As defined by British philosopher Janet Richards, “The essence of feminism has a strong fundamental case intended to mean only that there are excellent reasons for thinking that women suffer from systematic social injustice because of their sex, the proposition is to be regarded as constituting feminism.” Consequently, feminist literature seeks to dissect and explore power structures and patriarchies, social practices and institutions, all of which have collectively entrenched inequality between men and women. In the context of partition-era India, feminist literature focuses on the prevalent notion of violence and assaults on women as a means to seize and defile their family’s honour. The female body was a mere object, violation of which was used to make a larger statement of community dominance. The literature of the era encompassed misogyny in its essence.
During Partition, communal violence took a heinous form as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs used pillaging and rape as an instrument to assert their power. Women came to play the role of the victims of these attacks that arose out of religious and political tensions. In Saadat Hasan Manto’s Thanda Gosht, Ishwar Singh is a patriot who gets so caught up in the heat of the moment that he too decides to ‘rob’ a Muslim girl of her family honour and dignity by sexually assaulting her on a whim. Ironically, Ishwar’s name means the Almighty, which is perhaps an allusion to the the Indian notion of pati parmeshwar (my husband, my god). Singh’s spite drives him to abominable lengths, which emerges as a stark irony to the divine meaning of his name. This juxtaposition serves to add a hint of bleak contradiction in the narrative, wherein the character behaves in complete contrast of what is expected from his religion, name and morality. The act is a clear depiction of the man’s need to assert his dominance through ‘ownership’ of a young girl belonging to a rival faith. In the same literature, it is Singh’s wife Kulwant Kaur’s reaction that truly shows the breakdown of a patriarchal social order, where a woman, instead of submitting, grabs power from her husband by brutally stabbing him on account of his infidelity. Evidently, Kaur’s stabbing of her husband is deemed as a horrific act, mainly because a woman is seen as transgressing the misogynistic norms to take matters into her own hands and attacking her perfidious husband. Kaur’s digression from the path of submission is so powerful a message that it tended to offend the patriarchal mindset of its readership in the 1940s. It was not the gore or the atrocity of the depicted crime, but the attack on the entrenched convention of male domination that seemed to attract dissent from the public, lawyers and judiciary alike.
Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf portrays a Muslim princely household, the rules of which are dictated by conservatism and the need for discretion. A direct consequence is the acceptance of the purdah or veil as a way of life behind which women live, post-puberty. In a cultural context, a purdah is a veil meant to hide or protect the sanctity and purity of a woman. However, the purdah and, by extension, Chughtai’s Lihaaf bleakly conceals an unspeakable and ‘shameful’ act. This bubble of confinement encompasses all members of the family, denoting an institution of oppression even within the household. However, the Nawab (a man) freely violates this discreetness of the purdah by engaging in homosexual debauchery of his own. Consequently, the frustrated Begum Jaan begins to explore her own ways of defiance while remaining behind purdah or inside the aforementioned bubble. She shatters notions of class inequality by engaging in physical relations with Rabbo, who stands at a much lower rung of the hierarchical socio-economic ladder. Thus, both parties indulge in disobedience of protocol within the confines of their own home lest they sabotage the family’s reputation.
Conclusively, Thanda Gosht and Lihaaf can safely be discerned as pioneering instances of feminist literature, wherein the violations of gender roles emerge as a prevalent theme.
Both stories are elementally similar in trying to culminate in an impactful fashion that grips the reader. The protagonists, Ishwar and Chughtai’s narrator, respectively, are left in shock by virtue of the turbulent events and discoveries they have made. The eponymous aversive stimulus also plays a major role as a symbol in both stories. The quilt is something that the girl is perpetually afraid of thereafter and the girl’s corpse (cold as gosht, or meat), the memory of which prevents Ishwar from being aroused.
This metaphorical shroud of intolerance and oppression has only been uplifted ever since that the deviances and atrocities in these stories hold no validity in a more modern context. However, liberty and dynamism struggle to hold their footing as tradition and stagnation continue to overpower. One end of the great Indian spectrum supports Queer Pride Parades (by LGBT community) while the other witnesses Supreme Court rulings criminalising homosexuality. The same country that strives to ensure absolute safety for its women conveniently ignores an act as gruesome as marital rape. We are thus caught in a juxtaposition of contrasting mindsets and opinions, grappling with a foreseeable dystopia of mindsets more regressive than ever.
The author is a grade 12 student in Modern School, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Through this article, she aims to explore the literary aspects of feminism in the pre-partition era