Breaking the silence: Early twentieth-century Urdu short stories by Muslim women writers

Isha Sharma
Department of English
University of Rajasthan


Literature is the vehicle of not only expressing and inscribing the aesthetic sensibility of a society and culture, but it also provides a platform to the voice of dissent against the powers that oppress and exploit. Every form of literary genre, whether poetry, fiction, short story, epistle, autobiography, memoir, drama, et al., facilitates the writer to resist the oppressive power system through writings that interrogate, question, challenge, and subvert. As a creative protest that is not actively violent, it takes a decidedly oppositional stance against injustices and inequalities practiced in the society that engender degenerative economic, political, and socio-cultural consequences for specific groups and communities.

Keywords: Resistance, Muslim Women, creativity, writing, gender

Research Article

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, writing for Muslim women was an ultimate transgression of society that largely denied them the right to read or write. This is what C.M. Naim in his book Urdu Text and Contexts (2004) has to say: “What is most curious, if not astonishing, is that even as late as the 1850s it was not considered proper for women to learn and write. This matter of there being a stricter prohibition against writing, as against reading, is not brought out in the reformist fiction – at least not so starkly” (219). This struggle is reflected in the writings of Bibi Ashraf known as Ashrafunnisa Begum (1840-1903), a teacher, writer, and learner who battled to first educate herself and then educate other Muslim girls. In her famous essay, How I Learned to Read and Write (1899) published in Muhammadi Begam’s magazine Tahzib-i-Niswan (1898) she recounts, “It has long been customary in my family to teach the girls how to read teaching them how to write, however, was strictly forbidden. The girls were taught only to vocalize the Arabic of Qur’an and read a bit of Urdu so that they could gain some knowledge of their faith and rules of prayer and fasting” (Naim, 207). Bibi Ashraf’s narratives recorded the predicament of nineteenth-century upper-class Muslim women who faced opposition when they attempted to acquire reading and writing skills. Their learning was restricted to upholding familial, social, and religious values with stringent moral conventions and codes.

Modernist Muslim reformers who were connected to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh Movement employed literature as a vehicle to express their concern about the condition of women. A poet, literary critic, and biographer, Khwaja Altaf Hussain Hali (1837–1914) worked towards infusing cultural renaissance in Urdu literary tradition through his female-centric poems like “Majalis un-Nisa” (Assemblies of Women), published in 1874, “Munajat-e-Bewa” (The Prayer of the Window) published in 1884, and “Chup ki Dad” (Homage to the Silent), published in 1905. As opposed to the majority of romanticised and eroticized depictions of women in the Urdu/Persian literary tradition, Hali created “new” women characters. He advocates widow remarriage in “Munajat-e-Bewa” and is appreciative of the crucial role fathers play in “Chup ki Dad”. The British Indian government gave recognition to the poems of Hali’s, and they were added to the curriculum of girls’ schools.

While the zenana system of education persisted among wealthy families, many reformers went beyond raising awareness via literature and put their words into action by establishing girls’ schools. Waheed Jahan and her husband Miya Abdullah founded the Aligarh Zenana Madrasa (Aligarh Girl’s School) in Aligarh in 1906. A judge from the Allahabad High Court founded a school exclusively for Muslim girls in Lucknow in 1912; Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain founded the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in Bhagalpur in 1909 (re-established in Calcutta in 1911); Iqbaluunissa Hussain, a novelist, established a girls’ school in Bangalore; and Abdul Haq Abbas started Madrasat ul Banat, a girls’ school in Jalandhar, Punjab. With the emergence of formal schools, the question of teaching a well-defined syllabus was discussed and debated, and various reformist women-centric texts became a part of the curriculum of schools for girls. The educated, thinking, new women of reformist texts inspired the early women writers to model the characters of their works on them.

Gradually with the efforts of reformers, women’s right to education was granted on demand, or handed out mechanically as they insisted on literacy which enabled them to read and write. Their attitude towards writing encouraged some women to aim at public presentation by organizing meetings to listen to their stories as a way of initiating a dialogue with them and encouraging them to write and get published. Most of their writings entered the public domain due to the initiatives of small women’s groups and networks. In India, women’s writing has been a way of breaking the silence that had led to the erasure of their experiences for centuries. In the context of Muslim women, their voices were controlled in a subtle, suggestive, inescapable, and insidious manner by their family, community, and the societal norms. The institutional spaces also remained off limits for them due to their male counterparts. In spite of all the obstacles they surreptitiously created a space for their own creative expressions. Their writings were stories about their struggle to get educated and overcome the hurdles that existed. Secretiveness, disguise, privacy, anxiety, fear, resistance, or rebellion became subject matter of their journals and diaries. Stories and articles were written on topics including women’s rights, polygamy, and purdah, as well as the significance of education for girls and obtaining their consent before marriage. Their kissas (short stories) gradually started appearing in a stream of journals.

