Somewhere in Pakistan: Diary of a Young Aspiring Writer
By: guest blogger Tahniat Saba
“Somewhere in…” is a monthly column from the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative that addresses international censorship issues.
Censorship is the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable or a threat to national security. But according to the practical application, it should be defined as the prohibition of any parts of books, films or news that in any possible way challenge the supremacy of the aristocrats or question the ideology of a particular group.
Unfortunately, people of Pakistan (particularly journalists) have to deal with strong censorship tradition. Sometimes the censorship laws are justified, but mostly it’s suppression of truth by those belonging to influential positions. Freedom House ranked Pakistan 134th of 196 countries in the 2010 Freedom of the Press survey; then Reporters Without Borders placed Pakistan 151st of 178 countries in 2010 Press Freedom Index. The constitution and other legislation of the state such as “Official Secrets Act” (another after effect of colonialism) authorize the government to curb freedom of speech on particular subjects. The Protection of Pakistan Act though passed according to the need of time but its provisions raise concerns like an unjust use of the law against journalists or other media providers.
Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) keeps a strong check upon every kind of print and electronic media. Even school course books undergo defined censorship to make sure the material is in accordance with the ideological basis. This practice, though occasionally beneficial, is most frequently misused to preach the perspective of a certain dominating political/religious group.
Bilal Tanveer — a Pakistani writer, author of The Scatter Here is Too Great, and the 2011 Granta New Voice honoree in 2011 — commented upon the tradition of censorship:
“I think in Pakistan there are a couple of things that one has to stay clear of. The figure of the Prophet is highly politicized in Pakistan and then there is the Army. It is okay if you want to write about God, that is not a problem, but the figure of the Prophet is a problem. That is highly politicized in South Asia … ”
“The Blasphemy Law” is the most pertinent legal restriction in censorship challenges, and it is very often misinterpreted and misused by various religious groups (the consequences of which are usually highlighted by the media). Religious sensitivity has also prevented authors from writing about things like relationships, sex or prostitution; rather such topics are considered taboo, and history has seen writers facing alienation from society and punishments under the law for writing about controversial issues.
Still, many authors today, having been bought up in a sheltered environment, tend to be more openly expressive (particularly early in their careers), but with the passage of time, they allegedly become adept at self-censoring their own work. Self-censorship gradually crept into the writings of Bapsi Sidhwa, one of the pioneers of Pakistani English fiction writing. This was also the case with Kamila Shamsie, an Anglophone Pakistani author who was named the Best Young British novelist:
“The effectiveness of censorship is that it is so deep that you are self-censoring before your conscious brain even registers that you are doing so. So, you don’t actually have to tell yourself, ‘Oh, I am frightened to write about that.’ You just never enter that terrain. I am sure some of that goes on with me too. As we all know, in Pakistan there are certain, let us say, political groups, you wouldn’t write about frankly. I think people also tend to assume that all self-censorship is around issues of religion and gender and very often it is to do with political groups in the place you are from.”
It is not only the religion that becomes the cause of censorship; politics and interests of the government are secondary causes. Censorship has always been strongly imposed upon journalism, and due to this tradition, authors have gotten into the habit of self-censoring their work. Some do it consciously while some are unconsciously habitual of it. Thus, it’s safe to say that even the literature of Pakistan is affected by censorship.
But then one question arises: As a writer, how could you not enjoy the liberty of open expression? Literature is supposed to advocate the freedom of self-expression. When authors are staunch believers of such opinions, then they may start to apply them in their work. Like Uzma Aslam, an author from Karachi and winner of French Embassy prize for best fiction, commented in an interview about whether she gets affected by the impulse to censor her work:
“Never, Never. You can’t. when I am writing it is me and my characters; my characters are my audience and they tell me where to go. They talk to me and in order to hear them, I need to shut everything out. The only time I have, perhaps, paused for two weeks was in ‘Trespassing’ which was my second book and it was a scene between Dia and Daanish where I heard my Chacha’s (parental uncle) voice – he is very conservative – and then I laughed and shrugged it off and have never looked back ever since.”
