We Sinful Women (“Hum Guneghaar Aurtain”)- Transgressing Temporality and Poetic Form

Kishwar Naheed


 کشور نھید

Hum Guneghaar Auratein– We Sinful Women”

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

(who are not intimidated by the magnificence of those who wear robes)

who don’t sell our bodies (lives)

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together (in supplication).

It is we sinful women

while those who sell the harvests of our bodies

become exalted

become distinguished

become the just princes (gods) of the material world.

It is we sinful women

who come out raising the banner of truth

up against barricades of lies on the highways

who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold

(find tales of punishment at every doorstep)

who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.

Now, even if the night gives chase

these eyes shall not be put out.

For the wall which has been razed

don’t insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

(who are not intimidated by the magnificence of those who wear robes)

who don’t sell our bodies (lives)

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together (in supplication).

*Translated from Urdu by Rukhsana Ahmed. The italicized words are my own translation.  

“We Sinful Women:” Transgressing Temporality and Poetic Form

by Sultan Jahan Begum


In 1977, Kishwar Naheed’s translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was banned by the Pakistani government for three reasons: first, she had translated and published the book without government permission; second, she had violated copyright (although Pakistan does not honor copyright laws); third, the translation was considered pornographic and vulgar. (Haeri, No Shame for the Sun, 287)  The English version of The Second Sex was not banned anywhere in Pakistan. Naheed was then ousted from her government position, arrested, released on a hefty bail and watched by the Criminal Investigation Department from 1977 through 1979 because of her controversial poetry and politics. In a 2009 interview, Naheed responded to the charge that her translation was pornographic and vulgar by noting that one obstacle to writing about women’s bodies and sexualities in Urdu is that “many words in prose don’t even exist… My translation of The Second Sex was banned because of the use of words describing a woman’s private parts in actual language.” (Shoaib, “Vocabulary of Resistance,” 175-176)

In class, we have discussed transgression as the act of expanding or going beyond established social boundaries and limits. Chris Jenks’ Transgression opens with the immediate post-9/11 moment, characterized by global outrage because, “A violation had occurred, some boundary had been crossed.” (Jenks, Transgression, 1) Jenks further defines transgression as not only going beyond a defined social norm or boundary, but also “to announce and laudate the commandment, the law, or the convention,” thus making transgression into a “deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation.” (Jenks, 2)

This simple definition is handy for reading Naheed’s poem as transgressive of a few different ideas, in this case, temporality, poetic form and contemporary politics. This presentation will address Naheed’s most famous poem, “We Sinful Women,” within the context of late nineteenth century Indian femininity and contemporary Pakistani society, exploring how Naheed’s poem addresses the continuity of these two temporal contexts, considered by historians as distinct periods. This is also a feminist argument, one that questions the extent to which the liberal, Enlightenment-inspired nation-state has actually secured equal rights for all its citizens. This presentation will then further examine how Naheed’s poem transgresses the traditional bounds of the ghazal, a poetic form that has pervaded South Asian literature for centuries. Finally, I will present a reading of “We Sinful Women” within the context in which it was written, 1980s Pakistan.

Kishwar Naheed was born in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1940 and moved to Lahore, Pakistan in 1949, just two years after India was partitioned. Naheed’s writing career, which began approximately in the late 1960s, is based on themes that critique the relationship between women and patriarchal states and societies. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Naheed attended various conferences on women’s issues abroad and traveled widely, meeting writers and activists from all over the world. Naheed continued to write during 1977-1988, although she was individually targeted by Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime. Naheed is widely known in Pakistan and the global community for her women-positive poetry.

While many of Naheed’s readers call Naheed to be a feminist, including Rukhsana Ahmad, who has translated many of Naheed’s poems into English, Naheed has never explicitly taken on this label herself. I attribute this to the very complex debate over feminism in Pakistan. (If you are interested, you can read my piece on thefeministwire on this topic.) However, Naheed’s work is transgressive partially because the  themes she addresses, such as female equality in the legal and domestic (or formal and informal) realms, are read as feminist. Since there is a notable population that rejects feminism as (pejoratively) Western, inauthentic and anti-family, this lens makes Naheed’s work transgressive among readers who think her work is feminist.

