Iqbaulnnissa Hussain (1897–1954) was an educationist, columnist, essayist, social rights’ activist and reformer, championing emancipation and modernization of the Muslim community, particularly its women. Stressing the importance of education, she encouraged coming out of purdah and securing economic independence. Hussain continually spoke up against moribund customs that plagued Muslim society, sponsored in part by quasi-Islamic precepts promulgated by clerics and internalized mechanically by a people lacking education and erudite contemplation. Her newspaper articles and the lectures she delivered at several national and international fora are compiled in Changing India: A Muslim Woman Speaks (1940, Hosali Press, Bangalore; republished by Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2015).Thereafter, Hussain wrote a novel, Purdah and Polygamy: Life in an Indian Muslim Household (1944, Hosali Press). The narrative is a stultifying account of a society that upholds polygyny, wherein women are objectified, where they are perpetrators, perpetuators and equal participants with men in encouraging patriarchy and patriarchal systems.
The sanction for multiple marriages in Islam mattered to the modernizing precepts underway in colonial India and was debated by religious leaders and reformists. The freedom to maintain four wives at a time without consideration of the injunctions and obligations regarding equality in treatment is apparently under contestation in Purdah…. Also under contestation then, is the disorderly, unhealthy, confining and incriminating zenana, with its doggedness on purdah and contingent precepts.
The reader is catapulted into the prison-like Dilkusha household where strict purdah is maintained and where, maintaining multiple wives becomes a matter of course. Zuhra is in a monogamous but subjugating marriage with Umar. Tyrannized when she is widowed, she overcomes, assuming the role of a matriarch, controlling her household and her only son Kabeer. She marries him first, to good-looking, wealthy but meek, Nazni who turns out to be constitutionally weak; then she arranges another marriage with the healthy, poverty-stricken Munira on frivolous pretexts. Thereafter, Kabeer surreptitiously marries Maghbool, a good-looking, literate, accomplished and economically secure woman. Kabeer is also coerced into bequeathing property on her before the marriage. Zuhra tyrannizes all three women. Finally, Kabeer marries the poor but pretty Noorjahan convinced that he is performing a sacred duty towards her impoverished family.
The twentieth century saw much reformist fiction in regional languages, propagating modernity, particularly among women. Much didactic fiction by men and women writers in Urdu, exhorting women to become better wives and home-makers, by promoting rationale, thrift and education, according to a combination of Victorian and Islamic values, propagated change. Issues such as purdah and education, related directly or indirectly with the woman question and debating the persona of the new Muslim woman in a nationalist environment, were subjects of discursive analyses and debates in Urdu women’s journals also. Women contended the debates and discussions. In 1936 the Progressive Writer’s Movement radicalized Urdu literature. Progressive women writers like Rashid Jahan, Ismat Chughtai, Razia Sajjad Zaheer and Khadija Mastur invested in social change by writing Marxist feminist fiction, creating new, female role models with a view to sponsoring modernity at all levels (p. 68).1 Iqbalunnissa Hussain’s novel in the English language was written when this literary-political transformation was well underway. Purdah … is preceded by the late nineteenth century reformist novels of Krupabai Satthianadhan and Shevantibai Nikambe, problematizing women’s issues such as widowhood and child marriage in upper-caste Hindu households. Satthianadhan and Nikambe came from families that had converted to Christianity and Hussain had a postgraduate degree in education from the University of Leeds, England. Perhaps the first English language short fiction by an Indian Muslim woman to handle women’s issues is Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905). However, a feminist utopia and science fiction of sorts, it qualifies as an escapist text that tackles patriarchy by diametrically reversing male and female roles in imaginary, matriarchal Ladyland. Writing in the colonizer’s language, these women writing about women, aimed at reaching out to a larger, diverse, Anglophone readership.
The title of Hussain’s novel appended with a sub-title reads like a sociological study on Muslim society. However, in this anti-romantic, sociologically realistic novel Hussain creates a debilitating environment on which she can comment as an educated observer standing outside of it. As narrator who continually intervenes, and also employs characters as mouth-pieces, Hussain is at times scathingly ironic, at times didactic and at times philosophical.
