The many facets of women and writing in the subcontinent
In not too distant a past when women wished to express themselves, they looked for strategies for expression and mostly located them within the domestic sphere for reasons we are well aware of. The Tibetan writer, Geyang said sometime ago: “We tell each other stories of our lives and everything we have suffered becomes something beautiful.”
Oral storytelling, songs and even gossip and scandal, have always been their means for effective use of imagination. The inner courtyard — which has been traditionally the woman's domain for work and leisure — has been vibrant with such modes of women's self-expression. But, the very act of writing by a woman has been considered an act of defiance and has needed to be concealed, guarded and kept away even from the eyes of the family, not to talk of publication. Thanks to progressive ideals and the feminist enterprise, there has been a lot of realisation of the silences, gaps and the absence of women in literature. We have come far but also, in certain areas and contexts, we have not moved at all or in some cases, there are instances of even regression! While we have a Krishna Sobti to tell us of “Mitro Marjani”, we also have somebody like Noor Zaheer narrating the story of a society that constantly challenges and demolishes the progressive ideals of a woman, in her novel “My God is a Woman”.
It is the rather retrogressive baggage of the history of a woman's place in society, with its projections — in some cultures even continuations — into modern times, that has led to the carving out of a large and important area of study, i.e. women and writing. Elain Showalter in her well-known book “A Literature of their Own” suggests how in the first phase women imitated male writing, in the second, they went into the mode of protesting and only in the third phase did they engage with “self-discovery”. But if we were to look at our own literatures, what we witness is a simultaneous existence of the three stances. If there is a “mad woman in the attic”, there is also an adequate representation of the “Shakti” ideal even amongst the tribal “Dopti” of Mahasweta Devi.
Our history has enough evidence of female deviance and defiance: Mahadevi Akka questioned male monopoly in the realm of faith and asserted her freedom to seek her own God/husband. There is no dearth of examples in the varied oral and written literatures of the subcontinent to work out a history of contesting feminist voices. It is only however over the past half a century when the male canon has been systematically de-centred. Women's sense of being and their experiences now find respectable acknowledgement in literature. This holds good as much in the creation of literature as in the reception of it. Many a time the “real” story lies beneath the superficial text…. One needs to have an “androgynous” sensibility to perceive the reality of the female as much as that of the male.
Structures of thought and feeling that evolve out of deeply entrenched cultural systems constrict our minds from relating easily to the varied truths, sometimes in contradiction with each other. Literature makes it possible to make place for the “new” and the “different” through a convincing narration of human experience. A poem or a short story has the potential to break open from the ‘coded' thought pattern. “Women and writing” lays bare a universe that has been under a veil for centuries. The subject, though much talked about today, has still a massive reservoir of gems in the subterranean.
Let us continue the process of excavation to be able to resolve questions of social justice and gender equality with sensitivity, as a project for humanity.
I'm the one you hid beneath
The weight of traditions
For you never knew
That light can never fear pitch darkness
Kishwar Naheed (Pakistan)
(Sukrita Paul Kumar, a noted critic and poet, teaches in Zakir Husain College, Delhi University)