Riddles, games, songs that are subtle and playful; contrary to the general belief that Muslim women led cloistered lives away from the public eye in the early twentieth century, we have before us faces of bold, witty and fun-loving women who took on the world with a panache we little expect. They wrote letters to each other, were avid readers of the journals that were brought out in that period and composed songs on current events in the manner of broadside ballads. It was a vibrant community aware of the importance of education and many had literary aspirations. There were scholars well-versed in religious texts who engaged in all night discourses on the life of the Prophet and his teachings. Women vaids knowledgeable in the treatment of common ailments were not rare.
Obviously these women had fashioned alternative ways of communicating with each other; creating what is often referred to as “back channel” communication. The medium they used for this was a hybrid dialect, which evolved as a result of the trade contacts Kerala had with Arabia. It used the Arabic script while following the rules of grammar and syntax specific to Malayalam. Since the Arabic script comprised only of 28 letters, some of the symbols were modified to represent the sound pattern of Malayalam. Words drawn from Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Tamil and the regional dialects of Kerala were freely used. This unique dialect came in handy to the women to connect with each other. Learning the Arabic script was mandatory for Muslim women for religious purposes, though they were not always sure of the meaning of the texts they read in Arabic. As they did not know to read or write Malayalam, the enterprising and the inventive among them used the Arabic script to inscribe Malayalam, laced with words from other tongues. Widely referred to as Arabimalayalam, this dialect acquired the status of their lingua-franca from the late nineteenth century till about the second half of the twentieth. By constructing and celebrating a woman’s discourse, the strategy of using Arabimalayalam helped them to overcome the muting process at work within their community.
Arabimalayalam had a binding effect on women who assembled informally in the evenings to read or listen to the recital of ‘malas’ or odes written in praise of saints and prophets. Malas ended with prayers called ‘thettams’. The predominantly spiritual content and nature of the recitals are sure to have offered consolation and sustenance to the women. Muhyadheen Mala, memorialising the life of Sheikh Muhyadheen, who is believed to have attained saintliness by reciting the Koran and observing Ramzan fasting in his mother’s womb, was the most popular. Other than the oft-sung malas such as Rifai Mala that was believed to cure burns and snake bites, were the songs of the popular Mappilappattu genre such as Kappappattu or Sa’feenappattu with its ship-life metaphor, sa’feena being the Arabic word for ship.
Another favourite among the women was songs composed on the tragic love stories of romantic pairs such as Badrul Muneer-Husnul Jamal and Alif-Laila. Stories interspersed with songs on holy wars, lives of martyrs and historical events retold in the mode of ‘kathaprasangam’ also had a ready audience. During weddings and other customary practices such as ‘noolu-kettu’ (the ritual of tying a thread on new-borns) and ‘kathu- kuthu’ (ear-piercing ceremony of young girls) women gathered to sing Mylanchippattu and Baithupattu. Chapbooks, small paper-covered booklets printed on single sheets of paper of low quality that were folded, provided an easy means of exchange of ideas between women. A vast majority of them related to religious strictures. Almanacs in Arabimalayalam were an indispensible tool for everyday life among women. Advice manuals or conduct books on how to be an ideal Muslim woman or wife was another sought after work.
Some women used Arabimalayalam to compose satires on the acts of men, drawing huge numbers to listen to them being read aloud. Another butt of ridicule was the figure of the mother-in-law, who was always represented as an authoritarian matriarch with little regard for her daughters-in-law.
A popular chapbook in the beginning of the twentieth century narrates “a murder most foul”, where a mother-in-law is smashed to death with a jackfruit. The authors of most of these books remained anonymous. Broadside ballads that gave gruesome details of promiscuous love affairs quickly put to an end to or trade rivalries settled with the death of both the contenders swiftly changed hands, to be pasted on kitchen walls or sung in low tones in the evenings when women gathered together after a hard day’s work.
Arabimalayalam was the medium of communication for many women who used to write letters and personal notes in its mixed idiom. Some might have used it clandestinely for recording gendered experiences early on, as it was the only respite for those who could not read or write any other language. However, women writing in Arabimalayalam gained greater visibility towards the last decades of the nineteenth century. The well-known poets of Arabimalayalam are P.K Haleema who celebrates the marriage of the Prophet with his youngest wife Aisha in her Chandira Sundari Mala, Thiruvalur Naduthoppil V. Ayishakutty who wrote Wafa’at Mala, which chronicles the life of the Prophet’s dearest daughter Fathima, and Kundil Kunjamina who is credited with Sarabi’s Khizza, a narrative song in ballad tradition, based on the legend of Sara, the wife of Prophet Ibrahim. Kundil Kunjamina also wrote Badarpada which is a ‘padappattu’ or battle-song.
Lives of prominent Muslim women of Arabia also found favour with writers like C.K Kunjaisha who in an elegiac tone mourns the last moments of the Prophet’s eldest wife Kadija. Puthur Amina, B. Ayishakutty and K. Aminakutty are among the other writers who are believed to have enjoyed a wide readership.
Although writing in Arabimalayalam in those early days reinforced gendered identity portraying stereotyped images of women, it was the first step towards creative expression and self-reflection that writing of any kind will eventually lead to. Eulogising, critical, subversive, humorous and sometimes downright comical, it reinforced a woman sub-culture within the Muslim community in the first half of the twentieth century. Language here helped to devise tactical moves to slide free of restrictions with ease. It was not a planned move, but has added an amazing chapter to the saga of women in early twentieth century Kerala.
( G.S. Jayasree, professor and head of the Institute of English, University of Kerala, is Editor of Samyukta .)