Literary Review: Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women

By Aju Mukhopadhyay


Veils, Halos and Shackles, an international anthology of poetry was conceived in the wake of the gang rape and torture of Jyoti Singh Pandey (a physiotherapy student) by six brutes in a moving bus in New Delhi on the night of December 16, 2012, resulting in her death in a few days. It contains 250 poems by 180 poets, most of whom are women except some two dozen male voices living in different countries of the world. Most of the contributors are from the Indian subcontinent and the United States of America. It is for the first time that poets have opened their hearts and expressed their feelings about different forms of oppression and torture on women and the ways of their empowerment on such a large scale, making a global impact of the grave issue.

Indian women poets were heard for the first time in the Vedas (Sukta) in ancient time. Then the women monks of the Buddhist order also wrote some poetry followed by their progeny at different historical times flowing down to the modern age. To speak about the continuance of such enterprises we can mention one anthology that reached my hands. Roots and Wings (Ed. Annie George and Sandhya S N. Thiruvananthapuram: Roots and Wings. 2011. Paperback) is an anthology of 350 poems by 42 Indian woman poets from almost all the states of India. Though it does not concentrate on woman abuse of different types, their free voices are heard here; they speak about their problems including male domination and torture in different ways; ways of woman’s freedom in patriarchal society. Veils, Halos and Shackles is one of the largest projects in modern time. It has gained esteem as the woman’s hope for a better future.

While the rape and killing of Jyoti Singh, the torture and killing of Nadia, and the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai were the pivotal points in the birth of this anthology, none of the rage against women seems to have fazed anybody anywhere. While this review was being written, a teenager was raped in a car, killed and thrown in a ditch in Kolkata, and a father was pitilessly beaten to death for his complaints against the eve teasers of his own daughter in UP, India. In this context, let us not forget one of the greatest fights by a woman poet for women, Irom Sharmila Chanu, who gave up her 16-year-long fast a month back to prepare to fight in a stronger way. She is a poet from Manipur and was fasting to protect women from abuse, torture and death in the hands of the armed forces for any reason, demanding the repealing of AFSPA from the North-Eastern states in India. She was kept nose-fed and harassed in solitary confinement. The protest breaks all world records.

Out of the large numbers of poems written about various types of woman abuse in this volume, I quote some lines from some poignant poems which give an idea about the severity of the subjects dealt with here, though not all.

Nadia Anjuman of Herat died at 25 being abused and tortured by her husband mainly for being a poet of high caliber, singing the song of woman’s liberation. Publisher of this book could not publish her poems as the original publishers did not give permission for it. They have kept a blank space titled “Silenced” (Shackles 12) after her name which signifies death. Not only a courageous woman but a fine poet petrified by her society for writing poetry of her choice; telling the tale of Afghan Women and the rotten society around her. A few lines of her precious poetry are given below, as available on the internet:

I am caged in this corner

full of melancholy and sorrow . . .

my wings are closed and I cannot fly . . .

I am an Afghan woman and so must wail. 1

While writing about Nadia, I remember another very brave woman from Kolkata, Susmita Banerjee, who married an Afghan and lived in their land for many years, helping their women against the brutal menfolk in many ways. She too was very brutally killed by them at last, with the connivance of her husband in 2013.

Of the different types of ignominy, its existence in the traditional husband-wife relationship may be mentioned first:

Karen Alkalay-Gut, Israel, writes,

Guy breaks up with a girl

she tries to kill herself

girl breaks up with a guy

he tries to kill her

either way it’s her fault

Guy Breaks Up with a Girl  – Shackles 5

Ivy Alvarez, British citizen, writes,

learn to lie down

let myself be poured into

this strange shape

called wife

Jane’s To-Do List – Shackles 10

Vimmi Sadarangani, Sindhri, writes,

you walked ahead leading

like some cowherd

and tied with a rope

I followed

Tethered  – Shackles 399

    Gut writes, “The veil is a declaration of womanhood . . . it is an acceptance of slavery, an acknowledgment that self-expression in the world outside is forbidden.” (Shackles 4)

     Ameerah Arjanee, Mauritius, writes, “Imam gives good advice, he is kind and ignorant.

     “Marriage is a mosque . . . . Women must have patience, sabr. He will change. And if he doesn’t, so what? Women must-.” (Shackles 13)

Jane Bhandari, India, expresses the pathetic condition of widows,

We widows sit together, dry-eyed.

The other women

Overflow like rivers.

We dry wells will not yield.

The Widows – Shackles 47

Adele Jones from Australia describes, as read in an article, the female genital mutilation, as it is common in Africa in a vivid way,

No pungent antiseptic stinging the air.

Just a rust-dulled blade in

mutilating hands. . .

but still her pulse pounds

like a village drum.



. . . .

Her womanhood.


before she had scarcely

learned to count.

Severed – Shackles 216-17

Another horrible piece out of a poem by Sumana Roy, India,

There were bottles inside you, and male snot.

A syringe in your hair. A button in your palm.

I don’t remember the rest. Your father still seals our broken

windowpanes with posters of “Save the Girl Child.”

Your grandmother stares at sunshine’s death certificate.

Rape of Sunlight / Shackles 398

The birth of this poem was the occasion of rape of a five-year-old girl in Delhi in the summer of 2013.

