The Reluctant Feminists

How does one recognise a feminist? Is it by how aggressively she demands equal rights? Is it by challenging traditional roles ascribed to a woman and restructuring her personal space? Or is it someone who wears her feminism on her sleeve all the time? I guess I never seriously thought about feminism while I was growing up, maybe because I never had to. Having spent my life in Lahore with two feminists who were different from each other in their approach to feminism yet similar in their perception of tradition, contesting for their space as matriarchs in a highly male oriented society, feminism was always in my bloodstream. This is a reference to a life spent with my mother, the Urdu novelist and short story writer Jamila Hashmi and her good friend and poetess Kishwar Naheed. It’s through these two women in particular, and a few more, I learnt that feminism couldn’t be drawn in a straight line. It is better defined through its inner contradictions and along a winding trajectory that life itself is.

[quote]I never seriously thought about feminism while I was growing up[/quote]

For their friends and circle of intellectuals the two women were diametrically opposite. And different they were indeed. My narrative weaves together their differences and inner contradictions to explore the deeply feminist psyche of both, a desire to capture and claim their own space and define their relationship with society and the world on their own terms.

At the risk of using a much-beaten-to-death cliché, a lot of those claiming to be liberal-feminists in Pakistan may consider Jamila Hashmi as an anti-thesis of both liberalism and feminism. She visibly appeared a conservative – a woman who regularly prayed five times a day and organized milad before celebrating her only child’s birthday party. What’s worse, she opted to accept her mother’s choice to marry a man who was already married, had a grown up daughter and was a sajjada nasheen of the Khanqah of Mohkum din Sairani in Bahawalpur. This is a woman, who by the time she got married in the late 1950s had already published a novelette Atish-e-Rafta depicting the culture of East Punjab which is recognized by her contemporaries and other critics of Urdu literature as a mini classic. She was also formally more educated than her husband. Jamila Hasmi did her masters in English Literature from FC College, Lahore where she was taught by some very capable American professors. Yet it was almost a surrender of the kind we see in vintage Hindi films when asked to take a peek at her husband after the nikah her response was, “Does it matter now?” Later, she went to live in a village where there was no electricity in the first few years of her marriage.

Ismat Chughtai, Yusuf Kamran, Jamila Hashmi
Ismat Chughtai, Yusuf Kamran, Jamila Hashmi

Soon after marriage she was asked to select her duty, she was asked if she wanted to take care of the washing and ironing of the husband’s clothes and his food or take care of the langar (daily feast cooked for visitors to the shrine). Being a city girl she couldn’t care less for the latter and so opted to take care of the husband while the co-wife, who was more conscious of the political economy of the place was all too happy to go for the more lucrative deal. Controlling the langar gave access to extra finances and established power vis-a-vis the khalifas of the pir. It translated into greater influence than what the husband’s dirty laundry could. The tension between the two wives was always of a political nature and played out silently. When in Bahawalpur, they would have their evening cup of tea together which was a moment for friendly banter, family gossip and sometimes a discussion of the man they shared between them. My mother was conscious of the decision she had made, due to what she explained to me later was an absence of options. Her first choice was not to get married at all but if the choice was depending on the whims of her brothers and their wives and having a life of her own then she opted to get married. For her waiting for the right man didn’t seem to be an option. Nor did she have the choice to compete with her husband’s first wife, who never felt seriously threatened by the younger co-wife. The senior wife had agreed to let her husband marry a second time for she had not been able to produce a son who would inherit the mantle of the sajjada nasheen. She knew that her husband would get married again; the choice was between letting larger politics ruin her and her daughter’s life, and a lesser evil. Her daughter’s mother-in-law was eyeing my father for her own daughter. Being the older family in the lineage of pirs of Owaisi silisila, the pressure from the pirs of Khankah Abdulkhaliq in Chishtian might have prevailed had my stepmother not encouraged my father to look outside the clan. In any case, in the State of Bahawalpur of those days it was fashionable amongst the Nawab and notable families to marry Punjabi women.

