Majaz Lakhnawi advices young women to ‘lift the veil, raise the flag’

Published: March 8, 2015

Pakistani human rights activists in Lahore hold candles during a rally on the eve of International Women's Day. PHOTO: AFP

Majaz Lakhnawi lived through a turbulent yet exciting time: in 1930’s British-controlled India, where patriarchy also raised its ugly head, especially in Muslim households.

Yet Majaz, who himself was born in a Muslim family, became a prominent member of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), whose task was to rid India both of British colonialism and patriarchy.

He quickly became a popular poet, ahead of his illustrious peers, both amongst young men and women, due to his message of revolution and female emancipation. Owing to just a few of his poems, Majaz has entered the pantheon of great poets who recounted the social history of the Indian subcontinent during that period.

His seemingly perpetual loneliness and premature death have added a mystical aura to his life, and despite being an unabashed romantic and a socialist, he was closer to English poet Shelley than to Keats, with whom he is often compared.

The poem, To A Young Woman, which I am offering in my English translation below on account of International Women’s Day today, advises young women not to be a hostage to their beauty or male privilege, and revolt against both the veil and male patriarchy.

Written in 1937, it can be termed as one of the representative poems of the Progressive writers and is still very relevant on account of the persisting feudalism, male patriarchy and the outrages committed against women in the 21st century, especially in the Indian subcontinent.

On a personal note, growing up in a typical middle-class milieu, the last powerful couplet of the poem has been known to me since I was in secondary school, but the full context of the poem remained unknown till very late in my life.

“It would be better if you now lift the veil which protects mischief,

It would be better if make your beauty your purdah,

Your lowered gaze is itself the guardian of your honour.

It would be better if you test the sharpness of this knife,

The plait on your brow is itself a punishment in the Law of Nature,

It would be better if you use this same sword to punish,

These yellow cheeks, these dry lips, this doubt and dread,

It would be better if you remove these clouds from your head.

What will you get, wounding an already-wounded heart?

It would be better if you smile now, wiping your tears,

Under your control are houses, palaces, anything,

It would be better for you to have the earth and the sky, I say.

Even if you raise your head in privacy, what’s the use?

It would be better if you lowered your head in a packed gathering,

The ornament on your forehead is the star of a man’s fate,

It would be better if you carry the instrument of awareness,

The blood smears are evident on the knives of the enemies.

It would be better if you mix them with the colour of your cheeks,

The headstrong rebel lads have drawn their spear blades,

It would be better if you carry the surgery equipment now,

This veil on your forehead is all very well but,

It would be better if you make a flag out of it”

Raza Naeem

Raza Naeem

The author is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator. His translations of Saadat Hasan Manto have been re-translated in both Bengali and Tamil, and he received a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in 2014-2015 for his translation and interpretive work on Manto. He is presently working on a book of translations of Manto's progressive writings, tentatively titled Comrade Manto.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.