This essay is part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements. One Indian woman is profiled each day for the whole of March 2017.
Educated in Lucknow and New Delhi, Rashid Jahan was the first woman to write about the plight of the women with courage and forthrightness. She is an iconoclastic writer, associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement, who dared to challenge oppressive societal structures. She goes by many names, like – the spark that lit the fire, the rebel with a cause, radical and controversial Urdu feminist of 20th century, and the bad girl of Urdu literature.
Jahan was born in 1905 in Aligarh, to Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Begum Wahid Jahan. Her father, who established the Women’s College in Aligarh Muslim University, was the leading pioneer of women’s education in India. She was trained as a gynaecologist but is better known for her transparent, raw, ideologically oriented works of fiction she produced after becoming one of the founding members of the Progressive Writers’ Association. Ismat Chughtai’s work was highly inspired by Rashid Jahan – the only member from the left-wing oriented progressive writers’ movement.
“She spoilt me because she was very bold and used to speak all sorts of things openly and loudly, and I just wanted to copy her,” Chughtai would later write.
Jahan had so many sides to her personality – she was a doctor, a writer who was gravely engrossed in the issues of her times, an avowed communist, and a pioneering activist invested in social change. She was a woman ahead of her times in every respect; and continues to be a source of inspiration for women. Jahan was the personification of the nascent feminism which had begun to take roots in South Asian soil.
Rashid Jahan was one of the foremost feminists of the 20th century – carving out a space for women to talk about issues that deeply shaped their life like religion, science, their bodies and sexuality, and modernity. All this created a new or alternative discourse about the women’s issues at the onset of modernity. She inherited this legacy from her father who was invested in several movements on reform and education. Her father founded a widely circulated Urdu journal by the name Khatun (Woman) in which her mother was a consistent contributor. With the influence of both her parents, it was evident that her leanings towards writing about the social and political situation were deeply rooted in her upbringing and the influence of the left ideology which furthered her on this path.
Jahan was one of the quartet that published a compendium of short stories called Angarey, published in 1932, which was followed by the storm of controversies making Rashid Jahan known as Angarewali in the vernacular space. She officially joined the Communist Party in 1933. She simultaneously became a symbol of emancipated women in progressive families and that of a brat, a bad girl in others.
Rashid Jahan’s bold writings were not to create scandal but to incite people to think and reflect about the times they were living in. She worked towards reforms necessary in domestic and social life. She boldly attacked the social set-up, patriarchy and Muslim culture through her writings; bringing in deeper questions of body, sexuality, public spaces, and women.
One of her most acclaimed short stories is “Dilli Ki Sair” (A Visit To Delhi) – an exceptional yet simple account of how women cannot occupy public spaces, and how the male gaze penetrates even through the confines of the burqa. The story questions male privilege in a simple and clear narration. Here is an excerpt which is emblematic of her direct style of tackling such sensitive issues
“Well, we sat in the train from here and reached Delhi. There ‘he’ met some wretched station master acquaintance of his. Leaving me near the luggage, ‘he’ vanished. And I, perched on the luggage, wrapped in a burqa, there I sat. First this damned burqa, then these cursed men. Men are anyway no good but when they see a woman sitting like this they just circle around her. There is no opportunity even to chew paan. One damn fellow coughs, another hurls a remark. And I… breathless with fear. And so hungry… that only God knows. And the Delhi station! Bua, even the Fort would not be as huge. Wherever one looked, one saw nothing but the station, the railway lines, engines, and goods trains. And what scared me the most were those blackened men who live in the engines!”
Angare (Burning Coals), released in 1932 was a compilation of groundbreaking short stories and Jahan’s best-remembered work. Rashid Jahan, along with Sajjad Zaheer, who edited it, Ahmed Ali, and Mahammudu Jafar were the young authors of Angare – an anthology of ten short stories which turned controversial. These writers who belonged to the upper strata of the Muslim community paved a way for a new literary space.
Rashid Jahan’s work is embedded in feminist concerns of the turbulent times she was witness to, in which the thrust towards radical social justice was gathering more importance than ever. Her motivation to write was a social one, one that ached to bring forth the issues faced by Muslim women into everyday discourse; and to influence the readers to reflect and question the society and begin to transform it in ways they can. She used literature as an instrument of social reform. She wrote extensively for magazines and literary journals which are unfortunately lost to today’s reader. But what remains of her short stories and plays is a rich account of oppression in the society, one that I would argue continues to ring true even today.
Her other well-known contribution to Angare was Parde Ke Peeche (Behind the Veil). In it, the wife’s illness and her husband’s indifference to it weaves together a narrative condemning patriarchal society and its seclusion of women, and its oppression through the domesticity of the woman. Her work is quite reflective of the gender relations present in the times she lived in. It is a sociological analysis of the spaces women occupy like the zenana (women’s quarters) and the skewed gender roles they reflect, with the materiality of the veil being the first barrier to inclusive spaces. She wrote about issues that were hitherto untouched by male or female writers and hence it becomes extremely important to look at the thin yet brilliant corpus she leaves behind.
Being a doctor, Jahan was highly concerned with women’s health, their relationship to their bodies, and how they are not really taken care of in the society that constantly sees women as caregivers and nurturers. Her work is often claimed to be a bit rough and unfinished but one has to remember that she wrote not to achieve literary finesse but to create a space to talk about the issues she thought mattered.
Her work and life can be said to personify the following Toni Morrison quote “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” She wrote about things she thought weren’t being written about and needed ample attention.
Though the corpus of her work is slender and her life brief, she left a mark through her literary output which was illustrative of the world enclosed and oppressive, of the Muslim women in her times; which still continues to ring true in contemporary times. This so-called ‘Bad Girl’ of Urdu Literature made an exceptional contribution towards building the South Asian women’s movement and towards modern literature.
Bano, Shadab. “Rashid Jahan’s Writings Resistance and Challenging Boundaries, Angaare and Onwards.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 19.1 (2012): 57-71.
Jalil, Rakhshanda. A rebel and her cause: the life and work of Rashid Jahan. Oxford University Press, 2015.