Bombay Showcase

Radical lessons from the past

Retelling history: Hum Khawateen was performed for the first time last year in honour of eminent Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s birth centenary.  

While dabbling with political and social issues that have prevailed over a century, it’s imperative to find the right voice to take the discussion forward. Informed opinion goes a long way in shedding light on topics that have often been stereotyped and seen through a singular dimension.

In an attempt to bring forth the voice of Muslim women, the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Media and Cultural Studies, and the Parcham Trust have organised Hum Khawateen (We Women), a performance based on the writings of Muslim women published in Urdu magazines like Khatoon , Ustani and Tehzeeb-e-Niswan between 1905 and 1956.

A theatre group comprising four women will enact eight powerful pieces. There’s women’s activist and writer Alka Ranjan, gender and sexuality expert Purwa Bharadwaj, Shweta Tripathi, who works with women at the grassroots level, and Rizwana Fatima who has a Ph.D. in Hindi. The essays highlight political and social concerns of Muslim women pre- and post-Independence, by underscoring issues such as women’s education, the Indian Independence movement, and gender relations. It’s also an opportunity to create a platform to publicise radical views on issues such as polygamy and the purdah.

Well-researched works

During an extensive three-year research project carried out by feminist group Nirantar, material was sourced from magazines sifted through libraries across the country. A team of researchers including Bharadwaj approached the Osmania University library (Hyderabad), the Amir-ud-Daula Public Library (Lucknow), and the Rampur Raza library (Rampur). In 2013, the gender and sexuality activist published Kalaam-e-Niswan (Women’s Words), a compilation of Devnagri transliterations of these writings. The works include well-researched pieces spanning travelogues, reportage, opinions, letters, portraits and profiles.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced during the research process was that the experts who knew Urdu weren’t well-versed in Hindi, and vice-versa,” says Bharadwaj. “But over time, when the flow of discussion became more comfortable, the writings helped us think, rethink, and question our understanding of the minds of Muslim women, and their dreams, ambitions, and contributions that went far.” However, the entire project was still only known to a selective group of people within the NGO community, and missed making a mark beyond a certain section.

That changed when Hum Khawateen was performed for the first time last year in honour of eminent Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s birth centenary. Bhardwaj, Ranjan, Tripathi, and Fatima came together with Lucknow-based director Vinod Kumar to discuss a dramatic reading of Urdu verses for the celebration. Christened Raschakra, the theatre group thought it was only obvious to perform an excerpt from Chugtai’s autobiography too. However, as they were on the search for more material, Bharadwaj suggested the inclusion of a few articles from Kalaam-e-Niswan . Bharadwaj says, “The show was initially discussed to be named Ismat ke Bahaaney with a focus on the tonalities and characteristics of Muslim women’s writing at the time. But eventually, with the multiple voices of Muslim women feature writers, journalists, and editors of century-old Urdu magazines, we didn’t require just a singular voice.”

First published in 1911 in Khatoon (Lady), ‘ Phat padey woh sona jinse tootey kaan (Be damned the gold that hurts ear lobes),’ is a hard-hitting, satirical critique by Aalia Begum about how women continue to wear gold danglers, heavier than their ear lobes can hold, in an attempt to showcase their wealth. Another piece, School ki ladkiyaan (schoolgoing girls) by Zafar Jahan Begum, is a counter-offensive piece that discusses prevalent stereotypes present when young women attended school. Then there’s Jins-e-lateef ki sargarmiyaan (Engagements of the gentler sex), a report on women’s political activism across the globe, and their role in political and socio-economic spaces. Published in Ustani , in 1920, the anonymous author brings to light women’s activists involved in the anti-colonial movement in India, labour unions of Nottingham, the establishment of women’s courts in England, and the Khilafat movement in Constantinople.

Bharadwaj says, “In a piece first published in Tehzeeb-e-Niswan in 1927, Zafr Jahan Begum discusses the everyday problems of using hand-spun and woven khadi fabric as a garb, and in another contemporary piece ‘ Gavarment hawwa nahin hai (Government is not an ogre),’ she encourages women readers to critique the government and turn away their fear.”

Brave writings

Well-known personalities like Chughtai and Rashid Jahan have made a mark in the Urdu sphere with their brave writings on taboo subjects. However, it is unfortunate that there are a large number of writers who are still hidden. There’s a misconception that Urdu writers were skewed towards poetry and imagery. But there are clear records of extensive journalistic reports by Muslim women in the public sphere since a century. Hum Khwateen celebrates that knowledge in an attempt to urge more voices within the community to speak up.

Bharadwaj believes that the performance is not a piece of theatre, but a reading of history to hopefully bring forth change. And in the process of reliving past writings, the women themselves are stirring up new conversations in a time where the spread of opinions is more accessible. “And while relevance of these writings is of course important, it isn’t the only thing,” says Bharadwaj. “There is a sense of perspective that’s required to understand the meaning behind the writings and their takeaway.”

With Urdu women’s magazines such as Khatoon Mashriq , Pakeeza Anchal , Bano , Mashriqi Dulhan and Mashriqi Anchal still celebrating and discussing contemporary issues, it is not only important, but rather imperative that women attend and promote performances like Hum Khawateen .

The author is a freelance writer

Hum Khawateen , will be performed at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Deonar, today at 5.30 p.m. Entry is free.

The performance

is not a piece of theatre, but a reading of history to hopefully bring forth change

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 6:01:34 PM |

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