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Recontextualizing Ismat Chughtai: Feminist Debates and Negotiating Identity

Having carved a distinctively progressive authorial identity within the corpus of Urdu literature in the 20th century, the study of Ismat Chughtai’s life and work becomes important to contextualise and analyse the socio-cultural landscape of colonial and post-independence India from the lenses of womanhood, sexuality, and the Muslim identity. In the course of her career, Chughtai wrote several short stories, plays, and novels in Urdu. Some of her important works include Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line), Lihaf (The Quilt), and Ajeeb Aadmi (A Very Strange Man). She also took to screenwriting and engaged in multiple film projects in Indian cinema, like adapting her short story Ziddi (The Obstinate) into the eponymous Hindi film in 1952.

Arriving on the literary scene in India during British rule, Chughtai was one of the few female writers who gained visibility in the public sphere. Much of her political ideology and social consciousness was informed by her involvement with the Progressive Writers’ Association, a literary movement spearheaded by progressive writers of the time who organised with an anti-imperialist and a socialist thought. Comprising Ismat's contemporaries like Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander, this movement sought to situate literature in the nexus of art and activism, re-imagining it as a reflection of contemporary society. The writer was to be seen not just as an individual, but a unit of society, their art had to go beyond aesthetics and include socio-political dimensions.

Writing Style: Social Commentary and Realist Storytelling

Chughtai’s writing both conformed and deviated from the ideology of the Progressive Writers’ Association. While, her works like Saudai (Obsession) and Ziddi (The Wild One) deal with inter-class romance and challenge social codes; Gharwali (The Housewife), Til (The Mole), and Lihaf (The Quilt) highlight sexuality and female agency.

However, while most of these stories have recurring themes of class and gender conflict, Chutai’s language did not make a conscious attempt at re-constructing radical politics, the social conflicts therefore, could only be discerned by educated elites. Her craft lay in the vernacular and colloquy of everyday speech, in middle-class Muslim spaces. Priyamvada Gopal in her book Ismat Chughtai’s Secret History to Modernity observes that in her stories, Chughtai used the “begumati zubaan”, or the “unique gendered sociolect spoken by Muslim women of her class”. Her characters were inspired by the real people she met, and her stories were populated with mostly female characters, with perspectives that were grounded by the female gaze. In an interview with the famous Dogri writer Padma Sachdev, Chughtai mentions that she gets her stories “from the streets and from inside homes”. In fact, she is best known for her depiction of middle-class women inside the private space of the zenana (women’s quarters), and the trials and tribulations of the female experience in patriarchal households. Tahira Naqvi, who has translated several of Chughtai’s works to English remarks: “...that she frequently drew her fiction from actual events she had been a part of, either directly or indirectly, explains the intense realism we meet within her work.” Instead of writing about mainstream social and political developments in colonial and post-independence India from a nationalist perspective – which was the dominant discourse at the time – Chughtai’s critical eye turned inwards, towards the private space and micropolitics of gender and class within everyday life in cultural, familial, and sexual contexts.

Chughtai’s Fiction vis-à-vis Indian Feminism

Locating Ismat Chughtai within the feminism of 20th century India proves challenging. The women’s movement during the latter years of British rule in India was embedded within the larger framework of nationalism that had subsumed the politics of other oppressed factions in society. Anti-colonial agenda was supreme, and the feminism of the time found expression and legitimacy only by aligning itself with the nationalist cause. While there were efforts to increase women’s education and ensure equal rights, there was a push for a ‘role-based’ feminism. The identity of a nation that was soon to be independent was imbricated with the imagination of the ‘ideal’ Indian woman, where women were supposed to be educated but were still expected to be dutiful wives and mothers; a revivalist discourse aimed at harking back to Indian tradition and defining women according to traditional norms. Most of the women’s magazines and periodicals written and read by women in colonial India (like Grihalakshmi, Stri Darpan, Chand, etc) while giving women a platform for expression and access to public discussion, propagated a specific kind of education for women in moral instruction and propriety. With the increasing anti-colonial fervour, Indian feminism focused on the ‘indianness’ of womanhood, and its function in nation-building. Therefore, while the participation of women in the freedom movement and the civil society was encouraged, their upliftment was seen only in terms of their contribution to the nationalist cause, which was inherently patriarchal in nature.