Child abuse happens in a very subtle way though it happens in more diabolical ways too at times. Elizabeth Oaks, an American, has written this as it came out of her own forgotten memory.

for all of us, this holocaust

of childhood, of being someone’s

child who has no sense of what

it is to protect, who wants a warm

body so much he will take ours

in ways that our mothers may never

know or admit they know, for

what can they do, what can they do

When I Remember Lucille Clifton – Shackles 333

Colleen Wells, also an American, writes, “I have experienced various forms of cruelty since childhood, sometimes from those who should have had my best interests at heart.”

In the morning

I take the handful of pills,

green, white and yellow . . . .

They disappear

like my options.

Morning Pills – Shackles 504-05

Francine Witte lives in New York City. Two of her poems are here. The first one speaks,

11’s old and already done.

Raped all the way to old lady.

So many fingers and tongues on her,

it would take lifetimes to undo.

The Girl in the Garbage – Shackles 511

Her next poem, “Prom Date, 1973” is full of inexplicable nudity.

Here is a woman doctor from India who experienced sudden child abuse, writes remaining anonymous: RJ T.

The adult in me knew something bad was happening that day,

The child in me knew I didn’t like you at all,

But the polite, scared girl in me continued to pretend that nothing had happened.

But the woman in me knows she has to write down, in words,

How it felt.

The Bitterest Aftertaste – Shackles 468

While hearing about the child abuse I remember a few lines from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake where she contrasts continuously between the two cultures; American and Indian (Bengali). In a party situation where Americans freely mix physically with one another she observes, “They are an intelligent, attractive, well-dressed crowd. Also a bit incestuous. The vast majority of them know each other from Brown, and Gogol can’t ever shake the feeling that half the people in the room have slept with one another.” 2

Chitra Banerjee, a gender activist from India leading women’s movement, has written fine poetry of revolt in her “The call of Revolution”, “Undressing” and “Colors of Kranti” or the colour of revolution, expressing it symbolically through the trees in their colourful blooms. (Shackles 30-32)

The Hindu Goddess Kali is a great symbol of woman-power, so this symbol has been frequently used by poets from India, especially Bengali poets like Baisali Chatterjee Dutt, also in revolt, who moved round the world and has now settled in Kolkata.

You’re afraid of us,


in the deepest,

innermost core of your heart,

you know that we are goddesses.

We can stand on our husband’s chests

and say, “Ooops!”

AMI KALI – Shackles 119

Sampurna Chatterjee has written,

I have taken Kali’s anger and made it mine.

My black moods are hers,

my irreverence.

I hoop, I rant, I rage,

a belt of severed hands at my waist.

All the Goddesses – Shackles 79

This Kali images has been used by some others too like Susan Kelly-De Witt;

They said you cradled

Your dead husband’s head

In your lap as you burned,

A Kali

With one skull –


Sati, 1987 3  Shackles 232

This was written in the sad memory of the burning of a married girl aged 18 years, with her dead husband on the same pyre in a village, Deorala in Rajasthan, India, as part of an obscure ritual that had been prevalent more than 200 years ago in a narrow circle of the Brahmin caste among the Hindus. Sati might be true in that some women in ancient times, in love and obedience to their husbands, and as ideal wives, self-immolated on the pyres of their dead husbands, following the example of Sita of Ramayana who entered the fire to get her chastity tested. This had some resemblances to some Rajput women committing self-immolation in the face of defeat of their men in war, not in the distant past. Later it became a torture for those unwilling, but burnt as a ritual. But such practices became rare when in the early phase of the British rule, it was banned by law. It has never been in practice since then. The incident cited was only one in modern times. Most horrible, but hardly any outsider knows its history. The poet, realizing this while writing on the incident, wrote,

What do I know,

sitting here, continents away,


Weeping for whom?

Sati, 1987 3 – Shackles 232

Of the few male poets who have contributed here, Charles Ad`es Fishman has the seriousness of purpose and depth in his poems which goes beyond the zeal of many woman poets for their own cause. Writing on the life and death of Tahirih Baraghani, he writes,

Law that does not respect woman is the tool of misogynists

and tyrants. At the moment you removed the veil in public,

you were fully Tahirih, the Pure One, but your death

had drawn near.

. . . .

In the garden of Ilkhani, in Tehran, you were strangled

with your own veil, which you had chosen for that martyrdom.

But before the silk could tighten around your throat, one

who observed from the shadows heard you cry out, You can kill me,

but you can’t stop the emancipation of women!

Tahirih: The Seventeenth Disciple – Shackles 143

Gabriel Rosenstock’s Billie Holiday (Shackles 396) in translation from his own poem in Gaelic about the “Lady in Satin” seems to be a lyrical biographical summary. Nice to hear but the unspeakable remains unspoken. Why “Your own voice frightened you”, is not known. The two somehow complicated poems by Tabish Khair (Shackles 240-42) show the deceitfulness and playfulness in women but they don’t suit the purpose of this book. Similar is “That Stone” (Shackles 411) by K. Satchidanandan; trying to be neutral and universal proclaims the guilt of everyone. The examples of both the poets seem to be an escape from direct involvement though they are related poems. Other male poets have sympathy for women like Max Babi (Shackles 24).


The reviewer is a Poet, Critic and Author. His website: