The Female Anatomy of Letters: A Five-part Essay

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

IMG_1250Writing lives in the gut, like the good bacteria and the bad; it carries on an endless flirtation, an infuriating, nagging conversation with the gut’s long-married partner, the psyche. From time to time, it may traverse its underground-cityscape of anxiety, nostalgia, compulsion, its contradictory pull between instinct and fact-checking, its love-hate habits— to ascend through the pathway of the spirit and become actualized. It may show up on the page ripe and bright as a field of mustard, or as a well-fitting dress, an ammunition depot, a seam of eternity, a sufi’s orchard, or, as too often in my case: a colossal, squandered energy.

This piece of writing, I promise you, is neither about the gut-brain axis, nor is it about writing. It is the first of a short series of essays on my views as a feminist. I have always believed and stated repeatedly in interviews that it is enough to deal with this subject in poetry, that so much of my poetry–nearly all of it—assembles the many facets of feminism important to me, that talking about womanhood requires a language that does not exist. The topic is like handling a slab of granite: a paradox of sheer heft and delicacy, better conveyed through poetry— reduced, ignored, exoticized and caricatured as it has been through the ages. We must mold the language first and create our own terms. I changed my mind, however, after mulling over a few significant discussions, the first of which began as a direct question about the women’s movement from a noted Pakistani poet, the feminist legend Kishwar Naheed at my poetry session at Lahore Literary Festival, the second at SOAS, London, with my activist-academic friend Dr. Maria Rashid, and the most recent one with Rafia Zakaria whose writings on the subject I find truly impressive; I have now begun to see the value of articulating, in prose, how I see gender dynamics and how I have fared as a woman of multiple identities.

First, I conquer the fear of shattering the granite. I say: you have seen it come crashing down so many times— in the man-made world of power politics, plastic religion, societal norms, and the many forms of what you find unbearable and all too common to witness: slammed to bits by women themselves. Go ahead, make an attempt at spelling out who you are as a woman.

I begin with the female body—its map of generativity, capability, creativity, vulnerability. Body-consciousness, with respect to the world around me, began early for me as is common for women, I suppose, but my main concern, to this day, is the psyche so heavily influenced by the body that houses it. There is so much to say about the outward battle of being in a female body— as a girl, as a young woman, as an ageing woman, as a woman of this race or culture or that— what I find striking is that the true subject of interest ought to have been the shaping of the psyche.

The body changes on a daily basis; even a computer may be able to scan and track subtle changes. The psyche’s changes are more complex, mysterious and revealing in many ways. The female body becoming the definition of the female being for its obvious value to the species, is quite the undoing of women. It comes in the way of what womanhood really is; I write about my female body as a mother, but what would be more interesting is to write about my body as a writer…

End of part 1