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She Chose to Question

Semeen Ali

By Rakhshanda Jalil
Women Unlimited, Delhi, 2014, pp. 248, Rs. 376.00


Duain dein mere baad aane waale meri wahshat ko Bahut kaante nikal aaye mere humrah manzil ke (Let those who come after me send benedictions for me Many a thorn has been removed from their path due to me)  — Saquib Lucknowi    These lines perfectly sum up the lives of two people that played an important role in the improvement of the status of women—Rashid Jahan and her father Shaikh Abdullah or Papa Miyan as he was fondly remembered, by generations of women. This is a part of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts Programme: ‘Confluence of Traditions and Composite Cultures’. In his foreword Rashid Jahan’s nephew Salman Haider, recalling her role as an aunt, writes: ‘We were expected to take responsibility for ourselves, make our own beds, clean our own shoes and not leave these household chores to the servants, who always had to be treated with consideration. In an early assault on gender stereotypes, all of us, girls and boys alike, were required to learn how to knit and sew…’ Jalil’s introduction to the writer takes its inspiration from the epitaph on Rashid Jahan’s tombstone: ‘Communist Doctor and Writer’. It’s the brief familiarization with these three roles of Rashid Jahan in the introduction that sets the tone for the rest of the book which deals with the life and times of  Rashid Jahan and showcases her short stories and plays which makes for a complete, well rounded book.  Rashid Jahan’s father, Shaikh Abdullah, we are informed, was formerly a Kashmiri Pandit—Thakur Das, and had converted to Islam. He was genuinely concerned when it came to the education of Muslim women and started the first boarding school for women. Shaikh Abdullah was influenced by Syed Ahmad Khan but realized that the latter had no room for education of Muslim women and the chapter gives a detailed account of how efforts for education of men was given priority while Syed Ahmad personally believed that education for women would ‘bring waywardness and cause women to abandon purdah and compete with men’. Jalil sheds light on a new breed of Urdu writers who opposed these views and were speaking of and for Muslim women—‘… implying, for the first time, that there was a female readership too.’ Interesting to note and mentioned in the book is how education of women was being encouraged but patriarchal values ...

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