Issues of purdah and polygamy, crucial to the text—contentious and debatable even today, establish it as a women-centric text. The novel could have posed a pertinent challenge to patriarchy and patriarchal systems. However, Hussain is often fatalistic. Modernizing, civilizing voices are few and soon silenced, either by corporeal punishment and/or by physical removal from the scene. Arguments propagating women’s rights and modernity are not fully developed. Even her robust women are preyed upon by patriarchal systems, to say nothing of the weak. Hussain neither questions nor offers effective solutions to the frustrating situations in which the wives of Kabeer (and Umar) find themselves, concluding on the proposition that after Kabeer’s and Zuhra’s deaths, Nazni is free to wield power like her mother-in-law, controlling her son, Akram and her co-widows. Fallacies and power dynamics repeat themselves, generation after generation. This is a singularly disconcerting closure, considering Hussain’s erudite non-fiction, and bearing in mind that Dilkusha is supposedly, a prototypical Muslim houshold.
Technically, Purdah … is a sophisticated narrative that arrives at a deus ex machina conclusion. However, several plots lead to Kabeer’s settlement and resettlement with new wives. Stereotypical characters who perpetuate patriarchy people the text. Hussain explores both conspiracy and sisterhood in a text that remains an admixture of hope and hopelessness; authority and vulnerability; simplicity, duplicity and connivance.
Edited and introduced by Jessica Berman, the 2017 edition locates the text in the socio-cultural milieu prevailing at the time of its first publication. In addition, three critical essays trans-contextualize it. Arif Zaman’s essay provides an insider’s perspective to biographical information on Hussain, Suvir Kaul’s situates the text against Indian women’s Anglophone writing, and Muneeza Shamsie’s reads it against South Asian Muslim Women’s Anglophone writing. Also reprinted is the Foreword to the first edition by Sir Ramalinga Reddy, which launched Hussain as a sensitive writer with an insider understanding of controversial issues plaguing Indian Muslim society, particularly its women. Detailed notes by Berman supplement the text, by way of historicization; by glossing Hussain’s culture specific vocabulary, and by way of explanation / clarification of Islamic precepts as against local, cultural practice. Some notes made with a view to clarify Islamic precepts (pp. 234-35), read the text against an essentially Islamic framework, conversely divesting it in some measure of the syncretism of the Indo-Muslim cultural fabric within which it was conceived—a tendency which runs contrary to the essence of the text.
Despite its insularity Purdah… demonstrates in the course of the narrative, quite simply and matter-of-factly, by putting on view, dress, custom, belief, and social practice, that Hindus and Muslims, particularly women, are allied in an indivisible cultural framework; that the Imperialist with a modernizing predisposition is the outsider or adversary.
Re-published after more than seventy years, during which time it was somewhat lost to readership, as asserted by Berman in the Introduction (p. x), Purdah… enables a sort of ‘reconstruction’ of the past by means of ‘rediscovery’, establishing a ‘continuity of the female tradition’ (pp. 34-35).2 This recovery makes a case for Hussain as a hitherto omitted link in the lineage of Indian women’s Anglophone writing in colonial India. Hussain is comparable with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lost (and found) ‘poetesses’ or poetic ‘grandmothers’ (p. 36)3 whom she seeks in a maze of poets. With Purdah…, Hussain joins the canon of twentieth century, pre-Partition, Indian English novelists, Mulk Raj Anand, RK Narayan, Raja Rao and Ahmed Ali.
This editionis meant in all likelihood to serve as a text book for readers of South Asian Studies, particularly feminist, Muslim studies.
2 Showalter, Elaine. ‘Towards a Feminist Poetics: Women Writing and Writing About Women. Ed. Mary Jacobus. The Oxford Women’s Series. Harper and Row Publishers Inc. USA, 1979. 22-41.
3 Pykett, Lyn, ‘“Not at all like the Poetry Women Generally Write”: The Problem of the Woman Poet’. Emily Bronte: Women Writers. Palgrave, London, 1989. 36-47.
Fatima Rizvi is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow.