The topography of women’s empowerment in Pakistan is a treacherous terrain, harsh on the eyes. It is often marked by subjugation, lack of education and basic literacy, utter neglect of health; for instance, Pakistan has among the highest occurrence of preventive complications leading to steep maternal mortality rates in the world, and downright flogging in honor-based regions.
Traveling this road, names like Fatima Jinnah, Shaista Ikramullah, Jahanara Shahnawaz, Tassadaque Hussain, Sughra Begum, Nusrat Khanum, Mumtaz Shahnawaz and Fatima Begum stand out like a desert rose that builds its beauty because of and not despite of the sharp winds and extreme temperatures of cultural oppression. These women were active political leaders, they brought down the Union Jack and hosted the Pakistani flag during the independence movement, got rounded up in jails, they worked relentlessly for women’s rights and literacy and were a big part of the agitations that brought military governments down.
Indigenous movements led by them left a mark on History, though in the history written by men, they are mere footnotes. A far more indelible one is left by someone who was once part of the retreating colonial British government pre-independence.
Alys Faiz, known more often as the wife of Faiz Ahmed Faiz was more than a chapter in the life of forgotten heroes in Pakistan. She was a British born faithful of the communist movement, allied fiercely with the mission of promoting freedom from oppressive regimes, a learned and well-read person, she was as opinionated and prolific in her writing as she was in her thoughts. It wasn’t just her grandeur that was alluring; really, it was her futuristic understanding of the principle of equality. She possessed such sensitivity, first for the subjects of the British Raj, then the subjects of military governments and for the women of this country.
When one begins to study Alys Faiz, there is seemingly so much more than meets the eye. The strength of her character, her steadfastness, the undying spirit despite trying times, her intelligently met challenges of day-to-day life as she raised two girls on her own while Fiaz Ahmed Faiz was jailed for 4 long years, and mostly, the fact that she got out of bed each day and rode to work in scotching Lahore heat, speaks volumes about how much capacity she had to be involved in life’s positive machinery. She pursued a career in Human Rights Watch publication The View and carried it though till most of her life.
Whereas Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s genius is apparent in his publications for which Alys Faiz played agent, but her own is hidden behind the very recess of his fame: She symbolized the dots in his written words. Not only do biographers, such as I A Rehman who knew her well, say that she molded the poet in Faiz to be disciplined and prim, but also that she knew just how much influence to press on him.
Such patience only comes in the case of severe self-awareness. The source for this strength is difficult to ascertain, since life for her was so measured, each ounce dealt in its appropriate compartment like the household budget. Faiz had delegated much of whatever needed planning to his beloved wife, whom he dearly loved and who in return called him “dear Heart.” He made her couplets in Urdu, her letters to him had a very Orwellian texture. She writes to him: “Shake of the dust you say, but we the inarticulate must swallow our hopes, fears and joys.”
And her formula for optimism: “There is so much to forget.”
The four years of separation for the couple were challenging in every sense of the word, but their letters signified a linguistic and cultural togetherness that seals all in between with an understanding you see only in Shakespeare plays. She was however, never the damsel in distress but the Joan of Arc, heading in the direction of a voice she trusted. In their letters one sees that she holds herself, is an independent thinker, and brings him down from the skies to smell the flowers at his feet.
In their affections, never does one glimpse dependency or even obsession, a tinge of romance once in a while, but otherwise a reality hung over their communication like shade from the banyan tree where they both rested when weary from unrelenting summers. Summers which she loathed and complained about till the end, but yet would travel though to meet Faiz in Monghomary Jail, which begs the question why?
From a purely tactical perspective, what she brought to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s life was much more than what she got in return. No political value add, in fact being Faiz’z wife was probably as risky as living in a war zone; no social value, in the stretch sense of the word, she was isolated because of the cultural conservatism in Faiz’s traditional family, initially at least; no financial security because one could either fight for a just cause or be a collaborator, which they were not, and there was certainly no cultural value, since she was Protestant, British and Faiz was famous and well respected in circles that didn’t matter. The verdict would be to scout.
Again, from a tactical perspective alone, but Alys was as much the wife of Faiz Ahmed Faiz as she was a mother to two beautiful daughters. Although she dutifully and lovingly executed roles, this alone is not where she begins and ends. Alys Faiz had adopted Pakistan as her country, caught in the tail end of the Raj, this was an extension of who she was, and a reality of much more open and tolerant times among the learned, where there were bigger causes than the honor of women and the conquest of a rolling income.
The Faiz’s masterpiece, “Mujsey Pehli Si Mohobat,” holds true for Alys as much as for Faiz. Her marriage opened up a world of diverging policies for men and women, and this extended her fight for the underdog. And since this was her country, it was her disillusionment with it that made her carry on.
She reminisces, “Who would have thought that my mother in law would be a Punjabi Jat?” Unhappy that Alys did not bring with her lands to offer she was vocally disappointed with the choice of a bride that her son made. She also wanted Alys to give birth to a son, she had two daughters instead.
In her book, “Over my Shoulder” she writes from the heart about the social preference for girls in South Asian society: I do wish that all lovely girl babies might be received with joy, with never a lamentation, that boy babies
would not elbow them out.
Just this month (March 2010) The Economist magazine has done a feature on the gendercide called The war on baby girls, Killed, aborted or neglected, at least 100m girls have disappeared—and the number is rising. Pakistan, like India and China have a rising missing girls number as its middle class has more access to ultrasound technology that exposes the unborn child’s gender leading to mostly abortions in the case of girls. Interestingly, only one country in the world has been able to reverse the trend of early aborting girls – South Korea: “The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.”
Alys writes, “In some areas of Pakistan only sons are counted – and one finds out sooner or later that there are some little girls tucked away somewhere in the family – just not counted at all. I was recently at a school in Lahore doing some poetry-reading, and as I surveyed those eager little faces belonging to dozens of girls I had a song unsung, for the tears perhaps shed when some of them wriggled into this somewhat hostile world!”
How far reaching her sense of protection for the girl child for this country was apparent. By crusading for it though her work and journalism she has raised the bar for Pakistan’s girl child. Through her journey she has shown us what it means to be true to a cause both in the familial and the political.
And being true to the woman in her.