My mother and I

But the formally educated woman had no inkling of the deeper politics of the place. She didn’t know she had to watch her back all the time amidst people who otherwise spoke softly in a dialect considered as one of the sweetest languages of the subcontinent. Jamila Hashmi gave birth to a healthy son who was then killed through deceit and conspiracy. She bore the pain stoically. However, she also planned more carefully not to bear the second child, a few years later, in Bahawalpur. Thus, I was born safely in a hospital in Lahore. Many years later when the story of what happened to my brother was revealed to me including the identity of those involved in the crime I wanted to know how she could still talk to those people. Her answer was, “It’s up to God to take my revenge.”

[quote]She remembered God while saying her prayers and singing bhajans of Jotika Roy and Mira Bai[/quote]

Was this the archetype of a true believer? Perhaps yes but her decision was also based on a deeper strategy to survive because there wasn’t much she could do in the face of family politics in which the odds were against her. I saw her great survival instinct at work again after my father’s death in 1979 when the family wanted her to leave, or face piles of court cases. Had it not been for her inner resolve and friends like Barrister Ijaz Hussain Batalvi, Jamila Hashmi the writer might not have survived. And her God was certainly with her during those tough times – God whom she remembered while saying her prayers and singing bhajans of Jotika Roy and Mira Bai. I had once asked her if she considered her bhajan singing as a contradiction of her faith as a Muslim. She just smiled and reminded me there were several ways of remembering the Almighty.

[quote]”What’s the fun of changing from your father’s name to your husband’s?”[/quote]

But referring to her personal struggle there was no way she was ready to accept that her husband’s clan dictate terms to her. To date the ordinary folk of village Khankah Sharif often refer to her as a shairnee (lioness) who not only fought for herself but for others too. She was the ultimate matriarch who negotiated the rules of life on her terms even though the path may sometimes have looked long and arduous. I once asked her why she named me Ayesha Siddiqa when most of my class fellows at school had normal surnames. “It is because I don’t want you to keep changing names from one house to the other. What’s the fun of changing from your father’s name to your husband’s? I want you to have your own name and a personality to go with it if possible” was her quick response that I understood many years later much after I had experimented on my own with changing names.

[quote]Those were great days of literary life in Lahore when people organised themselves in groups known less for ideology and more for an ability to sit together and share thoughts[/quote]

The sanctity of a name was critical in her scheme of things. Ironically, she was Jamila Hashmi in her own world but would conveniently switch to Begum Sardar Ahmed Owaisi when she was in my father’s world. She continued with this even after his death. It was both out of love and a sense of pragmatism that she conceded space and not fight for every inch as perhaps the feminism theorists would have expected her to do. Her logic was that this was not subservience but an expression of love and gratitude for someone who had expanded her canvas. She had an independent life as a creative writer in which my father always assisted her silently. He would, for instance, make sure she had everything available for her annual shab-e-afsana events. She organized a story telling night once every year in winters where a select number of writers were invited to write and read out a new story. People ranging from Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Qudratullah Shahab to Intizar Hussan, Hijab Imtiaz Ali Taj, Nisar Aziz, Salahuddin Mehmud and many others became a part of her shab-e-afsana at one time or the other. Those were indeed great days of literary life in Lahore when people used to meet to discuss new works and organised themselves in groups known less for ideology and more for an ability to sit together and share thoughts. The divide between different groups was often very sharp but these meetings were a great source of learning as there was such exhibition of wit, intellect and even humour. This was all my mother’s world in which she never forced my father to participate. In fact, she was happy to keep the worlds separate so her husband might not feel threatened. Her explanation was that she wanted him to be the center of attention and that was not possible amongst her bunch of friends who were absorbed in their own worlds. But I believe this was also her way of securing her own space without creating tension between her multiple lives. När det ska vara lätt att spela är ett casino med PayPal ofta att föredra eftersom både insättning och uttag går snabbt.

