I was reading a short story by one of the most controversial Urdu writers, Saadat Hasan Manto, written during the partition era about women being raped during the same. Women often committed suicide or were killed by their family in order to avoid rape. The violence against women during Partition is something which other authors like Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books have written about but much later on. Manto however, was much ahead of his times in analysing society and writing about the hypocrisy existing within it. 

In one of his non-fictional short stories, Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat), set in the time where there is an ongoing battle between the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, a man rapes a woman out of hatred for the other community. He later finds out that he raped a corpse. After coming home to his wife, he is not sexually aroused by her when she tries to seduce him. He keeps thinking about the woman he raped. The wife is enraged and kills her husband. 

In Thanda Gosht, Kalwant, Eeshwar’s wife is seen as the woman who uses her agency to avenge. She is not portrayed as helpless and cowardly. The rage in Kalwant’s reaction shows her power to challenge the husband. Instead of being submissive and subservient she uses her power to punish him for his infidelity. The story also shows how women were seen as an object and their honour is an extension of the honour of men. Rape therefore was used as a tool to rid the rival community of their honour.

In another short story Khol Do (Open It), a girl who is abducted from East Punjab (now in Pakistan), is finally discovered by her father in a hospital. She lies there raped by her abductors as well as rescuers, wronged by men of every community. His depiction of the violence against women was an actual representation of society at that time as rapes were committed in silence, hushed up from the mainstream society. Women at that time, felt suicide was an easier prevention to rape. The idea of honour which can be seen as a reflection to society is prevalent in this story as well. 

Manto was labelled as being crude and vulgar since his stories addressed topics that were often considered taboo. He openly talked about women’s sexuality and didn’t shy away from using terms like ‘breasts‘ which was considered to be quite bold in those times, that too by a man. Rather than treating women as sexless objects or having repressed their sexualities, Manto is known to have portrayed women as he saw men without creating distinctions in their morality or making judgements about them despite their roles.

Manto’s characters became famous because of the humanitarian features that were embedded within them. The women in Manto’s writings had diverse personalities and held their own individualistic grounds. He was arrested for depicting ‘obscenity‘ in his stories. A common theme used by him was to call out acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’.

Mozail, is another story about a Jewish woman who risks her life to save others. She can be perceived as a heroic character of sorts. It portrays how a woman is valued in society in accordance to her appearance. A Sardarji falls in love with her but she declines him. Later, when the Sardarji’s fiancee is in fear of attack by religious rioters, Mozail becomes the saviour and gives the fiancee her robe, so as to help her escape. Mozail then, completely naked, confronts the Muslim rioters, who seem to be distracted by her. One of the rioters offers her his sheet to which she replies ‘Take away this rag of your religion – I don’t need it.’

Mozail is a free-spirited woman who has control over her life. She puts aside her religious leanings to save lives of two individuals of a different faith. She is intelligent, courageous, independent and far-sighted – unlike several men that surround her.

In the story Hattak (Insult) which depicts a sex worker Saughandi, who is repudiated by a seth following which she is infuriated and intends to free herself from exploitation. She kicks another man out (who claims to be in love with her but is after her money), she refuses to be further victimised by the way men treat her and resorts to the company of her faithful dog instead. She is presented as a woman who is conscious of her own rights and takes a stand for herself.

Saugandhi’s character was far more powerful than that of many righteous wives portrayed in his stories. Manto’s portrayal of Saughandi was what earned him criticism from conservatives. Standing up against exploitation in the workplace is quite uncommon even in contemporary times due to the repercussions that may follow for women but Manto’s characters were doing this much earlier than us, by fighting the harassment and even the economic exploitation they were facing. 

In The Price of Freedom, Manto talks about women who took part in the revolutionary fervour against the British, post the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. This included a boycott of imported cloth, women throwing their imported silk saris from their balconies into bonfires and getting cheered on for it. The very fact that his fictional pieces depict women in roles where they participated in revolts against the British, presents a counter narrative to the deletion of women from the partition narratives. It also deconstructs the absence of many forgotten women like Begum Hazrat Mehel or Uda Devi from history books.

Most of Manto’s attempts to humanise his female characters and present them in diverse roles portraying their agency, rage, independence and empathy reflects his interest in details and the finesse in his writing. Manto’s ground-breaking work and his interest in tabooed topics, portraying women’s power and agency classifies it as feminist literature, which has left it’s mark on both India and Pakistan.

Also read in Hindi: मंटो की वो अश्लील औरतें

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