Even if I don’t go back home alive, I will go back honest: Dr Arfa Syeda Zehra


Dr Arfa Syeda Zehra’s virality precedes her. My introduction to the educationist, who is a distinguished scholar of history and Urdu literature, was one tinged with reluctance. Her ability to deliver the sharpest of critiques in the most succinct yet effective of ways, a guaranteed formula for instant success in today’s age of character limits and 30-second TikToks, has allowed her, willingly or not, to permeate online spaces with a rapidity and power few contemporary scholars command. This, coupled with my disinclination to engage with content forwarded to me via WhatsApp in family group chats, made for a shaky start to a journey towards admiration that has only found growth over time. 

The scholar’s eloquent dissent was on full display at the 14th Annual Urdu Conference, held at the Arts Council over the weekend, proving that her ability to captivate audiences exists well beyond the realm of ephemeral social media content. Unapologetically opinionated, Dr Zehra was part of a four-member panel titled ‘Women and Pakistani Society’, moderated by news anchor and morning show host Nusrat Haris, with other members of the panel including author Noor ul Huda Shah, human rights activist Anis Haroon and journalist Wusutullah Khan.

From the get-go, one thing was made abundantly clear, Dr Zehra, who has also served as the chairperson for the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), is no longer interested in requesting a seat at the table that only serves crumbs. What she desires is a toppling of the structure altogether to open up the floor for whoever wishes to occupy space without needing to ask for permission.  Taking issue with the ratio of male and female members on the panel, she offered a sarcastic jab, “Until now, according to tradition, two women were equivalent to one man. Today, at Arts Council, four women are the equivalent of one man.” She continued, “We believe we’ve done justice by not allowing only women to speak. But, when have we ever allowed a woman to truly speak? We always need someone to keep a watchful eye over what is being said by her.”

After the moderator asked Dr Zehra what her thoughts were on the view that if women were to become greater contributors to the economy, they would perhaps be put on equal footing with men, the scholar responded, “For the people, state and government that couldn’t figure out in 75 years what Pakistani society is and what role women play in it, what difference will an hour-long conversation make?”    

She then proceeded to the question the question posed itself, “You mentioned how perhaps if women made more progress on the economic front, they may be treated as equals. I am surprised at this suggestion because when have women not contributed to the economy? Call back the women working the fields, you will be left with food that will last you no more than a week. Be prepared for the hunger that will follow. It’s a different discussion how all the big-time architects are men, and very few women have joined them in the profession, but those who gather the sand and bricks for the structures they build continue to be women. We don’t consider their fundamental work a contribution towards economic progress.”

Dr Zehra’s responses, to no one’s surprise, were often met with thunderous applause from the audience, a majority of which appeared to be men. However, the scholar asserted that applause was not what she needed nor wanted from them. “Do not turn this into a conflict between men and women. This is not a face-off where you highlight how men also applauded and how they also liked what was being said. I consider myself a member of this society. I am not some other creature descended from heaven who should be grateful for the applause of men and consider it an act of generosity. Do not do me this favour. Society is created by both men and women. Oppression exists when one gets power and uses it to imprison and control the other.” Despite her clarification, applause followed almost naturally.

Asserting that the issue goes well beyond the binary of man and woman, she questioned the structural power imbalance at the heart of the matter. “The conflict this society finds itself embroiled in is a conflict between the powerful and the oppressed,” she stressed. “Whoever has power, tries to seize and control those who do not. Look at the politics in this society. No one can stand dissent.”

“We ask a woman, ‘Show us a man’s face, that is when the law will aid you.’ Qanoon kahin aur andha hota hoga [The law may be blind elsewhere]. The level of scrutiny the law in Pakistan subjects people to, no criminal has been caught to this day. It’s because the eyes of the law are wide open, and it knows who to oppress and empower.” 

In the session that followed, which involved a one on one conversation between Dr Zehra and screenwriter Bee Gul, the scholar elaborated further on this power imbalance and how it affects dominant beliefs held by society. “History is the only thing one should stay connected to,” she shared, adding, “What we have done is that, instead of connecting with history, we have decided to attach ourselves to politics. Politics changes every day, and with it, the history that they choose to write. In the time of my dearly beloved General Zia ul Haq, a history of Pakistan was written. Every three to four years, the spearheads of the struggle for Pakistan would change. Thankfully Quaid e Azam was left unaltered.” 

For Dr Zehra, the relevance of history in understanding the current moment is unparalleled, “History has the power to hold a mirror up to society, but do we have the power to witness our own reflections?”

Towards the end of the session, as the scholar addressed issues of education and religious extremism, she explained, “The situation is such, that for you, I am an infidel, for me, you are an infidel. We have reached enlightenment. Thank God, there is no Muslim left in this country. Where did kufr come into this? Why is everything met with a sermon on sin?”

“We ask each other the questions God will ask us. We don’t ask each other what we should be asking. We ask things like, what is your religion? How do you pray? When you stand up for qayaam, do you have enough space between your legs to allow a sheep to pass through or not? Why does no one ask me, ‘Arfa, are you keeping well? If there’s no one home to bring you medicine, should I go get them for you?’”   

As the session concluded, Dr Zehra questioned the powers that be, zeroing in on the country’s growing problem of religious intolerance. Fierce, fearless and unflinchingly true to her beliefs, she stated, “Even if I don’t go back home alive, at least I will go back honest.” 

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