Rekhti: The Feminist Movement in Urdu Literature Initiated by Men

In Urdu literature, the theme of love, separation, praising the beloved and living in agony found more recognition than the rest. But this does not denounce the reality that the horizons of Urdu literature have always been progressive enough to accommodate ideas of atheism, anti-patriarchy, Feminism, sexuality and various other themes considered salacious.

Back in the 19th century, when Feminism had not even sprouted in the Indian subcontinent as a social movement, Urdu literature witnessed a wave of female-centric poetry. Rekhti, the feminine parallel of Rekhta (an old name used for the Urdu Ghazal), emerged as a genre dedicated entirely to discussing everything concerning women. The more surprising aspect of Rekhti is that male poets introduced it into Urdu literature.

Saadat Yaar Khan, an Urdu poet and writer of the 18th and early 19th centuries, is accredited to be the founder of the Rekhti genre. He used the pseudonym’ Rangin’ and was the first Urdu poet to introduce the concept of a female voice in Urdu poetry. He not only used the female voice but also ensured that this voice was used entirely to talk about the lives, sexuality and interests of women. Other poets who wrote Rekhti were Insha Allah Khan Insha, Meer Yaar Ali Jaan and Mohsin Khan Mohsin.

Rekhti is what one may describe as a genuinely intersectional, inclusive and expressive form of poetry. From discussing themes like female sexuality to homosexuality amongst women to writing about mundane everyday chores, Rekhti did it. For the writers of Rekhti, there was no social or moral superiority between the urban and royal courtesans of Lucknow and the regular homemakers and servants of Delhi. As a genre, it was dedicated to women; and talked about all women.

This couplet by Sadat Yaar Khan Rangin, which uses the word do-gana (female lover), is an example of how sexual undertones were placed in regular-sounding Ash’aar:

tis pedu mein uthi ohii meri jaan gayi
mat sata mujhko do-gaana tere qurban gayi

My pelvis aches, Oh my life is going
Don’t harass me, du-gaana, I beg of you

A portrayal of the discussion around mundane everyday concerns of women being used in Rekhti can be found in Nisbat’s couplet:

jaani kya khoob ye teri baali hai nayi
uske sadqe ye tarh jisne nikali nayi

Darling, how beautifully made is your new earring
May I be sacrificed on whoever invented this new design

Here, the poet talks about something as uneventful as a new earring. But since it does concern a woman, this new earring finds a place in Rekhti.

An observational look at Rekhti poetry makes the reader realise that Rekhti is bold in its intent yet subtle in its approach. Persian and Arabic words denoting a female romantic partner like ‘dugana’, ‘yagana’, ‘zanakhi’, ‘begana’, ‘shakhi’, ‘ilaichi’, ‘wari’, and ‘pyari’etc. have extensively been used in Rekhti poetry. This is another differentiating factor between Rekhti and Rekhta, where Rekhti openly asserts a gender to the lover (often female and seldom male), and Rekhta primarily uses gender-neutral terms. Rekhti is also different from the traditional Urdu ghazals in literary aspects like metre, poetic norms and styles. Generally, rules established for ghazals were not adhered to in Rekhti. One may label it a conscious effort to portray rebellion or consider it an overlook in the bigger picture. But whatever the reason, Rekhti was proficient enough to infringe on the existing social boundaries and literary standards in Urdu-speaking societies.

Although majorly dominated by men, this feminine genre of Urdu literature did have female participation. Albeit the number of female poets who wrote Rekhti were merely a handful, yet, their contribution cannot and should not be overlooked. One of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s wives, who used Rashk-i-Mahal, wrote Rekhti. Some of her works are amongst the minimal Rekhti material written by women to be preserved to date. Here are two couplets written by her:

hai manzoor baji sataana tumhaara
gila karti hai jo du-gana tumhaara

Sister, I accept your harassment.
It is your du-gāna who complains

ghar sih-gaana ke du-gaana meri mehman gayi
main yah angaaron pe lot i ki meri jaan gayi

My du-gāna went as a guest to the sih-gāna’s house
I rolled on burning coals, and my life left me

The bold mention of a female lover, accompanied by a bold tone, is paired with an understated tone of passion and sensuality. This is evidence of the nature of Rekhti being partly iconoclastic and partly considerate (of women’s feelings).

If one looks up at the audience who consumed Rekhti as a form of literature and art, they will be equally surprised and disappointed to learn that most of this audience was men. Since northern India’s elite and socially respectable women were too poised, Rekhti was practically barred from reaching them. Male poets who wrote Rekhti would cross-dress as women and present their poetry in gatherings of men. For its bold and unapologetic voice and tone, Rekhti received massive criticism and was pushed to extinction. Sajid Sajni (1922-1993) was the last known Rekhti poet. Works of female Rekhti poets were purposely destroyed in order to preserve what was considered the dignity and honour of the language.

Another accusation on Rekhti is that it was a genre created by men, for men. Since women were not permitted to explore this literature, many concluded that male poets used it to seduce courtesans and Tawaifs or express their homosexual desires towards the gentlemen who visited these courts. But despite these allegations, the fact that Rekhti was a genre about women and talking to women cannot be ignored. Its inaccessibility to women was not the fault of the genre but instead of the society which restricted its reach. Today, Rekhti is a historical part of Urdu literature, and even though the themes used in Rekhti have been revived in Urdu literature by male and female poets and writers, yet, Rekhti still maintains its place as the first female-centric and female-oriented form of Urdu poetry.


The term ‘Rekhta’ was commonly used to refer to both the Urdu language and the Urdu Ghazal. Here are a few instances where “Rekhta” refers explicitly to Ghazal poetry in Urdu:

tarz-e-be-dil mein rekhta kehna
asadullah khaan qayamat hai
-Mirza Ghalib

yaar ke aage padhaa ye rekhta jaa kar ‘naziir’
sun ke bolaa vaah-vaah achchhaa kahaa achchhaa kahaa
-Nazeer Akbarabadi

Though Rangin is often credited with the invention of Rekhti, instances of male poets writing in a feminine tone are seen in the works of early Deccan poets. Notably, Sayyad Meeran Miyan Khan Beejapuri composed a considerable amount of couplets that could be classified as Rekhti. The couplets appear to be in the Indic mode and hold similarities to the verses composed under the influence of the Bhakti Movement. Here is a prevalent couplet by him:

sajan aaven to parde se nikal kar bhaar baithungi
bahana kar ke motiyan ka pirone haar baithungi