Close this search box.


Close this search box.

Women’s secret language and Waheeda Naseem

Rauf Parekh

IT might be a coincidence that it is called ‘mother tongue’ and not ‘father tongue’, just as we have ‘maadri zabaan’ in Urdu, but at least it shows that women have got something special to do with language, though the preferred term among linguists now is ‘first language’ rather than ‘mother tongue’.

Then there are ‘mother-in-law languages’, a common name for ‘avoidance languages’: male speakers of some Australian aborigine languages tend to avoid mentioning certain relatives, often wife’s mother, in their everyday conversation and these languages are known as ‘avoidance languages’ or ‘mother-in-law languages’.

Well, one can understand the agony of mentioning one’s mother-in-law and one can only envy the freedom of speech the Australian aborigine husbands enjoy. It reminds me of the reply a judge gave to a woman who had asked what the ‘minimum punishment’ for bigamy was, and came the reply ‘two mothers-in-law’.

Jokes aside, the number of linguists carrying out research on the connection between language and gender is ever increasing and the difference between male speech and female speech has been the subject of many academic investigations.

Linguists say that every language has varieties. This variation occurs not only across regional boundaries but also across ethnic, social and gender boundaries. Research on language variation according to the gender of the speaker has shown interesting results. Men, for example, tend to use more informal or slangy expressions than women. George Yule in his book ‘The study of languageÂ’ says that “in some cultures, there are much more marked differences between male and female speech.
Quite different pronunciations of certain words in male and female speech have been documented in some North American Indian languages such as Gros Ventre and Koasati. Indeed, when Europeans first encountered the different vocabularies of male and female speech among the Carib [North American] Indians, they reported that the different sexes used different languages. What had, in fact, been found was an extreme version of variation according to the sex of the speaker” (Cambridge, 1993).

The Urdu language used by male and female speakers may not vary that drastically, at least in present times, but it did have at least some marked differences between male and female speech. There were times in the subcontinent when women were restricted to ‘zanan khana’, the segregated women quarters within homes, and their contact with the outside world was very limited. Getting out of her home was quite a venture for a woman who could see the outside world through her veil or the curtains that covered the ‘paalki’ (palanquin) that carried her. This segregation had certain social and linguistic repercussions.
The Urdu language used by women developed a different idiom and vocabulary, some of which was quite unknown to men.
This variation still exists at least to some degree and, as Waheeda Naseem has put it, men do not get even the whiff of some of the secret vocabulary women use while conversing among themselves.

The existence of this feminine parlance did not go unnoticed and many specialised Urdu dictionaries of women’s vocabulary were compiled, some in the early 20th century, though their authors were not consciously aware that they were recording a social variation of the language – since they knew little about the modern linguistics. The first ever Urdu dictionary recording the vocabulary favoured by the womenfolk was ‘Lughaat-ul-khawateen’. Compiled by Syed Amjad Ali Ashhari and published in 1907, it was fortunately reprinted with fresh computerised composing from Lahore in 2003. Another pioneering work in the field was ‘Lughaat-un-nisa’. Published from Delhi in 1917, it was compiled by Maulvi Syed Ahmed, the compiler of the famous ‘Farhang-i-Aasifya’. ‘Muhaavraat-i-niswan-o-khas begmaat ki zaban’ was though a slim volume by Muneer Lukhnavi, it gave some quite new and different vocabulary used by women. It appeared from Kanpur in 1930. Vazeer Begum Zia compiled ‘Muhaavraat-i-niswan’ and it was published from Lahore in 1943. Shabbir Ali Kazmi published his work on the subject in quarterly Urdu’s July 1959 issue and named it ‘Zaban-i-zanan-i-Dehli’. Waheeda Naseem’s ‘Aurat aur Urdu zaban’ first appeared in 1979 in the form of a book in 1979.

‘Dilli ki khawateen ki kahavatain aur muhaavre’ was published by Oxford in 2005. Compiled by Begum Shaista Ikramullah, this book lacks sense of basic distinction between muhaavra (idiom) and kahavat (saying). Though it has two separate sections under the same headings, both the sections contain both.

Of all these works, I personally prefer Waheeda Naseem’s book because of its vast scope, scholarship and thorough historical and literary research. In fact it is not only a dictionary but it also carries a detailed and scholarly foreword, a book unto itself spreading over 180 pages, that discusses the nature and impact of a variety of Urdu language that women prefer. But it was quite unfortunate that the book, written with Baba-i-Urdu Maulvi Abdul Haq’s guidance and encouragement, could not get published since the Baba-i-Urdu died during its compilation. Waheeda Naseem went from one institution to another for its publication but in vain.

Some publishers she contacted were willing to publish the book on the condition that she would remove the third chapter, which described how Urdu was born when Hindu princesses were married to Muslim rulers. Aside from the academic debate as to whether the claim was right or wrong, no one has a right to dictate a writer. So she declined. While she had lost all hopes, in 1962 Akhter Rahmani, editor of ‘Intekhab-i-nau’ magazine, came to her and asked her to allow him to serialise the book in his magazine. She agreed. The book’s first portion was published but then the magazine ceased publication and the other half of the book containing the dictionary remained unpublished. In 1966, she was elated and shocked at the same time when someone asked to autograph a copy of her book ‘Aurat aur Urdu zaban’ published from Delhi. Emboldened, she again contacted some publishers and same question rose: delete the Hindu princesses ‘who gave birth to Urdu’. She again refused.
But in 1979, a publisher from Karachi agreed and the book was published in full form. The second edition appeared in 1993.
Grab a copy if you can, it will open up a wonderful, whole new world to you.

Waheeda Naseem was a short story writer, novelist, poet, travelogue writer and educator. She was born in Hyderabad (Deccan) on September 9, 1927, and was fortunate in the sense that her maternal grandfather and her mother were poets and writers and encouraged her to read and compose poetry. She was grateful for that and later wrote that she was among the few lucky girls of the country who had a very conducive atmosphere at home that bolstered her latent literary talents. As a result, she began publishing her poetic and prose writings at an early age. Having done her MSc in Botany in 1951, Waheeda Naseem migrated to Pakistan in 1952 and joined education department. She retired in 1987 as the principal of the Government College for Women, Nazimabad, Karachi.

Waheeda Naseem died in Karachi on October 28, 1996.
Source: Dawn