Women in Urdu Literature

Issue 8 | شمارہ ۸

Summer Winds| Artist: Murad Khan Mumtaz

Summer Winds| Artist: Murad Khan Mumtaz

All of the stories that exist, in our knowledge, were written after the fall of the matriarchy. This is why tales found in the epic of Gilgamesh—or on scrolls of papyrus excavated in Egypt—are about men’s power, their sovereignty and the accomplishments of great princes. Meanwhile, women appear weak and submissive, unable to make decisions.

In these stories, while men are busy holding off enemies on the battle field, women stand by awaiting the outcome, perhaps in prison, or bickering with one another in the market. If it’s a love story, we can expect the man to be loyal while the woman is unfaithful.

Take, for instance, the first chapter of the Old Testament, “Creation,” in which we learn the story of Adam and Eve. In it, Eve is inferior to Adam, from the moment she is born from his rib. Adam’s complaint to God is the justification for Eve’s birth—he was unhappy in the solitude of Eden. In other words, Eve was made as an appendage to Adam.

Adam remained resilient against Satan’s temptation, whereas Eve not only fell but got Adam banished from heaven as well.

A cursory glance at world literature brings us to the Thousand and One Nights. The heroine, Sheharazad’s life is in King Shariyar’s hands. This king believes that it is his duty to murder his bride each night. For her part, Sheharezad uses her wit to invent a new but incomplete story each night, thus saving herself.

The stories that Sheharazad recounts in the Thousand and One Nights portray men wielding their power, while women use their cunning to overcome difficult patches. This is similar to the ideas about male and female gender roles found in Boccacio’s Decameron.

In our society, we can get an idea of male and female gender roles by considering two stories that most of us heard as children, from our mothers or maybe our grandmothers. One of these is the story of the Sparrow and his Wife, in which “the sparrow’s wife finds a grain of daal and the sparrow a grain of rice, and together they cook kichiri.” The female sparrow is punished by her husband, who drowns her in a well. The man’s authority is volatile.

Meanwhile, in another story, “The Pygmie and his Wife,” the king kidnaps the pygmie’s wife, challenging him in a fight to the death. For the sake of his honour and his sanctity, the pygmy doesn’t simply go to the king’s palace alone, but employs the power of all his community’s resources: from its insects to its river, the fire, and even the rains. After storming the kingdom, he reaches the palace, lays waste the king’s soldiers, and smashes the place to pieces.

These stories send children the signal that, in their seminary society, male and female roles are fixed, existing even in the world of birds. If a sparrow’s wife tells a lie, then he has the right to punish her by killing her. If a pygmy’s wife is kidnapped, then the pygmy, because he is a man, is responsible for her unquestionable purity, and so must not only personally attack the King’s palace, but must call his whole community to help him in the battle to bring back his wife.

If we want to discuss these issues in the context of modern Urdu literature, we begin in 1801, with Meer Aman’s Bhaag o Bahar. In 2002, Urdu literature was 200 years old. As we see these two centuries mirrored back at us in literature, it is clear that men remained dominant. Men make life decisions and women are compliant. Men satisfy themselves with foreign women and women silently endure the injustice, reflecting traditional gender roles in Urdu literature.

The Story of Amir Hamza is a notable deviation from this tradition. At 46 thousand pages, it is the longest story in Urdu literature or the world. The countless female characters in this story have made a new taste familiar in Urdu literature. These female characters make the kinds of decisions that men make. They fight wars and even kill men. In this tale, women have all kinds of authority. In the battlefield they race horses, and they control men with swords, arrows, magic and witchcraft. Men are their prisoners; they throw them on the backs of horses before making off with them. They gather to celebrate their triumphs with feasting and splendour, congratulating one another. In these pages, breathing men and women abdicate their gender roles.

In Urdu literature, The Story of Amir Hamaz retains an exceptional status. But it is also true that in the second half of the nineteenth century, the British Raj’s newly expanded administration, which preceded the introduction of Western education and of modern industry, had a huge influence.

This inspired Urdu writers to discuss women’s rights, education, and freedom from the veil. These writers rejected men and women’s prescribed gender roles.

Among these, two important names are Sajjad Haider Yaldram and Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai. Sajjad Haider Yaldram was among the first Urdu writers whose goal was to bring equality to women. In his stories, women defy their prescribed gender roles and are seen shirking the veil, receiving modern education and participating in mixed gatherings. Perhaps he got these ideas from his wife, Nazar Sajjad Haider, who wrote novels with female characters who rejected their prescribed gender roles.

When it comes to rebelling against gender expectations, no name is more important than Azeem Baig Chughtai’s. He personified women in a new way. His women lived in a beautiful world based on gender equality, who were educated and had brilliant minds, who took in air side by side with men, as companions.

In his famous novel, Shahazoori, there is a female who is illiterate and lower class, but who is nonetheless fully conscious of her rights. The heroine of Shazhazoori defies ancestry, class status and male dominance with such vehemence that there is none like her in Urdu literature. Such characters—who disrupt the traditions of male and female gender roles and turn them on their heads—had never been created before, and this too from a man’s pen.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Rashida Alnasa’s novel showed men and women with slightly distorted gender roles, but from the beginning of the twentieth century, Saghara Humayun Mirza, Nazar Sajjad Haider, Walda Afzal Ali, Mrs. Hijaab Imtiaz Ali, and many other female writers came to the fore. Many of them defied prescribed gender roles in their creations and shocked readers.

With publication of Angare (embers) began the Urdu Progressive Writers movement, which gave us the work of Premchand, Krishan Chander, Doctor Rasheed Jahaan, Ismat Chughtai, Azeez Ahmed Baidi, Manto, Qara Alaiin Haider, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Khadija Mastoor, Hajrah Maroor, Shaukat Siddiqui and other very important names.

While these writers portrayed traditional gender roles, they would also write rebellious male and female characters who deviated somehow or another from norms and traditions.

Among these writers, Sadaat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai’s names are key. Both wrote stories that defied gender roles exposing society’s hypocrisy.

Ismat Chughtai’s stories, on one hand, include female characters who are financially independent, such as those in her novels Crooked Line and Innocence. These women move within the labyrinth of the film world, where old gender traditions are forgotten. Jeelani Bano and Wajida Tabussum also tore down gender roles in their work.

If Quratulain Hyder included some traditional gender roles in her stories, she also wrote modern, educated and independent women, like Sita Marchandaani in Sita Haran and Chumcha Ahmed in River of Fire, as well as the heroine of Autumn’s Voice. Rejecting tradition, she determines her own new gender roles.

In the last fifty years, new names have come to the fore in Urdu literature. In the wake of India’s partition, hundreds of thousands were uprooted, murdered and massacred, impoverished and without livelihood.. Women were violated. Western civilization had space to invade, and in its wake came sexual aggression. In cities there was sectarian violence, political repression and stringent ideological and religious prejudices. All this gave Urdu writers a wide variety of topics, which they each took on in their own style.

There were both men and women among these writers. Many have written stories about men and women that reflect traditional gender roles, but some of the stories and novels have examples of men and women deviating partially or entirely from tradition.

Literature illustrates the temporal and physical realities of its context: it is not possible that society’s traditional gender roles would change and literature would go on as though nothing had happened. In Urdu literature, a clear change is occurring, reflecting the changing relationships between men and women in our society.

Zaheda Hina is an Urdu writer, columnist, essayist, short story writer, novelist and dramatist. She is the recipient of numerous literary prizes. In 2006, she was nominated for Pakistan’s highest award, the Presidential Award for Pride of Performance. She turned it down in protest against Pakistan’s military government.

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