Ismat Chughtai, the badass feminist writer from India

Ismat Chughtai

She was amongst one of the most accomplished and progressive Urdu fiction writers of the 20th century, whose writings were bold, fierce and stunningly evocative. The week of her 104th birthday, allow me to acquaint you with the Urdu writer you’d be a fool not to explore. Chughtai was one of those first few writers who challenged the exploitative patriarchal structures by writing about certain ‘forbidden’ topics that people chose to sweep under carpets topics that were precisely the ‘question of silence.’ What a fierce feminist she was!

Her story Badan Ki Khushboo is the tale of sexual exploitation in Nawabi families whereas Til revolves around female sexuality and sexual needs of women. Her stories like Chauthi Ka Jora give a peek into a culture that promotes mismatched unions and treat women as objects. Her works are enjoyable because they make space for the expression of wry humor. She shuns the gendered spaces of the society, where women are identified as wives and mothers throughout their lives.

Chughtai wrote in an era when female authors writing about women and for the cause of women was seen as something that transgressed the boundaries of morality and respectability. She was unafraid and a non-conformist, and developed the markings of feminism through her iconoclastic writings for Urdu literature. She was appalled by the set patterns of society and chose to rebel and question not just male privilege but heterosexual privilege too. She also questioned the male-dominated and male-monopolized interpretations of religion which promotes control of women’s sexuality.

Her message to writers was clear in her book Yahan Se Wahan Tak:

“… And now it’s important that we develop self-confidence. And only progressive literature can produce self-confidence. It will be disappointing if our writers don’t use their pen for the betterment of the common people, because if writers, journalists and thinkers turn away from present-day circumstances and write merely for personal gain, their work will lack vigour and anything that is lifeless is not meaningful.”

When her short story Lihaaf (The Quilt) was published in 1942, it was controversial. The narrative not only talks about women’s sexual desires and sets a foreground for it, but also makes a deliberate and conscious effort to talk about alternative sexuality. This was Chughtai’s way of giving voice to the repressed female sexuality that was submitted to the oppressive ways of men. It was quite ironic that the attitude of the male-dominated society that she scoffed at, also became the reason for her to be summoned by the court on charges of ‘obscenity’ in her short story. Her reply to charges of ‘obscenity’ is feminist gold:

“In my stories I’ve put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It’s my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life. These people think that there is nothing wrong if they can do things behind the curtains… All of them are halfwits. I wrote about a woman’s loneliness who had all the worldly comforts but who was deprived of her husband’s company. I want to portray her tension and desperation.”

A woman is not born but made by the constant losses she acquires in the social, economic and political world, and Chughtai clearly brings this psyche through her writings. Her life was a commitment to truth and passion, and she stood against all odds to defy the stereotypes and prejudices of society against women.

By Kasmin Fernandes

This piece was earlier published in The CSR Journal

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