By the turn of the century, many Muslim women from upper-class background had begun to play an active role in society: they attended women’s conferences, published their work in journals and magazines thus contributing to discussions about social change. The experiences and perspectives of Muslim women in South Asia may be better understood by consulting the archives of women’s periodicals. Urdu Journals like Khatun, Ismat, Akhbarun-nisa, Mu’allim-e-Niswan, Tehzeeb-e Niswan, encouraged Muslim women to come up with writings about their lived experiences in the contemporary society.

The first pioneer feminist of Urdu literature, Mohammadi Begum (1878-1908) edited Tehzib-e-Niswan, a weekly magazine in 1898 (Minault, 110). She was the first woman to edit an audio magazine and the first woman to write novels in Urdu. She encouraged young women to read and write on every issue besides religious texts. The patriarchal setup of society did not encourage women’s interest in literature, yet women writers had already established themselves eight years prior to the publication of this journal. In 1890 the novel Islah-un Nisa was written by Rashidatun Nisa Begum. Minault points out that some other journals like Mehboob Alam’s Sharif Bibi, Shaikh Abdullah’s Khatoon (1904), and Rasheed -ul Khairi’s Ismat (1908) emerged as natural forums for women writers and contributed tremendously to their writings in the early twentieth century (Minault,110-133). Mazameen or articles gave place to women’s reformist writing. The writing of poetry by women had started much before the writing of other genres. Though they published their divans (collections of poems), gradually fiction became their forte, and by the turn of the twentieth century, novels and short stories (kissa) authored by women started appearing.

Initially, the short stories used to be published in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic languages. With the inception of the Urdu language around the 12th century CE, the foundation Urdu short story was laid. Significantly, afsana (short story) in Urdu as a literary genre owes its origin to Sajjad Haider Yaldaram (1880-1943) who first introduced kissas as Afsana and the first afsana by him was published in 1907. In context to Muslim women’s short story writings from India, Sughra Humayun Mirza from Hyderabad started writing reformist stories and her first novel “Mushir-E- Niswan” appeared in 1906. During the intermediate period between 1900 to1925, some of the best novels were written by women and this period is also marked by the development in the field of short stories in women’s writing. Abbasi Begum and Nazr i Sajjad Haider were well-known journalist and novelist and their writings were found in publications like Tahzib, Ismat, and Tamaddum, and other magazines as well. Abbasi Begum has written the short story “Gariftar i Qafas” (1915) which is about woman’s lives in ‘Pardah’ and draws a parallel with the life of a caged bird; “Zulm i Bekas” is a touching story about the injustice and cupidity of man; “Do shahzadi” is a historical story of two daughters of Prince Suja who had lost all their wealth due to their father’s opposition to Aurangzeb and decided to live in a small hut on the edge of a forest. Nazr i Sajjad Haider too wrote appealing short stories that were well written and published in Ismat and Tahzeeb. The subject of her short story is the inconsistency of men in the matter of love and affection as opposed to the constancy of women in relationships. During the non-cooperation movement, she raised the question of women’s freedom and freedom of choice in the matter of marriage. “Khun i Arman”, “Hur i Shrai, Narang I Zamana” and “Haq be Haqdar”were stories related to these themes.

In the edition of Tahzib numerous short stories written by writers who remained unacclaimed can be found whose contribution to the genre is worthy of recognition. “Rail ka Safar” (1915) by Anjuman Ara, “Shash o Panj” (1915) and “Teesri tarikh ka Chand” (1918) by Asaf Jahan, “Kaukab” (1919) and “Salgirah” (1920) by Asif Jahan, “Nadamat” (1924), “Marta kya na Karta” (1925) and “Ujlat i Beja” (1925) by, Rashid ul Khairi and Taj un Nisa are few examples of promising short stories.

With the simplicity of style that echoed Premchand’s, Rashid ul Khairi and Taj un Nisa inspired several writers, around 1919, to publish short stories in Tehzeeb. A large number of short stories were written by Abbasi Begum, Nazr I Sajid Haider, Taj un Nissa and a number of other writers but they could not achieve literary eminence. The distinction was achieved by Khatun i Akram with the publication of fasana, “Gulistan i Khatun”. As in Premchand’s works, her stories are about simple people and everyday occurrences and experiences of life. “Bechari Beti” which is regarded as her best short story is based on human weaknesses. Aqila in “Bechari Beti” is presented as a strong woman who protests against the injustices inflicted upon her. “Paikar i Vafa”, “Shahid i Sitam”, “Arzuo par qurbani”, “Sach ki fatah” are some other notable short stories by Khatun i Akram.