Bina Shah, being of the same opinion, once said:
“As a writer do I self-censor? The answer is usually no. I write what I want to write … And it is a writer’s job to push boundaries and perhaps provoke people a little but to outright offend them so they don’t want to read my work is counterproductive.”
For novelists, the situation becomes complicated. On one hand, they are bound by cultural limitations, and on the other, they are dictated by their creative will. As Bina Shah expressed, what writers today have begun to do is they let their creative impulses pave the path because that’s what literature is: liberal. Along with being liberal, they have also maintained minor restraints in their writings with the aim to educate the readers slowly and with facts so that they can better digest the realities surrounding them.
Having a “smart self-censor approach” is the key today. Be clever when you have to write about topics not socially accepted and make readers accept your argument. Develop the kind of style in which you are speaking out loud without making the authorities realize how loud you are. Mohsin Hamid provided a good solution about how to deal with print media culture and censorship and still be able to write what one wants to write about:
“What I try not to do is to be unaware of my self-censoring … In my third novel, part of the reason why there are no names is that it is a reaction to the notion that in Pakistan, effectively, there is a prohibition on saying so many different things. You can’t say something about Pakistan, you can’t say anything about religion, you can’t say anything about this, you can’t say anything about that, so why not just have no names at all? The act of having no names is a communication. It is saying that I would only use the words ‘religion’, ‘country’, ‘city.’ It is not by coincidence that there happens to be none of these names in the novel. It is just that speaking honestly about these things is not permitted in our society. So, let us find a way to speak as honestly as possible and let us include in that speech the announcement that we are not allowed to speak freely.”
Shehreyar Fazli, an emerging Pakistani English fiction writer, talked about why shaking off the tradition of censorship is necessary for Pakistan:
“I acknowledge that there are more taboos here than there are in other countries where this book has been read. Were I to think of that as an occasion to self-censor, I would then start wondering why I am dealing with literature in the first place, why I am trying to write literature. I think that some of the best literature and some of the best literary periods have been when it has been a dangerous thing, when it has taken on taboos. I like to think of it always as a rebellious act, as the exact opposite of officialdom or of the official narrative or an alternative to that. That is why I think a healthy artistic life for Pakistan is, as it is for any country, a good thing exactly because it gives you alternative ways of interpreting events. Were we to stick to the one narrow concept of what is going on in this country, I think you would have a dead intellectual life. If novelists are to self-censor or if they are to think that they want to take on a subject but they better not because we are not ready to discuss it, I think that would mark the death of literature.”
Yes, literature is supposed to make an impact and making an impact is not an easy job. History has proved that this nation has always made great impacts — its unprecedented creation being one of them. Encouraged by the same spirit, writers employ freedom of expression to creatively leave a positive impact. They tackle the existing taboos like rebels to give the readers new perspectives.
On the other hand, Farheen Naz Tariq, an emerging name in Pakistani literary society who just published her book Roshini Key Deep through MeraQissa, suggested in an interview that self-censorship becomes necessary for the reliability of the authors and commented, “Yes, without self-censorship, no one can be either a good writer or a person.”
Tahniat Saba is one of the finest literary graduates from Pakistan who recently graduated with honors from BZU, Multan. She loves reading and researching literature. Currently, she is pursuing a Masters in Philosophy from Punjab University, Lahore.
The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative strives to raise the visibility of world literature for adults and children at the local, national and international levels. It intends to do so by facilitating close and direct collaboration between translators, librarians, publishers, editors, and educators, because it believes that these groups in collaboration are uniquely positioned to help libraries provide support and events to engage readers of all ages in a library framework that explores and celebrates literature from around the world.
There is a difference between self-censorship and editing. We should be aware of the effects our speech and actions have on others, and make deliberate choices. We can self-edit for taste or levels of confrontation, but should not self-censor.