Any talk of choice, agency, female sexuality, and pleasure was prescribed as being part of a western model of feminism, and therefore rejected. In this context, many themes in Chughtai’s writing could be seen as radically different from the traditional and conservative dimensions of Indian feminism in the 20th century. Female characters in her stories openly condemned traditional virtues of wifehood and motherhood, celebrated female sexuality, and developed social and political consciousness. One cannot escape a discussion on Lihaaf in this context, Chughtai’s short story that was popularised after she was charged with obscenity for writing about lesbian sexual themes in the story. While she won the case due to the lack of any explicit references to same-sex relationships, nevertheless, with the finess in her writing, she also ensured that there was no room for an alternate reading of the story. The oppressed space of the zenana was depicted as emancipatory, where the protagonist Begum Jaan, alienated and neglected by her husband, reclaims her selfhood and sexuality through a relationship with her female servant. Not only were conversations surrounding sexuality and sex-positivity taboo even within feminist discourses at the time, homosexuality as natural, positive, and emancipatory did not configure in the Indian social thought at all.

In Til (The Mole), themes of premarital sex, female pleasure, and sexual agency are highlighted. The character of Rani employs both the metaphorical and corporeal significance of a mole on her body to engage in flirtation, female sexuality, in a seemingly vulgar and unladylike conversation. In Ek Shohar Ke Khatir (All for a Husband), Chughtai ironically and sardonically challenges the ideals of marriage and motherhood as being central to the female experience. Here, the narrator is an unmarried young woman travelling alone, who on being asked multiple times by people whether she was travelling to her maika (natal home of a married woman) or her sasural (in-laws’ home of a married woman), reflects on the idea of marriage, and remembers when she won a debate competition in school for arguing a case against marriage. She refers to the tradition of securing a husband for oneself being a transaction similar to hot tea being sold on the train, effectively reversing the male gaze, and objectifying the husband instead. Other short stories that deal with similar themes of radical feminist thought are Chatan (The Rock), Gharwali (The Housewife), and Chui Mui (Touch Me Not).

Feminist Practice Outside of Work

Ismat Chughtai did not just restrict her feminist politics to her fiction. She was a vocal advocate for gender equality and progressive thought. In her essay, The Magical Charm of Ismat, translated from Urdu by Anupama Prabhala Kapse, Chughtai’s close friend Salma Siddiqui narrates a meeting between the writer and a prostitute. She advises the sex worker to not give up her profession for the sake of ‘respectability’. Indeed, Chughtai considered sex work to be a legitimate profession – a rather radical and modern element of feminist debates – and stressed more on gaining financial independence and empowerment over conformity to social and moral prescriptions. At one point in her aforementioned interview with Padma Sachdeva, Chughtai talks of the advice she gives to young women who come to meet her: “choolhe mai daalo shadi, independent bano pehele” (“Throw marriage into the flames, become independent first”). The recurring motto of privileging selfhood and independent subjectivity over the traditional centrality of marriage and motherhood in the female experience can be seen throughout her life and writings. It would only be fitting to end with this excerpt from her lesser-known essay Aurat (Woman) translated by Raza Naeem:

“For centuries thinkers have been trying to bamboozle women by ascribing such absurd accusations to them; they either praise them to high heaven or throw them in the mud. But they are at pains to put them on the same pedestal with themselves. They will make a woman a goddess or heavenly creature, but will be ashamed to call them a friend or comrade.”

This practice of either degradation or deification of women in society typifies Indian feminism, wherein – relevant even in contemporary times – women are either considered inferior, or worshipped as a deity in religious contexts, what this does is refuse women their humanity and equality. Such concerns of modern feminist discourses were championed by Chughtai at a time when Indian women and the idea of womanhood were caught in the crossfire between the colonial state and the emergent nationalist consciousness; the confrontation between the modern and the traditional ideal of a woman, in protest of the influence of the colonizer. These negotiations of conflict, resistance, identity, and the personal and public configurations of female experience ensure the relevance of Ismat Chughtai’s life, art, and legacy to this date.

Kritika Dixit is a writer and a student of English literature at LSR, Delhi University. She is interested in studying and writing about South Asian community, culture, and society.


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