By Rafia Zakaria
January 23, 2019
WHEN the novel first turned up as a literary form, many viewed it with suspicion. The assumption was that the addictive nature of pleasure reading, unlike that of religious texts to further a moral purpose, was subversive. Women especially were often forbidden from reading novels. When they rebelled or refused to marry or be the pliable sorts that they were expected to be in Victorian England, the novel, or their love for it, was held responsible.
The wrong thoughts in feminine heads, it was widely believed, could bring about an end to the moral world; affect the character of children and the sanctity of the domestic realm to which women were then relegated.
The Urdu novel in its early years set itself the task of subversion. The subcontinent was occupied by the British, and Muslim society was generally demoralised, unable to believe in the possibility of change or the transformation of their condition. The earliest Urdu novels are testaments to and chronicles of this time and the efforts of authors to both capture its pathos and suggest the idea of reformation. Munshi Premchand and Nazir Ahmad have left us examples.
In later years, when India was about to be divided in half and the pen was taken up by female greats such as Ismat Chughtai and Qurattulain Hyder, the agenda of subversion became at once the agenda of feminism. Shama, the fiery heroine of Chughtai’s Terhi Lakeer, is an icon of rebellion unwilling to let the calcified mores of a stagnant society dictate her life or her choices, a feminist before feminism was a thing.
The Urdu novel of now also has female protagonists. The contemporary writing of Umera Ahmed and Nimra Ahmed, for instance (and many have been adapted into television drama serials), feature women as central characters that glide in and out of the scenes around them. These, however, are different sorts of women altogether from the Shama of Chughtai’s time. Instead of being rebels or presenting an alternative to the predominant mores of the moment, they represent regression. The women err and suffer and present cautionary tales of what happens to women who do not at all times worship traditional morality.
Religion looms large and the woman’s weakness is often a failure to follow it in letter and spirit. The first wife who does not allow her husband to take a second wife is not a normal human being but deficient in her devotion, unable to adequately embrace the tenets of her faith and causing innumerable suffering to all others in her orbit.
Women are not the only authors of this type of Urdu fiction, but the most prominent female authors of such fiction deserve consideration for the simple reason that they are themselves women putting their words in the service of limiting the possibilities available to women.
Take, for instance, this opening scene from an Umera Ahmed story titled Bus Aik Dagh Nadamat. The heroine, Momal, opens the gate to a house (which we learn was once her own house) and walks in. She sits on the porch and begins to cry, tormented at once by other homecomings that were less sad. It takes a little while for us to discover the cause of her breakdown and how long she has been gone.
To deliver that information, we are introduced to two of Momal’s bhabis, who peer out the window to the porch and immediately turn up with cruelties and castigations. Momal has been gone for three days. They say she ‘ran away’; Momal insists that she was kidnapped. The truth, it is implied from the scene, does not matter. The taint does. A girl being gone for whatever reason is a girl who has soiled her reputation and that of her family, of her dear hardworking brothers and their moralising wives.
Similar scenes flit across Pakistani television sets all day and every day, produced by the dozens of channels devoted entirely to them, paid for by advertisers who want to sell soap and skin-lightening cream and cooking oil and candy and everything that women buy.
The goal of all of this fiction is to produce pliant women who are so obsessed with their own imperfections that they automatically assume that the men around them must, in comparison, be perfect. Faith and morality are fed in huge doses; the dominant flavour is willing surrender and an acknowledgement of their inevitable deficiencies. Efforts to rebel only result in horrendous consequences, and the only option is contrition. Chastity (the always-coveted condition of innocence) can never be restored, but a suitably tearful heroine who has ‘learnt her lesson’ is the product to be sold at the end.
Not all the novels reach the silver screen but, as the author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa pointed out in a recent essay on Urdu fiction, many people purchase them and read them, with individual volumes priced anywhere from Rs500 to Rs5,000.
The Victorians objected to novels because they believed they were giving women ideas — about making their own decisions, choosing their own spouses, directing their own educations. Pakistanis, particularly Pakistani women, should worry, because the Urdu novels most popular in the country today destroy ideas, or even the possibility of them, in the minds of the women who read them. A good life is the obedient life, a life spent in service of the patriarchal mindset that has ruled Pakistan since its inception and that has now subjugated a once subversive literary form into its service.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.