Feminist South Asian literature through the ages

Painting From The 1700's In The Bundi Palace In Rajasthan, India
5 min read
16 September, 2021
South Asian norms have for far too long maintained women's roles as passive, unquestioning and subservient to her husband, but feminist movements in the region have begun to challenge those ideals with literature also heavily impacting the movements.

In 1941, famed Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai wrote Lihaaf (The Quilt), a short story that explored the possibility of a relationship between two women and the world of Urdu literature exploded. Chughtai was tried for obscenity and the popularity – and unpopularity – that Lihaaf managed to gain obscured many of her other brilliant works.

Her uncensored look at much of society’s hidden flaws and taboos often earned her and her work the title of being revolutionary, and seven decades later, she’s still considered just as revolutionary as she was back then?

But if the position of her work hasn’t changed in our society, does that mean that our social values and norms are the same as they were 70 years ago, and are we to assume that no progress has been made since then? 

The truth is, where South Asian societies have often had a history of silencing women in public spaces – literature does the exact opposite by becoming a mouthpiece for feminist activists in the region

Talking about Chughtai’s writings around female sexuality in a society where that topic is extremely taboo, literature student and reader Shazeen applauds the writer for creating work that even today, leaves a mark. “Issues like rape, sexual harassment and paedophilia are rampant in Pakistan. Feminist literature is so important since patriarchy runs so deep in our society. Authors like Ismat Chughtai play an important role in influencing people’s perspective,” she says. 

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The truth is, where South Asian societies have often had a history of silencing women in public spaces – literature does the exact opposite by becoming a mouthpiece for feminist activists in the region.

"The reason a lot of societies ban books, and burn books is they are afraid of the conversations these books can start. But the beauty of books is that they allow you to have a conversation with yourself, and question your own thoughts and beliefs,” says Soniah Kamal, author of Unmarriageable.

Kamal’s own novel is a consciously parallel retelling of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and an attempt to reclaim and reinvent literature in a truly Pakistani way. The author shares that for her, Unmarriageable was a way of pushing back against the colonialism that was enforced upon us through our education, and mainstream English literature, but for many readers it has become so much more than that. It was also a chance to critique the way in which the institution of marriage is used to make women act a certain way through the obvious comedic absurdities her characters indulge in.

"Feminist dystopia might be a way of pointing the imbalance in our society regarding gender equity"

Kamal also pointed out that South Asian feminism has been defined by waves across the decades, and perhaps in some ways it can be linked to the ways in which the arts have taken it upon themselves to open doors to those discussions.

“I don’t set out to put social commentary in fiction,” says writer Bina Shah, “but it inevitably creeps in, because you're writing about society and characters and plots within that society.” Shah is the author of Before She Sleeps, a dystopian novel set in South Asia that explores the impact of a post-nuclear war world on women’s lives, politically, physically and socially.

Before She Sleeps was inspired by my observations of life for women in the Middle East and South Asia: restrictive, stifling, heavily prescribed by cultural and religious traditions,” she says, adding that she chose this particular format as “Feminist dystopia might be a way of pointing the imbalance in our society regarding gender equity.” 

Her observations around dystopia were relevant as early as the 1900s when Bengali writer Rokheya Sakhawat wrote Sultana’s Dream, a feminist utopian short story in 1905. But despite Sakhawat’s cutting-edge exploration of Indian society, the last few decades have seen sci-fi develop as a very Westernised genre, and the reclamation of that by writers like Shah proves the shifting tides in South Asian feminist writers reminding audiences that their narrative cannot be so easily co-opted.

By turning entire patriarchal structures on their heads, these interpretations of South Asian societies allow women to explore a world where the idea of a ‘good desi woman’ no longer exists, and makes them question not only the expectations they have long considered normal but also what their lives might be if these pressures no longer existed.

If writers like Shah and Kamal are making one thing clear, it’s that even though it may seem like they are talking about the same thing as the writers that preceded them in South Asian literature, they are far more unapologetic about it, and far louder in their demands for change.

By turning entire patriarchal structures on their heads, these interpretations of South Asian societies allow women to explore a world where the idea of a ‘good desi woman’ no longer exists

Much like the way South Asian literature has been on a journey that has allowed it to slowly reclaim more and more space, it slowly seems feminist movements in the region are following suit – whether it be the fighting spirit of the Aurat March or the demands of women farmer’s during the protests in India who knew without a doubt that they deserved to be heard.

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Kamal isn’t the first person to use a novel to call out social norms around marriage, and Khadija Mastur’s 1962 novel Aangan (Courtyard) explores similar themes albeit at a very different time.

Aangan follows Alia and her internal struggles living in a pre-partition household where she questions the very foundations of a woman’s role within the household. Alia chooses to reject the notion of marriage entirely, even though she may possibly have had a chance to explore romantic feelings, simply because she wants to shed all connection to how a woman is expected to be. Yet as much as Alia is a heroine of her time – quiet, introspective and unable to share her revolutionary thoughts, Unmarriageable’s Alys is a true 21st century heroine in all her fiery, questioning, loud glory.

South Asia’s feminist journey is perhaps just that – the journey from Alia to Alys, and all the 'not so good desi women' who have shaped it in between. 

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, Guardian amongst others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine 

Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22