After thoroughly absorbing the life of Gojra—a tehsil in Punjab province of Pakistan- Ayesha Iqbal is living in Lahore for more than a decade. Ayesha is a former KCite and an Old Ravian. Currently she is doing her MPhil in Applied Linguistics. She works as an e-lecturer in the Department of English, Virtual University of Pakistan. The writer is trapped in the middle ground of belief and disbelief and loves to believe that she has got an artistic temperament which gives her the strength of mind required to maintain her sanity.
The Fallen Women of Urdu Literature
My mother and I were discussing the works of Ismat Chughtai and Fahmida Riaz one day when she remarked in a concerned tone that I should not justify, glorify or support any obscene trends in literature in any of my writings.
This censure (apart from being thoroughly amusing) immediately convinced me that I had to explore some of the questions that had been playing on my mind about the controversy that follows women in Urdu literature. Were characters such as Sultana and Sogundhi really so unreal that they could only be considered figments of the writers’ imagination? Were the feelings and desires of Begum Jan that resulted from her unfulfilled and imprisoning marriage too shameful to discuss for an Urdu-reading audience? Should we have to write in a language other than Urdu to describe these taboo aspects?
‘Songs without Words’
The contributions of those writers who have defied convention cannot be appreciated without understanding the social fabric we are all immersed in and the literary tradition that these writers opposed. Historically, women characters in Urdu literature had been portrayed as puppets of men’s imagination – as individuals without a voice of their own and, most importantly, being devoid of courage or the ability to deal with their woes. As soft creatures filling a special space, these characters were not capable of becoming agents of change; they had to follow a certain set of rules as dictated by societal norms – rules that limited and directed their emotions and their womanhood.
In the words of Fahmida Riaz:
Apni mubhum si ibarat kay dupattay mein chupi
Sur jhuka kay nazrein kutra k nikal jati hay
When some of these writers chose to push the existing boundaries of the traditional way of writing, they were branded as controversial, bold, outspoken, and overtly frank. However, it is only when you touch the strings, sounding some deeper human chords, that you become Manto; when you courageously and radically question male supremacy that you emerge as Rashid Jahan; when you fearlessly break through the network of pressures and constraints that you grow to be Ismat Chughtai; and when you stop censoring your words and let them flow unabashed that you turn out to be Kishwar Naheed or Fahmida Riaz.
Coming into their Own
The Progressive Writers’ Movement of the 1930s proved instrumental in breaking the astounding discord between women’s image and their truth by providing a platform on which writers were broadly able to reflect social realities. Taraqqi pasand adab(progressive literature) took a challenging new road by denouncing the conformist and largely apolitical writings of that period and before. Instead of producing literature in the traditional, moralizing manner to correct female behavior or portraying women only as objects of love, engaged in a constant struggle to fulfill the standards chalked out for them by patriarchal society, writers such as Rashid Jahan, Ismat Chughtai and Khadija Mastur began exploring taboo subjects previously left untouched. By doing so, these writers broadened the scope of Urdu literature.
Rashid Jahan’s trend-setting work, titled ‘Angare’ (Burning Coals), brought to light the problems that women confronted in their everyday lives; problems that were very conveniently taken for granted. These issues included sex-related issues, tales of unwanted pregnancies, accounts of husbands’ unfaithfulness, threats of remarriage and divorce. In the 1940s, Ismat Chughtai, strongly inspired by Jahan, daringly took up the same banner and started addressing such topics in her work.
Obscenity vs. Social Reflection
Chughtai’s feminist sensibility and consciousness eventually redefined the parameters of Urdu literature. Through her stories, she provided insightful glimpses into the lives of women and children belonging to the lower social classes, including the poor servants and maids who worked in rich people’s homes. It is not surprising, then, that many of her sensitive stories, such as “Lihaf,” “Til,” “Gainda,” “Bhool Bhullaiya,” and “Ziddi” caused enormous furor. Her writings earned her wrath in literary circles and came under considerable criticism and scrutiny. Various critics, especially Sajjad Zahir, strongly condemned this “obscene” literature, explicitly referring to the works of Ismat Chughtai and Sa’adat Hasan Manto.
