A few years ago, when a bilingual (Urdu and English) quarterly magazine ‘Nisa’ was started by a small group of Muslim women from Hyderabad, it was seen as a ‘ray of hope’ and perhaps rightly so. For the most part, it was a pleasant surprise. The idea behind its initiation, as researcher and activist Kaneez Fatima, explained once to this writer, “is to examine women’s problems and create debate based on particular issues, and to draw the attention of women writers and research scholars to such questions.”

Kaneez, who is also one of the founders and editors of the magazine, went on to say, “This was also needed because there was hardly any research magazine in Urdu that focused on women’s issues in particular. We strongly felt the need for one for quite some time, before we decided to fill this gap on our own.” In these observations on Urdu magazines, she couldn’t have been further from the truth, especially as far as Urdu women’s magazines are concerned. Today, while there is no dearth of Urdu magazines and journals, there is no substantive representation of women’s issues in them.

All that one can find in the name of Urdu women’s magazines are ‘family magazines’ like Khatoon Mashriq, Mahankta Aanchal, Huma, and Pakiza Aanchal, etc. And these magazines, often published months in advance, hardly discuss contemporary issues and debates about questions relating to gender. However, it is important to note that this was not the state of Urdu women’s magazines a few decades ago, especially before partition. There were magazines for women in Urdu, debating and discussing a range of socio-political, cultural and educational issues of that time.

A new compilation, Kalam-e-Niswan, carried out and published by Nirantar, a Centre for Gender and Education, under the editorship of Purwa Bhardwaj, takes us to the debates of those days. Apart from the debates, the compilation includes well researched pieces of women’s writings, in the forms of travelogue, reportage, opinions, letters, portraits and profiles.

This compilation is a Hindi transliteration of original Urdu writings published in magazines like Tahzeeb-e-Niswan, Ismat, Payam-e-Ummid and Ustani, mostly before independence or a few years just after it. Lesser used Urdu words are defined as footnotes as and when required. Broadly divided into four sections and further classified into nine sub-sections, it systematically chronicles issues of culture, education, curricula, governance, and women’s right to vote, gender relationship and women’s rights movements. It also presents the socio-economic and educational situation of those days. The range of the issues are so vast and fresh that one thinks that these writings were done in the present times, and not decades, or a century ago. One is simply surprised to see extensive articles on subjects such as the Children of Chhattisgarh (Ismat: 1936), Women’s Education Department of Egypt University (Khatoon: 1911), and Activities and Education of Turkey Women (Ismat: 1951).

Purwa says, “While these writings help us to understand the minds of Muslim women, at the same time, it also compels us to think, rethink and question our understating and popular notions about Muslim women, their thinking, choices, dreams and contributions.”

According to Nirantar, this compilation is the result of a project initiated by them in order “to develop a deeper understanding of Muslim women’s education” and, while working on it, they “came across important writings by Muslim women”. Though it’s true that all the articles included in this compilation were written decades ago, a look at the debates surrounding Muslim women, both in the society at large and Muslim societies, as well as in the mainstream media, shows that issues were not very different even in those days.

The compilation, with its wide range of subjects such as women’s dress, to veil or not to veil, women’s education and their position in society, activities of women folk, right to vote and women, English medium schooling, polygamy and remarriage makes it relevant even today.

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