Despite having read and reviewed scores of collections of women’s writings over the years (and recently edited one myself), I approach every new collection with some mistrust. I like to believe that good writing is or should be androgynous; therefore the very notion of women’s writing as a separate entity is something I still need to grapple with. Most editors of such anthologies work on the premise that the authors they have selected somehow work under a double handicap – by virtue of being women, and women who write – and therefore deserve a special space, a reservation of sorts. Such an assumption, I feel, is unfailingly unfair to the writers whose cause they set out to espouse for it works on the premise that women’s writing not only occupies a separate sphere of writing but also has a different purpose, different that is from men. Time and circumstance might compel women to dwell on certain issues, but certainly women’s writing need not be only about women or of interest to women readers alone. Rarely does one come across an anthology of women’s writing that serves a larger cause, that of constructing women’s literary history virtually from scratch and that too in a sphere so circumscribed by religious and linguistic differences as that occupied by Bengali Muslim women over a century ago.
Women in Concert packs a triple whammy; its sub-title reads An Anthology of Bengali Muslim Women’s Writings, 1904-1938. There is a fourth one too, albeit hidden, in the fact that the book is a translation of the Bengali original called Zenana Mehfil: Bangali Musalman Lekhikader Nirbachita Rachna, published by STREE in 1998. What sets it apart from other collections of women’s writings is precisely the time and circumstances of its contributors. Beginning in the early 20th century when it was difficult for Muslim girls to get a secular education in Bengali and English-medium education was still a far cry for women, this collection not only opens a window into lives seldom glimpsed through the screens of the zenana but also documents the changes brought about in the social and cultural position of Muslim women over a few decades in Bengal. For me, personally, it was this change in the lives of women over a relatively short period of time that was as much, if not more interesting than the literary history unraveling through the extracts chosen by Shaheen Akhtar and Moushumi Bhowmik, the two editors from the two sides of the West Bengal-Bangladesh border.
Bengali Muslim writers, all of whom happen to be women, writing in the early decades of the 20th century, negotiating with modernity and nationalism, speaking of radical feminist concerns often from behind the veil, making a call for freedom and equal opportunities having pulled themselves out of the mire of disadvantage, exhorting their sisters to wake up from long centuries of sleep, the writers included here do all this and more with guts and gumption. Writing in dobhashi Bengali, with its liberal sprinkling of Arabic and Persian, they reveal how linguistic, cultural and religious differences can mutate to produce hybrid writings that meet the needs of a cross-fertilized society.
First published in Saugat or Nabanoor, journals that promoted Muslim writers in
Bengal, they had a secular nationalistic agenda. The women writers included here traversed a rough terrain, crisscrossed as it was by the sometimes conciliatory sometimes provocative discourses that ebbed and flowed all around them. Were they to listen to the call of Pan-Islamism that popular poets like Kazi Nazrul Islam voiced in paeans to Kemal Ataturk? Or were they to heed the growing Muslim Bengali intelligentsia who wrote vigorously in support of the nation-building process that was already underway across the breadth of undivided ? Were they to write only of and for a sisterhood of women and Bengali Muslim ones at that? Or were they to espouse concerns outside the home or the village? India
The editors of this anthology have showcased writers who listened to the many voices but interpreted them in their own unique way. The canonical writing of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein showed the way for many of these women. Born in a zamindar’s family, denied any formal education, married to a widower in
Bihar at the age of 16, she taught herself Bengali, English as well as Persian, Arabic and Urdu. She wrote prolifically and passionately, hitting out at society as well as religious beliefs that kept women enslaved. An early feminist, she wrote a collection of essays entitled Motichur where she speaks out not only against ornaments, fripperies and other female vanities but also against those men who profess love: ‘They [men] imprison us in the cages of their hearts, depriving us of the ray of knowledge and pure air, thereby pushing us towards a slow death.’
Seclusion, in some form or the other, forms a sub-text for the entire collection. Begum Rokeya herself observed purdah and wrote passionately in defence of her choice to wear the burqa, a garment decreed ‘reprehensible’ by her more liberated sisters. Abul Fazl, a writer and critic, reviewing the pathos-laden inner world of Akhtar Mahal Syeda Khatun (1901-28) notes:
‘There are many difficulties in the way of writing Muslim fiction. The main among these is the custom of seclusion. While it exists, it is doubtful whether any major creative work in fiction by Muslim authors is possible. The lives of men and women is (sic) the foundation of literature – there is no way for Muslim writers of either sex to find out about each others’ lives. Their vision bounces off from the high walls surrounding them.’
But these high walls began to crumble when education, especially secular education in Bengali, began to make inroads into women’s lives. Mahmuda Khatun Siddiqua (1906-1977), defied both purdah and child marriage, wore her hair short, worked for the swadeshi movement and urged women to look outwards. In an essay entitled “A Women’s Responsibility Towards the Village Community’ she uses a quote from the Holy Quran to bolster her argument: “If you want to satisfy me, then satisfy the poor and deprived people.’
In the end, there is Sufia Kamal who played Boswell to Begum Rokeya’s Johnson but also charted out a new trajectory for young Muslim Bengali women, one that would take them on the path of nationalism. She wrote powerful poetry in support of Bangla during the Language Movement of 1952, protested when the
East Bengal government banned celebrations of Tagore’s birth centenary and worked untiringly for the women’s movement. Her inclusion in Women in Concert is valuable for it brings an altogether new and wonderful meaning to a zenana mehfil.
Women in Concert: An Anthology of Bengali Muslim Women’s Writings (1904-1938), edited by Shaheen Akhtar and Moushumi Bhowmik, Translated by STREE, Foreword by Firdous Azim, STREE, 2008, pp 395, Rs 600
(Rakhshanda Jalil writes on issues of literature, culture and community. She has recently co-authored Journey to a Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Diary, OUP, 2009)