"Pashtun women still need a strong voice"

Zaitoon Bano, an octogenarian Pashto fiction writer, is a household name in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and even parts of Afghanistan for her bold expression and strong voice that highlights women’s issues. Bano enjoys the same respect and literary acumen in Pashto literary circles as accorded to Bano Qudsia in Urdu fiction.

She has inspired four generations of Pashtun women. Born on June 18, 1938 in Sufaid Dheri, a village near Peshawar, she did her masters privately in Pashto and Urdu, and later served as senior producer at the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation and has taught at various educational institutions. She married Taj Saeed, a noted Urdu and Hindko writer.

Bano has authored more than two dozen Pashto and Urdu books. Between 1958 and 2008, her popular Pashto fiction books include Hindara, Maat Bangree, Juandi Ghamoona, Khoboona, Kachkol, Zama Dairy, Naizurray, while her Urdu publications include Sheesham ka Pata, Berge Arzoo, Bargad ka Saiya and Waqt Kee Dehleez Par.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Culture Directorate has recently published a huge Pashto collection of Zaitoon Bano’s short stories titled Da Shagu Mazal (A journey through sands). The book, spread over 700 pages, covers stories written between 1958 and 2017. Manjeela (head cushion), her only Pashto poetry collection, was published in 2006. Bano has contributed numerous feature plays to state-run TV and Radio on a variety of social issues including women’s rights. She is recipient of at least 15 national literary awards including the coveted President’s Pride of Performance in recognition of her immense contributions to Pashto and Urdu fiction.

The News on Sunday recently caught up with Zaitoon Bano to talk about her past and current work. She spoke on a number of literary issues including her literary career and the impact of her efforts on the current generation of Pashtun women still struggling with ‘social taboos and stereotypes’.  Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): How did a village girl grow up to be the ‘first lady of Pashto fiction’?

Zaitoon Bano (ZB): Born to a Bukhari Sadaat family meant I had to scale up many difficult walls. Fortunately, my father, Pir Syed Sultan Mahmood Shah and grandfather, Pir Syed Abdul Qudus Tundar were both poets who played a significant role in my upbringing.  I was put in a city school at a time when even receiving education for boys in a typical Pashtun society was an uphill task. I managed to pass matriculation from the school, and then did my Masters in Pashto and Urdu as a private student. I was in the 9th grade when I wrote my maiden Pashto short story under a pseudonym. Despite resistance from close relatives, I disclosed my identity as a fiction writer. After a long, thorny journey, I proudly asked my father one day to collect Rs250 royalty from a local publisher in Peshawar for my first ever book of short stories titled Hindara (Mirror). This earned me the title of ‘first lady of Pashto fiction’ which I hold very dear to my heart.

TNS:  In most of your stories, your focus has remained on sex reminding one of Manto. Why is that?

ZB: To break the taboo of discussing sex was a great challenge for me. But it is so important to discuss because numerous issues are born out of sex, including concerns that are physiological, social and economic. In a society like ours, men consider only themselves as human beings and look upon woman as a sexual commodity. In my stories, I have exposed the duality of man. I discuss how women are exploited in the name of honour, and how ‘traditions’ negatively impact women. My characters spill out secrets, speak out their hearts and minds and break the shackles of clichés and taboos. They tell the naked truth, and that is the essence of my stories.

TNS: What are your characters all about?

Progressivism demands quick responses, the story needs unfolding, my characters are vibrant and do not fear consequences. They force me to tell their stories.

ZB: My characters are based on people around me. I don’t even change their names so that my readers could relate them to their own surroundings and easily understand my tale. Injustice, harassment, honour killing, gender discrimination are universal issues and our women including those living in a rigid Pashtun society are no exception to it. My characters have strong voices, they are forceful and have bold expressions. Creating such plots was my inner compulsion, not a choice. Hiding facts or telling half-truths would never fit my characters.

TNS: What did you want to achieve as a fiction writer?

ZB: First, I wanted Pashtun women to have their own voice. My second target was to inspire a thought for a substantive social change towards empowerment of women. They should have their own world, free from all kinds of oppression and injustices. Today, though the situation has changed a lot, but Pashtun women still need a strong voice to be heard.

TNS: Do you think you have achieved your targets?

ZB: I would say no because life is a continuous struggle. But I am quite confident that I have inspired scattered voices in the same Pashtun society where women producing literary works was unthinkable a few decades ago. Today, there are several literary organisations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, headed by women, that hold sessions and conduct debates on social and cultural issues. This is a significant change. Today, Pashtun women writers can debate their concerns and be published.

TNS: How did you strike a balance between quantity and quality when it comes to voluminous writing?

ZB: Genuine thoughts coupled with truth always come out gushing. I believe when there is a story, there is an urge to tell it and the urge needs no other considerations but to clothe it in characters befitting its narration to cause a stir in readers. Progressivism demands quick responses, the story needs unfolding, my characters are vibrant and do not fear consequences. They force me to tell their stories.

TNS: Lastly, how did you fare with your husband, the late Taj Saeed?

ZB: Taj was my lifeline. He was a gem of a man. He encouraged me at every step of my life. I would share my plots with him. I would say that Taj was my first critic. Our partnership remained successful like that of Ashfaq Ahmad and Bano Qudsia. He gave me strength and helped me to tell my story the way I envisioned it needed to be told.

"Pashtun women still need a strong voice"