Women's-Day blog

Women writers of Urdu: Have we done justice to them?

Every woman’s day, Literati gather and pay tribute to the women of literature. Women’s “immeasurable” contribution is discussed. It is expressed how indebted this literary domain is to women’s assistance. As the day passes, people return to their standard perception of women being lousy creators. The situation is even worse if we discuss the case in the context of Urdu. But why?

When we look at the canon of Urdu literature, it doesn’t take much time to realise women are abnormally absent from the picture. If we speak of the classical age, The important Tazkiras like Khush-Marka-e-Zeba or Majmua-e-Naghz rarely mention a female. A few Tazkiras like Tazkiratul-Khawateen and Tazkira-e-Niswan-e-Hind by Faseehuddin exclusively describe the life and works of women poets. Still, their exclusivity or segregation became part of the problem instead of helping it.

Mah Laqa Bai Chanda is now unanimously agreed to be the first woman who compiled a complete Deewan credited to her. She was born in 1768 and hailed from Hyderabad, Deccan. She is known to be stunningly attractive and led a life of celibacy. Her poetry is splendid and matches the classical flavour in accord with the tradition of the times. Here are a few couplets by her:

gul ke hone kī tavaqqo.a pe jiye baiThī hai
har kalī jaan ko muTThī meñ liye baiThī hai

un ko āñkheñ dikhā de Tuk saaqī
chāhte haiñ jo baar baar sharāb

dil ho gayā hai ġham se tire dāġhdār ḳhuub
phūlā hai kyā hī josh se ye lāla-zār ḳhuub

Even though Mah Laqa’s case is reassuring, it doesn’t take much intelligence to conclude that many others couldn’t just get their works published as women weren’t supposed to write. Noble arts were supposed to be men’s forte.

Publishing was the front where most women lost. Even after getting published, many fetched the same fate as the ones that didn’t. Many women are known to write under mannish titles so their work can reach the general audience. The reason doesn’t need to be stated. Meer Taqi Meer’s daughter Begum Lakhnavi is known to have compiled an entire Deewan of her Ghazals but is nowhere to be found. Only one of her Ghazals survives, and I am quoting a few couplets from it here to demonstrate the eloquence and craftsmanship of her poetry.

barsoñ ġham-e-gesū meñ giraftār to rakkhā
ab kahte ho kyā tum ne mujhe maar to rakkhā

kuchh be-adabī aur shab-e-vasl nahīñ kī
haañ yaar ke ruḳhsār pe ruḳhsār to rakkhā

In the modern age, publishing isn’t difficult, but the overall reception of women’s work has remained the same. The prejudice that women can’t be gifted writers still carries on.

Suppose a women’s work is finally accepted to be a significant contribution to the literary tradition and can’t be dismissed on critical grounds. In that case, people question her integrity as a writer illegitimately. The focus shifts from the academic merit of her compositions to who wrote the works she claims to be hers. I haven’t ever heard someone say, ‘this gentleman’ gets his compositions written by his mentor. But in the case of women, It is a common phrase. To just state one, I’ve heard people accusing Parveen Shakir of getting the Ghazals accredited to her, composed by Sarwat Husain on multiple accounts. A brief reading of their works is enough to reveal the striking difference between their poetic temperament and style, but the indictment goes on.

Women, as a subject of Men’s poetry, are to worry about too. I recently heard a couplet along the lines of, ‘Your husband belongs to the upper caste. Will he be able to consume my refuse’? Such couplets are problematic in every way. Women are human beings, not leftovers of their male counterparts’ feasts. It feels sickening to demand to be treated as humans, but it’s the real struggle. When men don’t write about women soaked in misogyny, They often make them the subject of pity. How difficult is it to treat half of the human population like mere humans, neither better nor worst?

I would simply like to restate what Vera Nazarian has to say:

A woman is human.
She is not better, wiser, stronger, more intelligent, more creative, or more responsible than a man.
Likewise, she is never less.
Equality is given.
A woman is human.

If we want to do justice to women writers of Urdu and avoid treating the upcoming ones as we did, A simple humanitarian approach is enough. Women don’t need their literature to be studied in segregation. They don’t need different platforms. They just need a chance to be treated with dignity like any human should be. Specialised studies of women’s writing and secluded poetry symposiums are not the solutions.

The idea that women are different, better or worse, is the root of misogyny and prejudice against women.

The day this idea of differentness vanishes will be the day we’ll be able to do justice to women and their writings.

bint-e-havvā huuñ maiñ ye mirā jurm hai
aur phir shā.erī to kaḌā jurm hai

Sarvat Zehra