Reading Naheed’s work as feminist adds a transgressive lens to her poetry. Additionally, much of her work critiques the Pakistani state.  These critiques represent transgression as a “deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation.” (Jenks, Transgression, 2) Naheed’s work serves to point out the flaws in Pakistan’s nation-state project in order to rectify them. This is arguably a feminist goal as well- to critique patriarchal nationalism in order to rectify its ills.  Since Naheed’s work is not anti-nationalist, her work is therefore more reflexive and wavers, in a complex manner, between affirming and denying the nation-state.


The Partition of India and the Creation of Pakistan- August 14/15, 1947


Transgressing Temporality: Formal Colonialism and Indian Femininity

Naheed transgresses the temporal bounds of history to argue that Pakistani women today still emphasize late nineteenth century models of femininity based on male-defined concepts of morality, motherhood and domesticity. Temporality refers to the state of existing within or having some relationship to time.  Naheed transgresses temporality by arguing that social expectations have transgressed historical ruptures. While historians theorize events as ruptures in time, after which nothing remains the same (think Jenks’ description of 9/11 as a “metaphor for irrevocability”), Naheed’s argument shows that despite the end of formal colonialism and the Partition of India in 1947, women’s social role remains unchanged. This line of argumentation is deeply critical of the liberal nation-state model, which purports to give equal rights to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and religion, and follows contemporary feminist literature on the patriarchal implications of the nation-state. (Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer).

Naheed’s poem “We Sinful Women” discusses women who transgress social norms. These norms, which exist in Pakistani society today, have a very particular history. On May 10, 1857, the British East India Company’s sepoys mutinied against Company rule. It was the largest rebellion against European empire in the nineteenth century. The British Crown, which was formerly ruling India through the British East India Company and a series of Mughal puppet-emperors, came to rule India formally in an era known as Crown Raj. One aspect of elite court culture that disappeared completely in this time was that of the north Indian royal court. Shahs were also patrons of the arts and maintained courts consisting of nobles and tawaifain, or dancing girls. A tawaif usually catered to the nobility and contributed to the maintenance of Urdu music, dance and literature. The British confiscated tawafain property and assets during the Rebellion and while most resumed their careers in order to support themselves, without the cultural structure that granted tawaifain class and prestige, they became prostitutes in the true Victorian sense. Their profession became “the great social evil.”



Prostitution- The Great Social Evil

The courtesan’s fall from grace became the main premise for reforming Indian womanhood in the late nineteenth century. Male-authored novels and manuals described women in two categories: woman-as-ornament and woman-as-prostitute. The didactic tone in these texts was intended to reformulate the elite woman into a monogamous wife who embodied tawaif characteristics (literary and musical education, among other traits). The woman-as-ornament characteristics were incredibly difficult to replicate. Women were to be well educated in poetry, music and literature- after all,  tawaifain were sources of intellectual stimulation and entertainment- and simultaneously pious Muslim housewives who spent their time producing and raising the next generation of pious Muslim men.

This curious mixing of wifely and tawaif characteristics is one context into which Naheed’s poem “We Sinful Women” takes on a particular valence. The protagonists of her poem, so-called “sinful women,” are neither ornamental wives nor prostitutes, both of whom lament the inevitability of selling their lives to husbands or pimps. This is a direct play on the word sinful and the normalization of  prostitution as an immoral act, rather than the fact that there continue to be customers (presumably male). The ‘normalization’ of prostitution as a sinful profession is a tangible recognition of the hegemony of Victorian ideals and British colonization. Naheed’s language suggests that the real sinful women are those who stand up against the woman-as-ornament and woman-as-prostitute categories that were placed on women from without. Her sinful women refuse to let others become “exalted and distinguished” and princes or gods in the material world by their selling female beings- both literal female bodies and ideas of womanhood that are impossible to attain. Women do not follow male-defined dictates are stifled, their tongues severed and their paths blocked.

Naheed’s poem has an overlapping, contemporary valence as well. She transgresses the temporal bounds of history to argue that Pakistani women today still emphasize late nineteenth century models of femininity, the aforementioned male-defined concepts of morality, motherhood and domesticity. Temporality refers to the state of existing within or having some relationship to time.  Naheed transgresses temporality by arguing that social expectations have transgressed historical ruptures. While historians theorize events as ruptures in time, after which nothing remains the same, Naheed’s argument shows that despite the end of formal colonialism and the Partition of India in 1947, the social role of women remains unchanged. This line of argumentation is deeply critical of the liberal nation-state model, which purports to give equal rights to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and religion, and follows contemporary feminist literature on the patriarchal implications of the nation-state.

