By Sameer Arshad Khatlani
When iconic Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai (August 21, 1915-October 24, 1991) wrote ‘Lihaaf’ (quilt) and made waves by portraying alternative sex in 1941, second-wave feminism was still around two decades away. Her feminist subversion of patriarchy with the portrayal of a woman’s conditioning vis-à-vis her body had no parallels in the West then. ‘Lihaaf’ predated Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex by five years. Chughtai’s journey to becoming South Asia’s top feminist writers began in Aligarh where she had her literary grounding at a school affiliated with the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The school was upgraded to a college in 1937, nineteen years before Delhi’s premier Lady Shri Ram College was founded and when the literacy rate among women was just three per cent in India.
The AMU Women’s College was the labour of love and realisation of the dream of its founders, Sheikh Abdullah and his wife, Wahid Jahan, of educating and empowering women in a dusty inland town while western education had just begun to flourish in far off coastal centers. It was not an easy task for them. Both Hindus and Muslims opposed Abdullah’s movement to educate women, fearing it would lead to ‘immorality’. Many years later, he told the students of the college with a sense of triumph and pride: “When, after innumerable odds, we came out of the darkness, it was found that education had the same bright effect on them as silver polish has on pots and pans. Educated girls have illuminated our society.”
The movement for educating women in Aligarh started during the lifetime of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who, in celebrated historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, ‘propagated liberal values and rational outlook to oppose blind adherence to traditional values’. As a result, the Muslim Educational Conference formed a separate department for women’s education in 1898. It promoted the idea through Aligarh Institute Gazette. Abdullah, who was close to Khan, was appointed to look into the women’s educational project in December 1902. A special ‘Aligarh Monthly’ issue was published in November 1903 for the purpose. Abdullah, who was educated at AMU after migrating from Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, later started a dedicated journal Khatoon (woman) for the promotion of women’s education in 1904. He simultaneously founded Female Education Association in 1904 to promote his cause and provide support to institutions working for it. Abdullah got a shot in the arm when Bhopal’s ruler, Begum Sultan Jahan, offered him a grant. Thus Aligarh Girls School took off with five students and a teacher on October 19, 1906. Science and social science were part of the initial syllabus.
The school was the first for Muslim girls in north India, where Abdullah’s daughter Rashid Jahan honed her rebellious streak. Rashid was trained as a doctor, who chose a radical path of a communist and a rebel. She went on to study at Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College after her schooling in Aligarh. Rashid was among the first Muslim women to be trained as a doctor at Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Medical College. She was a woman ahead of her times — both in personal life and the literature she produced. Rashid was unusual in the choice of her profession of a gynaecologist, her dress — a khaddar sari with sleeveless blouse — and style — short hair. She travelled to far-off places to treat the needy and the poor. All this was rare for any woman of her generation particularly in Uttar Pradesh in the first half of the 20th century before independence.
Rashid was one of the four authors of a polemical collection of stories, Angaarey (embers), which provoked outrage in 1932 with its attack on religious conservatism and British colonialism. The collection was banned in March 1933. But it led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which attracted the likes of Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Chughtai and revolutionised Urdu literature. Rashid wrote about female bodies with the exactness that only a doctor with intricate knowledge of human anatomy would. She attacked purdah, patriarchy, and misogyny. Rashid influenced Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Marxist ideas along with her husband Mahmuduzzafar, while the latter was Amritsar’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College principal while the poet taught English there.
Besides Faiz, Rashid influenced successive generations of Indian and Pakistan feminist Urdu writers and inspired them to explore forbidden subjects such as love and sex. This included her junior at school, Ismat Chughtai. Like ‘Angaarey’, ‘Lihaaf’ triggered a storm as it humorously dealt with lesbianism and sexual desires of women. The British colonialists charged Chughtai with pornography and she was summoned before a court over it. Yet years after her death her legacy lives on. According to Chughtai’s translator Tahira Naqvi, in nearly every department where South Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminist/Gender Studies, and South Asian literature are taught, her work draws as much attention as her Western peers. Chughtai is often described as one of Urdu fiction’s pillars. She has deeply influenced the likes of Khadija Mastur, Hajira Masroor, Bano Qudsia, etc. Naqvi believes Pakistani poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz have ‘derived inspiration from her bold, uninhibited style of writing’. Other notable alumni of AMU Women’s College included artist Zarina Hashmi, Pakistani film actor Nayyar Sultana, and writer Kusum Ansal, etc.
Many AMU Women’s College alumni may not have realised their full potential had not it taken its present shape in 1937 when India’s female literacy rate was less than three per cent. This is up to 65% now. Much credit for this goes to the pioneers of female education in India. Among them, Abdullah would be in the same league as the founders of India’s first women’s college, Calcutta’s Bethune College, in 1879 and Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College (1886). Abdullah’s efforts were recognised in 1964 when he was awarded the country’s third-highest civilian award — Padma Bhushan.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is an author-journalist based in New Delhi. He has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper. Khatlani worked in a similar capacity with The Indian Express. Penguin published Khatlani’s first book The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan in February 2020.
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