family of Meerut, UP, India. Her father, Riaz-ud-Din Ahmed, was an educationist, who had a great influence in mapping and establishing the modern education system for Sindh. Her family settled in Hyderabad following her father’s transfer to Sindh. Fahmida learnt about Urdu and Sindhi literature in childhood, and later learnt Persian.
Her early life was marked by the loss of her father when she was just 4 years old. She had already been writing poetry at this young age. Her mother, Husna Begum, supported the family through entrepreneurial efforts until Fahmida entered college, when she started work as a newscaster for Radio Pakistan. Fahmida’s first poetry collection was written at this time.
Family and work
Riaz was persuaded by her family to enter into an arranged marriage after graduation from college, and spent a few years in the UK with her first husband before returning to Pakistan after a divorce. During this time she worked with the BBC Urdu service (Radio) and got a degree in film making. She has one daughter from this marriage.
She worked in an advertising agency in Karachi before starting her own Urdu publication Awaz. She met and married Zafar Ali Ujan, a leftist political worker and had two children with him. The liberal and politically charged content of Awaz drew the attention of the Zia regime and both Fahmida and Zafar were charged with multiple cases—the magazine shut down and Zafar was thrown in jail. Fahmida was bailed out by a fan of her works before she could be taken to jail and fled to India with her two small children and sister on the excuse of a Mushaira invitation. She had relatives in India and her husband later joined her there after his release from jail. The family spent almost seven years in exile before returning to Pakistan on the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s wedding reception. During this time Fahmida had been poet in residence for a university in Dehli.
She was appointed MD of the National Book Foundation during Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure and was later persecuted by the first Nawaz Sharif government, labelled an Indian agent and made virtually unemployable because of this threat. She worked three simultaneous jobs to support the needs of her growing children at this time. In the second tenure of Benazir’s government, she was given a post at the Quaed e Azam Academy. When Benazir’s government toppled a second time, Fahmida was again persona non grata for Islamabad.
Fahmida lost her son Kabeer in October 2007. He drowned while swimming with friends on a picnic. This was soon after Fahmida had translated fifty of Rumi’s poems from Persian into Urdu, dedicated to Shams Tabriz. She was MD on the Urdu Dictionary Board from 2000-2011.
As an activist
Fahmida took part in social and political activities during her academic life. She got involved in student politics when she was student of M.A. in Sindh University. She spoke and wrote against the University Ordinance and the ban on the students’ union during the Ayub Khan regime.
She spent many years in exile in India in the 1980s during the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq, living in Delhi and teaching at Jamia Millia Islamia. She enjoyed the patronage of the Indian Government. Her husband, an activist of Sindhi nationalism, had also accompanied her to India. They returned to Pakistan quite disillusioned. Fahmida expressed the reasons for her disillusionment with the rise of Hindu nationalism in India in the following poem:
Naya Bharat (New India)
“Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley Aab tak Kahan chupay thay bhai Voh moorkhta, voh ghaamarpan jis mai hum nay sadian gawaeen Aakhir pahunchi dua tumhaari Aray badhai bahut badhai
You turned out to be just like us; Similarly stupid, wallowing in the past, You’ve reached the same doorstep at last. Congratulations, many congratulations.
Preyt dharm ka naach rahaa hai Qaim Hindu raj karo gay Saarey ultey kaj karogay apna chaman taraj karogay Tum bhee baithey karogey sochaa Kaun hai Hindu, kaun naheen hai Tum Bhi Karo gay Fatway Jari
Ek jaap saa kartey jao Barham Bar Yehi Dorhao Kitna veer mahaan tha Bharat Kaisa Alishaan tha Bharat”
Your demon [of] religion dances like a clown, Whatever you do will be upside down. You too will sit deep in thought and ponder, Who is Hindu, who is not. You too will issue Fatwas Keep repeating the mantra like a parrot, India was like the land of the brave”
Her work is remarkable for its emotionally charged references to social and political injustice. She has been a prominent voice in the feminist struggle in Pakistan, where her poems both directly and insidiously erode at the foundations of male dominance. She has also published several gender equal stories, feminist translations, and some deconstruction of the criticism of feminist work.