Naheed takes this feminist line of argumentation one step further by examining how females oppress other females by enforcing feminine norms among generations of women. Naheed calls the unchallenged reproduction of social mores the perpetuation of a ‘feminine myth.’ Her language mirrors that used by Simone de Beauvoir, one of Naheed’s influences. Beauvoir herself has noted,

“Daughter is… at once her [mother’s] double and another person, the mother is at once overweeningly affectionate and hostile toward her daughter; she saddles her child with her own destiny: a way of proudly laying claim to her own femininity and also a way of revenging herself for it… Even a generous mother, who sincerely seeks her child’s welfare, will as a rule think that it is wiser to make a ‘true woman’ of her, since society will more readily accept her if this is done.” (Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 281.)

Here we have a type of generational violence in which the burdens of femininity are passed on as inheritances. In this system, described by Beauvoir and Naheed alike, there is very little room for transgressing social norms and both writers advocate for challenging the reproduction of ideas and mores along generational lines.

Transgressing Form: The Ghazal in South Asian Literature

The transgressive theme that runs throughout Naheed’s work applies to her poetic form as well. “We Sinful Women” takes the tradition form of a ghazal, a Central and South Asian poetic form that usually celebrates illicit, unattainable  love and/or unbearable pain, often due to separation from one’s beloved. The main themes contained in ghazals  surround metaphysical and eternal questions, such as the non-earthly beloved, or God. Ghazals have been likened to sonnets due to their carefully structured and controlled rhyme scheme and rhythm. (Silva, “Shameless Women,” 3) They are often put to music and performed as songs in a performative genre that is available to all classes. Overall, expressing intense affect is the main idea that distinguishes a ghazal from other forms of South Asian poetry.

Naheed’s poem transgresses the centuries-old norms regarding ghazal thematics. While she is expressing deep emotion and personal feeling, her messages are necessarily political and social in a way that ghazal poetry never was. Her affect is intertwined with a socio-political feeling that forces the reader/listener to face the plight of women, both in historical and contemporary periods. To this end, Naheed joins a contemporary movement of anti-colonial ghazals, in which deep pain is expressed through cruel (colonial) rulers and martyred freedom fighters. In these early twentieth century ghazals, political activism and traditional poetic form became wedded. Yet the main anti-colonial poets of the twentieth century did not write gendered poetry. Until very recently, men controlled the mushaira (a gathering to recite ghazals and other types of poems) scene as well as the editing and publishing markets.



Renowned Urdu and Persian poet Talha Rizvi Barque performing at a mushaira in Bihar, 1969

Female poets, including Naheed and many of her contemporaries, transgress upon the bounds of this male-centric world. While female poets have existed for centuries, many were forced to write under pen names and have been written out of history. Using the deep emotional force that has characterized ghazals for centuries, Naheed’s work again departs from the norm by expressing frustration with a predetermined future, an emotion that is neither eternal nor metaphysical. The thrust of Naheed’s work is political and contemporary, using history to support her claims about today and to warn other women about the dangers of tomorrow. Her diction about women’s bodies does so in “actual language,” not quite to the extent of her Urdu translation of The Second Sex, but is nonetheless directly addressing corporeal women and the labor their bodies produce. This is a distinct departure from traditional ghazals, which only discuss the beloved in veiled terms, using metaphors such as the moon to describe a young, innocent face.

The bodies in Naheed’s poems are riddled with social contradictions. In the poem, we have prostitutes, considered ‘sinful’ by a society that nonetheless demands their sexual servitude. We also see women who speak up for themselves yet are ideologically pushed out of public discourse because they are ‘sinful’ for transgressing these norms. These are just two examples of themes previously untouched by the traditional ghazal. Her invocation of a traditional form to express untraditional themes is a transgressive act, one that does not create a new poetic form but rather expands the ghazal’s boundaries to include political ideas.


