Feminist Fiction Books

Woman, foregrounded: Vaishna Roy reviews Salma’s ‘Women, Dreaming’, translated by Meena Kandasamy

Scholar Leela Gandhi said that what post-colonial theory “fails to recognize is that what counts as ‘marginal’ in relation to the West has often been central and foundational in the non-West.” This rings true with regard to feminism and its relationship with women from minority communities, whether Muslim or Dalit or Black. While Indian feminists successfully negotiated the mainstream to reposition issues like Sati or widow remarriage as being about women first and about culture and religion after, they hesitated to make the same leaps with, say, triple talaq.

Indian feminism, while justifiably anxious to keep at bay right-wing extremism, has often felt impelled to consider some foundational issues of women from minority communities as being amenable to postponement until larger issues of religious and cultural rights are addressed.

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Everywoman’s story

This is today compounded by the growing anxieties of inter-cultural and inter-faith non-judgmentalism and the trend towards relativism. There is, however, a strong case to be made for respecting cultural diversity without taking one’s eyes off a robust shared ethical framework. While celebrating differences, one need not be diffident about making universalist demands for dignities and freedoms that disregard community or geography. One recalls late feminist political philosopher Susan Moller Okin, who criticised multiculturalists for valuing “group rights for minority cultures” over the welfare of individual women.

It is against this backdrop that one must approach Tamil poet-writer-politician Salma’s works to understand why they mark a crucial literary watershed. Salma is part of an Indian Islamic feminism that has been taking shape over the past few decades, but

Woman, foregrounded: Vaishna Roy reviews Salma’s ‘Women, Dreaming’, translated by Meena Kandasamy

her hard-won personal victories give her voice universal resonance and a unique, reified timbre. It allows her to confidently foreground the woman. As she once said, “This [oppression] has nothing to do with Islam or any particular religion. This has primarily to do with male-dominated society’s oppression against women.”

Her second novel, Women, Dreaming (2016), now translated into English by Meena Kandasamy, tells the interlinked stories of six women in a small, orthodox Muslim village in Tamil Nadu. Their names are Subaida, Asiya, Parveen, Mehar, Amina, and Sajida, but their stories are those of Everywoman — they struggle alike against their chains, they dream similar dreams.

The oppression has passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter; each generation fights a little harder, cowers down a little slower, but when the novel ends, we seem no closer to real hope than when we began. Only, the windows have been opened wider and more light pours in for Sajida than it ever did for her mother Mehar.

Looming large over the book and the village is the shadow of Hasan, Mehar’s husband. Once cheerful, enjoying music and cinema, he has returned from his haj in Makkah laden with purdahs, dogmas and orthodox Islam. His mother, wife, sister, daughter, the village women — everyone is being whipped into submission by his loftier, harsher religiosity. Even the village cleric cannot continue the milder ways in which he once minded his flock.

True path

Hasan’s discovery of the “true path” has also meant his taking a second wife, contrary to the village’s long tradition of monogamy, but he is convinced that being a man, moreover one who follows the book, places him outside the pale of criticism. Mehar leaves him but cannot escape his continuing wrath, nor can his son, daughter or mother. Only his sister Parveen frees herself of his influence, discovering her mind, her body, her sexuality, her independence.

By singling out Hasan’s zealotry, Salma recreates the existing tensions in the Muslim world between its orthodox and moderate factions, within which the women exist, locked inside homes, rules, conventions, mirroring real life and Salma’s own incarceration of nine years. In that sense, the book reads not so much as fiction as docu-drama, a slice of life. The language matches this — plain, sometimes halting, sometimes staccato, with few flourishes. If there’s a failing, it is repetitiveness. The women’s constant crying and lamentation might be true to a certain ceremony of grief associated with Islamic traditions and Tamil sensibility, but the repeated mentions in the book are tedious and not lyrical.

A slice of life

The women’s revolts are mostly indirect, tentative, often pushing them into greater bondage, sometimes gaining them minor freedoms. The women are controlled by the word of god, varyingly interpreted by whichever reigning male with whatever interpretation that furthers patriarchy most.

More than the hopeless flailing of her cast, what I found poignant was Salma’s restraint. She is negotiating — politics, family, clergy. She is murmuring where she wants to shout. She is protecting. Even Hasan gets his interior monologue, with Salma seeming to ask, wanting to believe, surely an excess of faith would excuse his misogyny? These questions and compromises, these self-doubts echo those of many Muslim women who are straining to escape male-spun religious cocoons — but don’t want to break the skeins either.

Scholar Sylvia Vatuk in her paper ‘Islamic Feminism in India’ points to how nascent Islamic feminists refer not to universalistic human rights principles but to the Quran, which they insist grants Muslim women rights denied in interpretation and practice by the ulemas. For now, this may be their only culturally viable approach, but their priorities as women are bound to overtake those of community. More butterflies like Salma will surely emerge.

Women, Dreaming; Salma, trs Meena Kandasamy, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹499


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