Posted by Soumya Johri
Ania Loomba in her recent work Revolutionary Desires raised a significant point regarding the absence/silence on the role of women within the communist movement. The work on the CPI in the nationalist movement itself is meagre. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the life and work of Hajrah Begum, a prominent independent Muslim woman who worked both during the nationalist movement and later in spear-heading the cause of communism, have met very meagre or no scholarly interest across the worlds of academia. This may be because, as Mahua Sarkar stated in her work Visible Histories Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal, work on women is absent when they do not fit in the established ‘recognizable’ categories i.e. ‘liberal, modern or feminist’.
Hajrah Begum was born in a progressive Sunni Muslim Pathan Family, and became one of the most active members, after her brother, to take interest in politics. She was drawn to Communism and was inspired by the work of Sajjad Zaheer in Britain. She was associated with All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA), and All India Women’s conference (AIWC). She fought for the cause of railway workers and was the founder Secretary of Allahabad Railway Coolies Union. She went underground to avoid detentions twice and travelled across the continents to attend World Peace Council, Vienna (1952) and Women’s International Democratic Federation, Copenhagen (1953), World Congress of Mothers, Afro-Asian Women’s conference, Cairo 1961. This account is based on her oral history interview undertaken by Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML).
Many of us remember her more popular sister Zohra Sehgal, whose work on theater and silver screen is much lauded for its remarkable content. She was raised in a Pathan Family, with their great ancestor Rohilla Chief Hafiz Khan having a history of both cordial and disruptive relations with the British. In her formative years, she underwent education in a Purdah School along with her sisters and later went on to attend Queen Mary’s School at Lahore. The atmosphere of nationalism with the non-cooperation movement and the call to restore the Caliphate affected her deeply. She refrains from letting herself be categorised within the binary of Communist vs. Nationalist by the interviewer, rather she says it was all in one at the same time– a mixture of sorts. It reflects the birth of multiple ideologies at the same time. The Islamic call to restore the Caliph, the communist teachings, and the nationalist zeal to fight the British all had an impact on her young formative mind. The streamlining of ideologies into communist v/s nationalist and vice-versa happened at a much later stage and in a different context as can be seen in her later speech “Why women should vote the Communist”.
Marriage And Marxism
Hajrah Begum’s first marriage ended early, which was a topic of interest for the interviewer in her oral history account. She had to explain her ‘progressive’ ways and ‘independent thinking’ by explaining as a matter of fact that there was no connection between her husband and her. It had been hard for her husband too. She would ponder, “Why should I bother to leave him? Why should I want to leave him? What was it? But it was both political and personal. The fact is that I was not happy with him. If I had been happy with him, politics or no politics, I would have stayed on.” (OHP,NMML)
After her marriage broke off, she continued her studies in London, England where she came in contact with the Marxist circles of Sajjad Zaheer. Being a woman, her entry was looked down upon. There was mutual distrust about believing in women’s capability in carrying out secret operations. But she was able to confront this with the support of Sajjad Zaheer who like the communist leaders of the time was now thinking along lines of utilising women’s labour for illegal secret work back home.
She deliberated on the COIMNTERN meetings that happened in the inter-war period to decide on the route to be taken by the communist party in order to fight against the fascist powers. She even attended a meeting at Soviet Union with her group’s international friends. She said it helped her a lot in honing her skills and knowledge about Marxism which bore fruits when she talked about it at home. It was a turning point in her life, driving her close to her career as a politician. Her visit to Soviet Union was an eye opener. She learned that in reality it wasn’t a paradise as Soviet claimed it to be. Even though people were filled with the promise of greater and more egalitarian future, they lacked basic necessities like shoes and houses.
Quest for Women’s own organisation
After joining AIWC, Hajrah Begum realised its pit-falls as an elitist organisation being run by the rich and upper-caste women. She worked for a separate mass organisation for women. She believed that there were certain issues that united women of all classes and economic background.
“…there are certain things which are common to all women, against which they will revolt, against which they will fight. For e.g. the very fact they do not have right to property.”, asserted Hajrah Begum in her interview with Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
Further, she introspected on the lack of success of women’s movement in India. She believed that the segregated lives that women have been living for centuries deeply impacted their own confidence. Even in their political lives, they lived segregated lives within the party. They had certain tasks designated as women’s work which they were expected to perform and were distinct from that of men’s domain. Women were expected to rely on men for all their financial issues and listen to their meetings even within the party organisation and then communicate to their own sex. She felt that this segregation has been a catalyst in making men never feel responsible for women’s movement and their empowerment. This had affected in turning even the few positions women are given inside party organisation.
She believed that women’s subjugated roles in their families and limited roles in the public sphere acted as a barrier in understanding the true meaning of the slogan ‘equal rights for women’. It is remarkable that Hajrah Begum emphasised on the perpetual inequality of women’s everyday existence. This was also transmitted in the politics around women. There were no woman leaders among the women workers or the kisaan women and as a result the leadership roles were confined to middle class women who were petty bourgiosie. She disliked this segregation of men and women and of different sections within women as a category.
Work, Life Underground, and Incarceration
Hajrah Begum had worked among the Julahas in Azamgarh, Kisaan workers around Allahabad, Rae Bareli, then in mid 1940s she worked amongst the teachers in cities. The women in the villages who helped in hiding her comrades were even ready to take the bullets. In Kanpur, she worked amongst the tannery workers and textile workers. She was frustrated with the inability of the party ideology to seep through the remotest areas and also with women being unable to come out of their own groups and work for the larger cause of other affected sections of women.
She later married to Z. A. Ahmed by her choice and their marriage was performed by M. Ashraf in the Party way. During the period from 1948-51, she went underground to escape detention. For a woman to live life hidden in mohallas and villages as most of them were housewives was easier because they were aware of how to conduct themselves within the house. However it was also difficult as women were always expected to be ‘accompanied’ by a ‘guardian’ so as to facilitate their movement during the hiding period. She learnt a lot from her fellow comrades who were housewives.
1. Visible histories, disappearing women: producing Muslim womanhood in late colonial Bengal by M. Sarkar
2. Revolutionary Desires: Women, Communism, and Feminism in India by A. Loomba
3. Oral History Project (OHP) by Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML)
4. Why women Should Vote Communist by Hajrah Begum