Transgressing the State: Military Rule(s) in Pakistan

This poem is a direct reflection of Naheed’s own society and simultaneously her response to it. This paper has made historical connections between late nineteenth century Indian social mores and demonstrated that these tropes exist today. According to historian Saadia Toor, “every aspect of the Pakistani state, society, politics and culture worth noting today bears the scars of the eleven years of martial law under General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977-1988, Pakistan’s longest and most brutal dictatorship.” (Toor, The State of Islam, 117) Within one year after obtaining power through a right-wing backed coup, Zia announced his intentions to “Islamize” Pakistan and added members of the conservative political party Jamaat-e-Islami to work in his cabinet to ensure his political stability. Zia’s Islamization program was not based on a pre-given meaning of Islam. Rather, he reproduced an earlier, late nineteenth century arguments on femininity that dictated that women did not have a place in the public sphere. Zia intentionally targeted women as the focal point of his Islamization plans because he knew focusing on the “reinvigoration” of the Pakistani family would be outwardly supported by the religious parties and win him “muted approval” of all classes of society. (Toor, “Moral Regulation in a Post-colonial Nation State,” 255)



Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq with American President Ronald Reagan

Khawar Mumtaz, author of Women of Pakistan and a vibrant part of the women’s movement in Pakistan during Zia’s period, notes that by 1978 Zia’s Islamization campaign resulted in a change of attitude and social atmosphere in Pakistan that affected women adversely. In 1981, a number of Karachi and Lahore-based female activists launched the Khawateen Mahaz-e- Amal, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), in order to address two alarming trends: first, the growing tendency to segregate women and push them back into their homes and second, to combat the various juridical actions, such as the Hudood Ordinances, that were falsely adopted in the name of Islam. (Mumtaz, Women of Pakistan, 74-75)

One of the Hudood Ordinances, the Zina Ordinance, marked the first time that adultery became a crime against the state as opposed to individuals and both actions became non-compoundable, non-bailable, and punishable by death. Zina is defined as sexual intercourse outside of legal marriage and conflates two practices: adultery among the married and fornication among the unmarried. There was no provision for rape within marriage. In order to prove zina, four ‘pious’ Muslim adult male witnesses must account for the act of penetration, or the accused (male or female) may confess. With the implementation of the Hudood laws, rape was subsumed under zina and if coercion cannot be proved (which was nearly impossible), then the victim of rape becomes an offender of zina who had “enjoyed” illicit sexual activity.


Women protesting against the Law of Evidence (Zina) in Lahore in 1983. The police suppressed the protest with violence.

Naheed was also a founding member of WAF and “We Sinful Women” was written in the mid-1980s as a response to Zia’s Islamization. The fourth stanza is a direct comment on the WAF’s protests against Zia’s judicially violent measures. The WAF has literally raised the banner of truth, exposing these laws and the government that supports them as biased, and was repressed, sometimes brutally, at most turns. Given Naheed’s house arrest in the early years of Zia’s rule (the late 1970s), the “night giving chase” realistically represents the guards sitting outside Naheed’s front door, enforcing her literal imprisonment. Towards the end of the same stanza, Naheed writes, “the wall which has been razed, don’t insist now on raising it again,” emphasizing the WAF’s persistence can never be beat out of them. With severed tongues, these so-called “sinful” women will persistently find a way to speak and be heard.


Concluding Thoughts

This presentation has read Kishwar Naheed’s “We Sinful Women” as a poem that transgresses of temporality, form and the nation-state. It remains undeniable that her poem is capable of many readings, a few of which I have offered here. My analysis of “We Sinful Women” fits in neatly with the themes of the course, including the place of women’s agency as female protagonists, women’s agency as writers, and transgressive literature that is construed as “dangerous” within one’s own society. As a final note, I would like to stress that it is simplistic and reductive to see Naheed and other third world women as fighting against an inherently patriarchal religion (as Mona el-Tahawy has recently argued). Rather, “culture” seems to be the culprit of women’s oppression and, yet also provides the space for writers such as Naheed to produce transgressive literature. Understanding culture as a concept is not easily done, and it is increasingly important to acknowledge the role played by the nation-state, for example, in juridically and culturally organizing and suppressing society and by questioning reform within a generational framework, in which custom and tradition is reproduced endlessly. From this vantage point, Naheed’s social critiques can be read as female, not just Pakistani. In class, I would like to continue to think about culture as an intellectual space, a ubiquitous zeitgeist, that simultaneously enables and disables transgressive literature to be written, read, contested, banned and ultimately influential in an unprecedented way.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Rukhsana, ed. and trans. We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry. London: The Women’s Press, 1991.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Haeri, Shahla. No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Mumtaz, Khawar. Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back. Edited by Farida Shaheed. London: Zed Books, 1988.