Left to right Hijab Imtiaz Ali, Masood Ashar, Jamila Hashmi, Kishwar Naheed and Nisar Aziz
Left to right Hijab Imtiaz Ali, Masood Ashar, Jamila Hashmi, Kishwar Naheed and Nisar Aziz

The fact that she was deeply feminist came out very visibly in her fiction. Be it the novelette Atish-e-Rafta on East Punjab; Rohi on the phenomenal Cholistan desert; Chehra-ba-Chehra Rubaru on Sufism of a Bahai rebel poetess, or Dasht-e-Soos on the life of the renowned Sufi Saint Mansoor Hallaj, and her numerous short stories, her protagonist was always a woman. Sadly, she is one of those post-1947 Urdu fiction writers who contributed tremendously to its literature but have not received attention due to the politics of the language. (Most literary critics, who are ethnic Urdu speakers or writers of the same ethnicity tend to limit themselves to either their own work or that before partition. For example, Intizaar Hussain’s appreciation of Urdu literature ends before 1947 or extends to his own work or that of Quratulain Haider’s). Also, given the dearth of works translated into English very few have access to some of the rich literature produced by non-Urdu speaking writers. Jamila Hashmi, for instance did a lot of experimentation in both style and content. The last two of her works are related to Sufism and Sufi philosophy, which I also consider as great examples of her feminism. Chehra-Bachehra Rubaru is about the Bahai poetess and Sufi Quratulain Tahira who abandoned her home and hearth in search of eternal love. Her desire to meet the Bahai religious icon Mullah Muhammad Bab, whom she had never met ‘chahra-bachahra rubaru’ (face to face) keeps the fire within alive. It also kindles a greater fire of eternal love in her heart. At one level Quratulain Tahira brings out all the rebellion that Jamila Hashmi might have wanted to participate in herself.

[quote]Aghul Ghaimish was the woman that Hallaj only saw once and fell in love with[/quote]

One would imagine that the main player of her novel she wrote in the mid-1980s on Mansor Hallaj would be Hallaj. However, throughout the story you cannot escape the overbearing aroma of Aghul Ghaimish, the woman that Hallaj only saw once and fell in love with. They never met but her desire was the flame that built inside him into a bigger fire and consumed him completely. It’s then that Aghul merges with God who then extends into Hallaj forcing him to utter “anal Haq” (I am the ultimate truth, I am God). This was an unexpected love story or at least with an unusual ending. I vividly remember one Lahori poet and friend of my mother’s asking her if the novel had any romance, to which she sheepishly replied in an affirmative. The gent eagerly borrowed the first copy off the press to return it quickly three days later. He was visibly disappointed to see it was not the kind of romance he expected nor was it the usual run of the mill novel. It has a very poetic and unusual diction that one doesn’t come across in Urdu fiction. Others from the liberal left were equally agitated as had they expected a story that would bring out Hallaj – the messiah of the poor – as he was commonly imagined. But Jamila Hashmi had done a lot of historical and theoretical research to write about the Sufi saint’s inner journey. He may have been a messiah to the dispossessed or someone who challenged the status-quo of religion in 9th century Baghdad. But Hashmi’s interest was in writing about the journey, which started with Aghul Ghaimish and ended with every bit of Hallaj’s body, as it was hung by the King’s decree and then chopped into pieces, screaming anal Haq.

Picture of shab-e-afsana Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Ashfaq Ahmed, Mohammad Kazim
Picture of shab-e-afsana Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Ashfaq Ahmed, Mohammad Kazim

Jamila Hashmi was unwilling to confine a character to a certain stereotype. She wouldn’t do that even with her own feminism, which definitely came on tiptoe.

(Part II on Kishwar Naheed in next week’s issue)

Note: This article originally published here.