LAHORE LITERARY FESTIVAL: Women’s writings about women
By Zara Khadeeja Majoka
IN a recent talk, novelist Nadeem Aslam stressed the importance of paying attention to women, their experiences and their writing. The panel ‘Women Voices,’ featuring writer and editor Muneeza Shamsie in conversation with editor Faiza Sultan Khan, brought this issue to the forefront and explored the unique voice of women’s writing in English.
Shamsie explained that she delved into the history of South Asian women’s English fiction when she was asked why it was that South Asian women wrote in English after the publication of her anthology And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women. Her research, she shared, revealed that the earliest Indian women’s fiction in English came forth perhaps to bridge the gap between the Anglicised Indian man and the traditional women in his household. One of the earliest of such writers was Toru Dutt who wrote novels in both English and French. In the late 19th century, writers like Sarojini Naidu, Alice Sorabji and Rukeya Shekhawat Hussain, who had all been educated in English, produced English fiction. Hussain, in fact, delved into the genre of science fiction in her boldly feminist story, Sultana’s Dream, which presents a utopia in which the roles of men and women are inverted. The Urdu reformist movement also spurred a great deal of women’s writing by the likes of Atiya Fyzee Rahamin. Additionally, when in 1921 women were given the right to be voted to legislature by the colonial government, educated and politically active women like Jahanara Shahnawaz, Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah and Iqbalunissa Hussain began to write in English, and their works included some fiction; Iqbalunissa Hussain’s 1944 novel, Purdah and Polygamy in a Muslim Household, is an example of this. Independence in 1947 propelled writers like Attiya Hosain and Mumtaz Shahnawaz to produce works in English, such as the novels Sunlight on a Broken Column and The Heart Divided.
Following Partition, however, Shamise noted that English fiction by women was seen as futile, and there was a general intolerance for women who wrote about politics. The most prominent case in this regard is that of Zaibunissa Hamidullah, who was a columnist for Dawn but left the newspaper after she was reprimanded for broaching political topics and not confining her writing to ‘women’s issues’ . Hamidullah then went on to found the monthly publication The Mirror, which was banned in 1957 for its criticism of Iskander Mirza’s regime. Hamidullah appealed to the Supreme Court over this ban, won a judgment to her favor and continued to cast a critical look at the political situation through her publication, as well as producing a collection called The Young Wife and Other Stories. Other strong, politically active women continued to write in English newspapers but Shamsie remarked that English fiction by women disappeared for about 20 years in Pakistan until Bapsi Sidhwa published the first of her novels. In the meanwhile, though, women from the Pakistani diaspora, such as Rukhsana Ahmad (founder of the Asian Women Writers’ Collective) and Tahira Naqvi were producing exciting fiction and poetry in English. Ten years after Sidhwa’s novels, Shamsie said, the next event of significance in the world of female Pakistani English writing was the publication of Sara Suleri’s unique memoirs Meatless Days and Boys Will be Boys, which blended the public and the personal and the historical and the social. Following this, the next generation of more prolific Pakistani female writers of English fiction came up, which includes the likes of Talat Abbasi, Shahbano Bilgrami, Nafisa Haji, Sorayya Khan, Kamila Shamsie, Moni Mohsin and Uzma Aslam Khan.
Who then are these South Asian women writing in English? It seems that they are bilingual women writing not from the margins but from their rather unique position where they experience the world from two languages and write from the overlap. Shamsie pointed out that powerful women’s fiction has long been a part of the corpus of Urdu literature, illustrated best by the likes of Ismat Chughtai, Rasheed Jahan and Fahmida Riaz and yet the trend has been fragile in English until recently. In response to a question, Shamsie said that while male authors have written about female characters, what may be a fleeting subtext in a man’s story may be the text in a woman’s story.
This point was illustrated in the following session ‘The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal,’ in which Kenize Mourad talked about her book In the City of Gold and Silver. Mourad’s novel is about Hazrat Mahal, a courtesan of the ruler of the state of Awadh who played an active part in resisting the British after Awadh was annexed. When the war of Independence of 1857 broke out, Hazrat Mahal took charge, seized Lucknow back from the British and set her son up as the sovereign. Even after the British recaptured Lucknow, she actively put up a resistance through guerilla warfare for two years.
Mourad was able to retrieve Hazrat Mahal from the dusty oblivion of history through her connection to her as a woman. While Hazrat Mahal was a subtext buried in the annals of Lucknow, Mourad saw her as a text. Mourad talked about how difficult it was to find any historical records about her and that ultimately, she was able to recreate her actions through a cache of British official correspondence she discovered in Lucknow, and most significantly, form the oral histories recounted to her by the old families of Lucknow. She also held that hers was not an ‘invention’ but a faithful recreation of her character.
Mourad had a passage read out from her book which describes the zenana of Awadh, in which she maintains that these women were not submissive odalisques as the West imagines, but astute and sharp. Mourad further talked about how she was able to write faithfully about the zenana by virtue of her own experience; as the estranged daughter of the Raja of Kotwara, Mourad in her twenties came to see her father in Lucknow and was consigned to the zenana. Her six months there exposed her to this ‘other world’ and she became acutely aware of how these remarkable women thought and acted. It seems that as Aslam said, we do need to pay keener attention to women’s experiences and their writing.