Naheed, Kishwar. Buri Aurat ki Katha. New Delhi: Har-Ananf Publications, 1995. Urdu.

      A Bad Woman’s Story. Translated by Durdana Soomro. London: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Scott, Joan. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Silva, Neluka. “Shameless Women: Repression and Resistance in We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry.” Meridians 3, no. 2 (2003): 28-51.

Shoaib, Mawash. “Vocabulary of Resistance: A Conversation with Kishwar Naheed.” Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies Vol. 1, No. 2 (2009): 172-179.

Subramanayam, Lakshmi. Cultural Behavior and Personality. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2001.

Toor, Saadia. The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. London: Pluto Books, 2011.

“Moral Regulation in a Postcolonial Nation-State.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 9, no. 2 (2007): 255-275.


“My Years with the WAF.”  http://beenasarwar.com/2013/02/13/my-years-with-waf-zohra-yusuf-on-the-pakistani-womens-movement/Accessed 14 April 2014.

Oldenburg, Veena. “Lifestyle as Resistance.” http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urdu/umraojan/txt_veena_oldenburg.html Accessed 13 April 2014.

“Partition of India.” http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/partition-of-india/ Accessed 14 April 2014. “Prostitution in Victorian England.” http://samanthabvance.wordpress.com/presentation-page/ Accessed 13 April 2014.

Skene, Patrick.  “Reasons to be Paranoid.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/3554350/Reasons-to-be-paranoid.html Accessed 14 April 2014.

“Talha Rizvi Barque.” http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_very_old_pics_of_Talha_Rizvi_Barque_in_Halqa-e-ahbab_Mushaira_at_Ara,_Bhojpur_Bihar.jpg Accessed 13 April 2014.

“The Valiant Queen.” http://oudh.tripod.com/bhm/bhmvalq.htm Accessed 15 April 2014.

Suggested Reading

Anantharam, Anita.Bodies that Remember: Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Cosmopolitanism in South Asian Poetry. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.   “Engendering the Nation: Women, Islam and Poetry in Pakistan.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 11, no. 1 (2009): 208-224.

Ahmad, Sadaf. Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009.

Ali, Azra Asghar. The Emergence of Feminism Among Indian Muslim Women 1920- 1947. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Hanif, Mohammad. A Case of Exploding Mangoes. New York: Vintage, 2009.

Jamal, Amina. “Transnational Feminism as Critical Practice: A Reading of Feminist Discourses in Pakistan.” Meridians 5, no. 2 (2002): 57-82.

“Gender, Citizenship and the Nation-State in Pakistan: Willful Daughters or Free Citizens?” Signs 31, no. 2 (2006): 283-304.

Kandiyoti, Deniz [ed]. Women, Islam and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Khan, Nighat Said. “The Women’s Movement Revisited: Areas of Concern for the Future.” In Global Feminist Politics: Identities in a Changing World, edited by Suki Ali, Kelly Coate and Wangui wa Goro, 5-10. London: Routledge, 2000.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Moallem, Minoo. “Transnationalism, Feminism and Fundamentalism.” In Between Women and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms and the State, edited by Caren Kaplan, N. Alarconand and M. Moallem, 320-348. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Rashid, Tahmina. Contested Representation: Punjabi Women in Feminist Debate in Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Rouse, Shahnaz. Shifting Body Politics: Gender, Nation, State in Pakistan. Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004.

Weiss, Anita. “The Slow Yet Steady Path to Women’s Empowerment in Pakistan.” In Islam, Gender and Social Change, edited by Y.Y. Haddad and J.L. Esposito, 124- 143. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

“The Historical Debate on Islam and the State in South Asia.” In Islamic Reassertion in Pakistan: The Application of Sharia Laws in a Modern State, ed. Anita Weiss. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

“The Consequences of State Policies for Women in Pakistan” in The Politics of Social Transformation: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, ed. Myron Weiner and Ali Bauazizi, 413-444. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Yaqin, Amina. “The Intertextuality of Women in Urdu Literature: A Study of FahmidaRiaz and KishwarNaheed.” PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, 2001.   “Breaking the Mirror of Urdu Verse: Speech and Silence in the Poetry of KishwarNaheed.” Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings 4, no. 1 (2004): 34-46.

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