Shahid i Vafa (1927) is the second collection of fasanas written by women and published in Tahzib and Ismat. The faithlessness of man was the most popular subject matter of novels and short stories written by women at that time. Amtul Vahi’s stories included in the collection reflect the gradual change through introduction of the psychological study of characters in Urdu short stories.

Women’s short story writing proliferated in the early 20th century colonial India but the publication of their collection could not take place in large numbers. Zubaida Zari, writer of Humayun, and Adabi Dunya have brought out a collection titled “Adab i Zari”. By the 1930s women were writing for Ismat, Nairang -e- Khayal, Tehzib -e-Niswan, and other journals. Bi Mughlani, “Azmat-un-Nisa”, and “Paoon mein Zanjeer”, stories by Nazar Sajjad Haider written on the subject of a second marriage, appeared in Ismat (July 1927, August 1927). Yusuf-uz-Zaman’s story “Sona” in Ismat, (September, 1927) was written on the issue of dowry death. Rahat Ara Begam, a prominent writer in Narang i Khyal published collections of her works, “Premi Bansri ki Awaz”, et al. Several stories on the issues of poverty, dowry, second marriage, and widowhood got published in Narang i Khyal. Sentiment, realism and romance were blended spontaneously in these stories. The adherent of this trend represented women as goddesses of love, sacrifice, and devotion. Nazar Sajjad Hyder’s short stories, “Shaheed-e -Jafa”, “Mayuus Tamanna”, and “Akhtar-o-Zehra” were crafted on this trend, and published in Narang -e- Khayal.

Hijab Imitiaz Ali (1908-1999) followed this literary trend of writing by intermingling gothic with the romantic in her stories. Romanticism, poetic fancy, love, beauty, and tragedy made her stories highly mysterious and full of magical sentiments. Ali’s fiction conforms to many of the conventions of the romance novel, but it cannot be regarded merely as a popular romance for female readership. For Ali, this genre cannot be considered degenerated in form as romances are often known for catering to the interest of women folk. For her romance is ‘a place in which women writers and their readers find a recognizable shape for their desires, apprehensions, fantasies, and often conflicted senses of identity and thus (at best) make better sense of them, personally, politically, and ethically’ (Holmes, 4). Her story “Unrequited Love” (Meri Nataman Mohabbat) has an exotic Turkish setting and takes the reader to the world of willing suspension of disbelief with exotic characters like Madame Zubaida, Ruhi, Jaswati, Captain Fikri, and many others. Ruhi is a rebel who revolts against the traditional values of family. Hijab presents a world in which strong-willed women battle against their own selves and the world outside. This element of the Hijab’s stories was also known as sensational individualism in literary writings. Hijab’s contemporary Saleha Abid Hussain Begum (1913-1988) also wrote short stories. Ismat and Tehzib, have extremely well-written short stories by women writers who unfortunately could not achieve rcognition in the literary world.

By the 1930s factors like social and economic exploitation, scientific revolution, and the rise of communism impacted literature leading to “Progressive Writers’ Movement” of 1936. Some writers were influenced by the Marxist ideology and wrote about social problems and political awakening. Their writings are replete with the historical references, the progress of science, optimism for individual’s opposition of feudalism and rising capitalism. The other approach reflected less faith in tradition and aimed at complete freedom from traditional themes and diction. The early twentieth century marked the development of modernism due to the western influence as well as the literary values of Romantics that seeped into the consciousness of the educated Indian middle class. Hence the early short stories of Muslim women were preoccupied with the themes of love, beauty, women’s experiences, social reform, and humanism. The focus of the thematic structure was on the field of social realism, cultural representation, psychological analysis, character depiction, politics, and the symbolic and allegorical representation of contemporary realities. Khatoon-E-Akram, Asifa Mujeeb, Rafia Kirmani, Hameeda Begum, and Amina Nazli followed Premchand’s creative style. Afsana Nigars Hameeda Sultan, Shafeeq Banu Shafaq, Zeenat Sajida, Jahan Bano Naqvi, Shaista Iramullah, Hajra Nazli, Saliha Abid Hussain, Shakeela Akhtar followed the same literary tradition. Rashid Jahan, Ismat Chugati, Hajira Masroor, Khadija Mastur, and Mumtaz Shirin were some of the other prominent voices of early twentieth-century progressive writing.


  1. Holmes, Diana. Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France, Oxford Studies in Modern European Culture. Oxford UP, 2007, p. 04.
  2. Minault, Gail. Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reforms in Colonial India, Oxford: UP,1998.
  3. Narang, G. C. “Major Trends in the Urdu Short Story.” Indian Literature, vol. 16, no. 1&2, Sahitya Akademi, 1973, pp. 113-32.
  4. Naim, C.M .Urdu Texts and Contexts. New Delhi: Permanent Black,2004.

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