Woman of fire

In the winter of 1932, three men and a woman published a collection of short stories and sparked a literary storm. Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali, Sahibzada Mahmuduzaffar and the woman, Rashid Jahan, were writing an angry book, Angarey (embers) that railed against social inequity, hypocritical maulvis and the exploitation of women in a deeply patriarchal society.

The book was publicly condemned at the central standing committee of the All-India Shia Conference at Lucknow as a “filthy pamphlet" that had “wounded the feelings of the entire Muslim community". The Urdu press called for a ban. Clerics issued fatwas. Demonstrations were held outside book stores and the publisher had to issue a written apology and surrender unsold copies to the government. Within three months of its publication, the British had banned this “immoral" book. Today, apparently just five copies of the original version exist.

The roar of that protest still echoes. While Angarey is acknowledged as a sang-e-meel, or milestone, in modern Urdu literature, its celebration is mute, its writers lost in anonymity. A few years ago, the vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University reportedly turned down a proposal to celebrate Rashid Jahan’s centenary for fear that it might provoke an agitation.

As the only woman contributor to Angarey, Rashid Jahan Angareywali—the suffix a pejorative—was singled out for special attack. Conservatives threatened to cut off her nose and the girls’ school established in Aligarh by her father, Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah, was condemned as a whorehouse.

A Rebel And Her Cause—The Life And work of Rashid Jahan: Women Unlimited, 248 pages, Rs 395
A Rebel And Her Cause—The Life And work of Rashid Jahan: Women Unlimited, 248 pages, Rs 395

The other piece, Parde Ke Peeche, is a conversation between two women from affluent, sharif (respectable) families. Married at 17 and pregnant every year since, Muhammadi Begum talks about her life as little more than a sex slave for her husband. “Men are only concerned with sex," she says. She even gets herself “fixed" so that “my husband would get the same pleasure he might from a new wife". But the husband is still not happy and says he will get a second wife—and what’s more, wants his first wife to arrange that marriage because, well, that is her “duty".

The real purpose of the publication of Angarey was neither to shock nor scandalize. Its real purpose, writes Rakhshanda Jalil in a slim biography that includes some of Jahan’s significant works, A Rebel And Her Cause: The Life And Work Of Rashid Jahan, was to “introduce another sort of writing", a self-conscious attempt “to shock people out of their inertia, to show how hypocrisy and sexual oppression had so crept into everyday life". It is, writes Jalil, a “document of disquiet" that makes no attempt at social reform or providing solutions.

Much of Jahan’s literature, written for magazines or literary journals, is lost. What does remain are short stories and plays—many of them seem like rough, first drafts—of the lives of Muslim women, some rich, some poor, but all oppressed by the demands made on them by society and the maulvis that project their religion. Her motivation to write was not to display literary brilliance but to make a statement about the world as it is, so that her readers, men as well as women, could be roused to create a better tomorrow.

Angarey was not a landmark in literary craftsmanship, even though its quartet of contributors would go on to found the Progressive Writers’ Association and Jahan herself would inspire a generation of women writers, including Ismat Chughtai, Attia Hosain, Razia Sajjad Zaheer and Sadia Begum Sohravi. “She spoilt me because she was very bold and used to speak all sorts of things openly and loudly, and I just wanted to copy her," Chughtai would later write.

Jahan was more than a woman who wrote on subjects considered bold for their time. She was more than a woman somewhat “ahead of her times as the product of a radical and privileged background". Writes Jalil: “Most importantly, she was a woman deeply and passionately engaged with the great debates of her age: anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, gender-justice, and more." She joined the Communist Party of India at a time when women were rarely seen or heard of in public life.

As a qualified doctor, Jahan was privy to the claustrophobic zenana life of her patients and much of her writing is about the unarticulated issues and concerns of these women: the lack of education, early marriage, birth control. She moved seamlessly from the tehzeeb (etiquette) of the upper classes to the slang of the lower. And about both she wrote with remarkable empathy.

Jalil’s biography is by no means complete, yet it fulfils an important service in recognizing the life of one woman who “single-handedly paved the way for other women writers". Equally important, writes Jalil, “She opened a window of immense possibilities for young Muslim women." In bringing alive the life and work of a vivacious, engaged women whose epitaph in Moscow reads, “Communist Doctor and Writer", Jalil fulfils an underlying purpose of tracing a long chain of writers linked by a sense of injustice and desire to bring about change. As a character in one of Jahan’s plays observes: “Those who create religions, write shariahs and laws—they are all men after all!"

Over a hundred years after Rashid Jahan’s birth, we are still confronted by that unfortunate truth.

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