Resurrecting Century-Old Muslim Women's Voices From Urdu Magazines

A new performance based on the writings of Muslim women from about a century ago has important implications for the Indian feminist movement today.

On watching the performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, Gloria Steinem’s initial reaction was, “I already know this: it’s the journey of truth-telling we’ve been on for the past three decades”. My initial reaction on seeing the performative reading Hum Khawateen (We, Women) by a theatre group called Raschakra was in total contrast to Steinem’s response. I asked myself, “Why did I not know about this? How could such silence shroud the existence of these writings for over a century?”

Hum Khawateen is a reading of a selection of articles from Urdu women’s magazines published in India about a century ago. These magazines were serendipitously discovered by a team of researchers from the feminist group Nirantar who were working on issues related to Muslim women’s education. Nirantar also published a compilation of Devnagri transliterations of these writings called Kalaam-e-Niswan (Women’s Words). Its editor Purwa Bharadwaj says, “Although it was published in 2013, despite the team’s efforts the collection could not make a mark outside the NGO community”.  

Earlier this year when Raschakra came up with the idea to put up a performance directed by Vinod Kumar to mark Ismat Chughtai’s birth centenary, it was logical to begin with an extract from the autobiography of Chughtai. The group was scouting for more material for the performance when Bharadwaj (also one of the founder members of Raschakra) suggested the inclusion of a few articles from Kalaam-e-Niswan. While this suggestion was enthusiastically accepted, the extract from Chughtai’s autobiography could not make it to the final performance due to the unavailability of one of the group members.

Bhardawaj says, “The original title of the show was to be Ismat ke bahaaney (Ismat as Pretext) and the intent was to showcase the range of concerns and tones characterising Muslim women’s writing of the time.” The series of chance occurrences focused the performance on the voices of Muslim women feature writers, journalists and editors of these century-old Urdu magazines. The pretext was no longer required.

The pieces included in the Hum Khawateen performance on May 1 display this amply. Phat padey woh sona jinse tootey kaan (Be damned the gold that hurts ear lobes) is a scathing but satirical critique of the practice of wearing gold danglers that are too big according to the author, Aalia Begum. It was published in a magazine called Khatoon (Lady) in 1911. Ustani ka taa’arruf (Introduction of ‘The Teacher’) is the introductory editorial of the magazine Ustani (Lady Teacher) in 1919.

School ki ladkiyaan (School-going girls) is a spirited counter-offensive by Zafar Jahan Begum on prevalent stereotypes of the time about young women who attended school, published in Tehzeeb-e-Niswan (Refinement of Women) in 1927. Jins-e-lateef ki sargarmiyaan (Engagements of the gentler sex) is a report on political activism of women across the globe. The anonymous author displays intimate acquaintance with women activists involved in the anti-colonial movement in India, labour unions of Nottingham, the establishment of women’s courts in England and the Khilafat movement in Constantinople. This piece was published in Ustani in 1920.

The cover of Kalam-e-Niswaan. Credit: Nirantar.

The cover of Kalaam-e-Niswaan. Credit: Nirantar.

Khaddar-poshi (Wearing khaddar) is a deeply nuanced and confident piece on the everyday problems of using hand-spun and woven khadi fabric and the politics of protest, published in Tehzeeb-e-Niswan in 1927, also authored by Zafar Jahan Begum. And last but not the least is the time-defying piece titled Gavarment hawwa nahin hai (Government is not an ogre), which delineates and demystifies the modern (albeit colonial) state-subject relationship and encourages women readers to critique the government and not be afraid of it.

While the Nirantar team and Bharadwaj must be lauded for recognising the significance of these writings, what is also appreciable is their perseverance in efforts to put up this performance, re-infuse these words with voice and lend them an audience.

To come back to my initial reaction – why did I not know of this? Or, rather how did these voices get obscured? Well, I did know of Chughtai and Rashid Jahan, who have probably managed to stay on in the memory of the nation due to their dealing with taboo subjects and the resultant controversies. But, by and large, the impression one had of women writers in Urdu is that they wrote fiction or poetry, with some notable exceptions made by the writers of autobiographies. Even today, in most feminist cultural expressions, including theatre as method and in performances, metaphorical and poetic imagery dominate over direct articulation.

The voices get trapped in the politics of what counts as art and artistic expressions, or rather in the hierarchy of ‘authors producing literature’ and ‘journalists writing about the mundane’. That Muslim women writers’ voices were vocalising and confronting political, social and cultural concerns in a directly journalistic tone in the Indian public sphere 100 years ago is something not many can claim having known. I cannot exaggerate the importance of these voices in highlighting the questions of Muslim women (which have long been trapped in the limiting discourse of victimhood), and in their potential to lend them agency and intellect.

Left to Right: The covers of Tehzeeb-e-Niswan, Ustani and Ismat. Credit: Rekhta and Nirantar.

Left to Right: The covers of Tehzeeb-e-Niswan, Ustani and Ismat.
Credit: Rekhta and Nirantar.

It was perhaps inevitable then that the four performers of Hum Khawateen – Alka Ranjan, Bharadwaj, Rizwana Fatima and Shweta Tripathi – seemed to demonstrate a sense of not just taking in history but also participating in the making of history. Audience reactions, too, mirrored this sense. The electric atmosphere of the small seminar hall at the India International Centre annexe and the laughter was a celebration of the pleasure of discovering a piece of history of Muslim women in India. The collective and open wonder of the audience at how sharp the writing was, and how contemporary and still relevant the material was, can also be read as an indication of the state of Muslim women’s speech – often thought of and vaguely eluded to as having been erased, if not believed to be non-existent.

That theatre is the medium of resurrecting these voices in the age of digital reproduction needs to be noted too. Feminist use of theatre in activism is not new but Raschakra’s performance of Hum Khawateen still strikes one as a pioneering effort because the aesthetics employed in its performance are so much in congruence with the politics and significance of these writings for the women’s movement in India – to bring back Muslim women’s voices and views in public sphere. The performers, sitting on the very low stage, created no illusion of the fourth wall. They recited in lively but balanced voices that did not try to enact or interpret what was being spoken of. In fact, although they recited from memory, they held in their hands the sheets of paper with the text printed on them. The text, more than the performers, was in the spotlight. As the performance brochure declared, “Hum Khawateen. These are nearly hundred-year-old voices – of women, of Muslim women, in Urdu. Muslims and Urdu which stand marginalised today in India. But these voices are from the time when neither the Muslims felt repressed, nor did Urdu”.

Can we ensure that these voices and the women behind them reach the spaces where they have never been before? Can we ensure afresh ‘creation of memory’ of these voices through repeat performances of Hum Khawateen all over India? The prolific and creative performances and numerous adaptations of the Vagina Monologues not only as a political expression but also to raise support for action against patriarchal violence could serve as a strategic inspiration.

Hum Khawateen gestures at the arrival of an important moment in the journey of the feminist movement in India. Could it also be a point of unfolding of the limiting swaddling of Muslim women’s questions by the snug blanket of sisterhood, so that potentially startling reflective experiences and histories can be confronted? The movement needs to celebrate Muslim women’s voices from the past in Hum Khawateen, so that it can lend some confidence to the voices of the Muslim women of today.

Ghazala Jamil is assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University.