Zahir disavowed any connection between progressive and so-called obscene literature, but I believe that such writings and the motives behind them have to be investigated and understood before passing judgment on them. In reading Chughtai, we find that she was able to achieve greatness by voicing the daily hardships of marginalized groups and by challenging the various mechanisms of repression in our society, all the while staying true to the aesthetic values of literature and writing.
The same could be said of Manto, who wrote clearly and sharply about exploitation of women, proving that one did not have to be a woman to understand the plight of women. Manto refused to take the cover of metaphoric or symbolic language. Sogundhi from the short story “Hatak;” Sultana from “Kali Shalwar;” Shanti in “Shanti;” Kalwunt Kore of “Thunda Gosht;” Sarita from “Dus Rupaey;” and the perturbed, nameless and sleepless prostitute of “Sou Kendal Power ka Bulb” are all fallen women. They are all outcasts of society and victims of social injustice or unfavourable circumstances, all commoditized and consumed by male sexual needs. Manto sketched them with an unusual directness, thus showing his readers that these characters were real. He too faced criticism for his boldness. A notable critic, Aziz Ahmad, even went to the extent of saying:
“[Sa’adat Hasam Manto’s] conscious and subconscious are surrounded by such a magic of sexuality that is purely and grimly sick. Sex seems to be the religion of Sa’adat Hasan Manto.”
A Continuing Struggle
The tussle on what is considered “appropriate” literature is ongoing. The act of articulation, as opposed to silence or oppression, is a significant theme in the poetry of Kishwar Naheed, a prominent modern poet who has challenged conservative thought through her writing. Though her ghazals are mostly in the traditional classical mode, many of her azad nazms (free verse) and nasri nazms (prose poems) are considered unconventional and bold. Needless to say, the critics’ heavy hammer did not fail to fall on her. Renowned critic Dr. Saleem Akhtar commented that her book “Galiyan, Dhoop, Durwazay,” was the expression of a woman with unfulfilled sexual desires. The title of Naheed’s first memoir – “Buri Aurat ki Katha” (A Bad Woman’s Story) – was a telling response to such criticism.
Naheed’s contemporary and partner in controversy is Fahmida Riaz, who writes with astonishing frankness. Her poetry is deeply reflective and helps us understand the problems faced by lower middle class women. She has written in simple, rural language, rejecting the dominant tradition of using grandiose Persian diction in the traditionalghazal. She advocated equality and attacked social and political injustice in “Pathar ki Zuban”, her first book of poetry, and spoke out against sexism in “Badan Dareedah”(1973). “Apna Jurm Sabit Hai” (1986) included poems representing the emotions of lively, vigorous and viable women who rejected the backwardness and rotten traditions of the past and were ready to replace them with fresh ways and values.
These female writers, with an unflinching honesty and clear sightedness, have attempted to describe women’s position in social and historical contexts. It is important to read these authors, if only to realize the truth of women’s place and role in our society, both historically as well as in contemporary terms. By confining ourselves to a certain version of truth or by simply closing our eyes to the facts, we cannot perceive such dark and harsh realities, which many contend are non-existent and untrue.
One may like or dislike the ‘controversial’ aspects in literature but one needs to understand that these aspects do not originate in these particular writings but they are part of our culture and societies. We can no longer divide the women of our age into the Akbaris and Asgharis of Deputy Nazir Ahmad by outlining what women can or cannot do. We need to expand our understanding to view the sensibility of women writers in this changed landscape of Urdu literature. In the words of Ibsen:
“Was I wrong? Does this Path
Not lead to the light?
But the light blinds my eyes
If I seek it in the mountains
No, I must go down into the dark
Eternal peace lies there
Heavy hammer, break me the way
To the heart-chamber of what lies hidden there.”