THE history of Urdu literature in the subcontinent is not very old. Though we find mention of poetry and prose even in the 14th century, formal books in different genres of Urdu literature started appearing in the 18th century. The initial phase of Urdu literature is generally silent in terms of female voices.
There are, however, some exceptions. First, there were women belonging to different royal dynasties who would compose poetry. Second, there were courtesans who exhibited great taste for literature and some of them actually wrote poetry. Both absorbed the social pressures of society for different reasons.
Female silence in mainstream literature can be attributed to a number of silencing factors. Women in South Asia were not given access to formal education. The only kind of education girls were permitted to receive was religious education which, in most cases, was confined to the recitation of the Holy Book. Women were restricted to their homes and going to school or working in office was unthinkable. Literature was not considered suitable for women. In this highly patriarchal system, writing literature was a taboo activity for women.
This prompted men to undertake the job of representing women. Interestingly some male writers used rekhti which implied the use of feminine language. Edward Said in his book Orientalism quotes Marx as saying, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” So some of the male authors started doing the job of representation by prescribing and telling women how to speak and behave.
Nazeer Ahmed’s novel Miraatul Uroos (Mirror of a Bride), published in 1869, was specifically written for girls/women for ‘correct’ and socially acceptable behaviour. It is the story of two sisters, Akbari and Asghari. Akbari is the older sister who is dubbed as an unwanted character as she follows her moods. On the other hand, Asghari, the younger sister, who is living in a joint family system, always tries to please others and in the process sacrifices her personal pleasures. This novel thus reflects the attributes of a good girl or woman.
Written on the same didactic lines but a more popular work of non-fiction was Bahishti Zevar (Heavenly Ornaments) by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi. Maulana Thanvi was a famous religious scholar and this book was specifically written for women. The book being very popular was an integral part of a woman’s dowry. It was given by parents in Muslim families to their girls when they got married. This book gives a list of do’s and don’ts for girls and women. One of the items on this list was not to read ghazals.
The first significant female voice was that of Rasheed Jehan who edited a book of short stories with the title of Angare. This book that contained 10 short stories on provocative social themes was published in Lucknow in December 1932. The book created instant ripples in literary and social circles and invited unprecedented protests in religious circles. The book contained a story Dili ki Ser (The Delhi Experience) and a play, Parde ke Peeche (Behind the curtain), by Rasheed Jehan. Both works raised some basic but taboo issues with regard to the exploitation of women. The book was banned in March 1933 just three months after its publication. Rasheed Jehan whose bold arrival in mainstream Urdu literature shocked many was an MBBS doctor which was a rare phenomenon in the India of the 1930s.
Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) another female voice that defied restrictions, belonged to an unorthodox family where there was space for girls to express themselves without much inhibition. She wrote short stories and novels and tried to challenge some of the stereotypes and wrote on themes that were taboo. Her short story Lihaf (Quilt), published in 1941 was banned on the pretext of obscenity as she touched on the theme of lesbianism. Her bold treatment of social issues in fiction was considered ‘unladylike’ and most school libraries shied away from keeping her books. Similarly, it was not considered appropriate for young girls to read her books.
Qurat ul Ain (1926-2007) made a rich contribution to Urdu literature through her novels and short stories. Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire) is undoubtedly one of the finest novels produced in Urdu. The novel, in terms of its scope, themes, diction and treatment, has been attracting readers and critics alike since its publication. Qurat ul Ain who was not feeling comfortable living in Pakistan decided to migrate to India. Talking of novels we find some great novels produced by female writers. For instance, Aag Ka Darya (Qurat ul Ain Hyder), Raja Gidh (Bano Qudsia), Aabla pa (Razia Fasih Ahmed), Dasht-i- Soos (Jamila Hashmi), Dastak na do (Altaf Fatima), etc.
The tradition of women writing some great novels in Urdu literature resembles the English literary tradition where female writers wrote some memorable novels. As in English literature, we do not find good women poets in the early phase of Urdu literature. One reason could be that poetry was considered socially undesirable for women to read and write. But as time passed and the pressures of society got diluted some important female voices made rich contributions to Urdu poetry. Ada Jafari came with an original feminine voice.
Similarly Kishwar Naheed wrote on some hitherto taboo topics for women. But the book that created ripples was Fehmida Riaz’s Badan Dareeda. It was a collection of poems that dealt with themes with a fresh perspective in a creative diction. The book led to a hue and cry, mostly about meanings which were not there. The writer was in self-exile for a long time.
Parveen Shakir became instantly popular with her very first collection of poetry, Khushboo. In her later collections, Sad Berg, Inkar, and Khud Kalami she emerged as a mature poet who would present social issues with the romantic softness of the Urdu ghazal and nazm. Parveen, an icon during her lifetime, spent an unhappy conjugal life that ended in divorce. She died at a young age in a road accident. Sara Shagufta was another female voice in poetry who wrote some unorthodox prose poems in an innovate style. Her collection of poems, Ankhein (Eyes) is a reflection of a creative genius. Despite the strong silencing forces, female writers came a long way and now they occupy a prominent position on the map of contemporary Urdu literature.