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Half-Women or Half-Dreams? The Lives and Afterlives of Ismat Chughtai’s ‘New Women’ in India

Translated from the Urdu by Raza Naeem

Translator’s note: Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) is regarded as one of the greatest Urdu fiction writers of the 20th century. 2015 was celebrated as her birth centenary year. While in India, she and her legacy is being feted and commemorated, this unrelenting and daring champion of women’s rights, feminism and an advocate of an independent women’s space, who anticipated by a few decades the heaven-stormers of the 1960s powered and pioneered in the West by Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer has been consciously ignored in Pakistan. Her own life and work occupy an interesting crossroads among gender, work, space and society (both during colonization and after). From her rebellious insistence to attend school at Aligarh and later earning her B.A. degree at the Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, to taking up the principalship of a girls’ school in Bareilly, choosing her own profession, and then falling in love and marrying the person of her choice and being banned and persecuted for some of her provocative writing, Chughtai courageously took on the Muslim prejudices and attitudes of her time towards female education, space and work, both at home and society at large, always carving out her own space, and being recognized for it. Her membership and prominent role in the Progressive Writers Association also linked her life and work to social movements attempting to advocate radical social change. Her novel Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) stands out among her six novels with its Joycean heroine ‘Shamman’ (Shamshad) who matures from a precocious, rebellious independent-minded girl to a politically-conscious secular feminist activist involved in the Indian independence struggle. Chughtai’s life and legacy are surprisingly ignored and marginalized by scores of middle-class girls in India who are glued to pop-schlock television serials, Bollywood films and increasingly even some contemporary Urdu ‘literature’ as well as Indian literature in English, which advocates female submission and stereotyping rather than consciousness-raising, carving out one’s own space and rebellion. Despite being a known Progressive, critics have also unfairly stereotyped Chughtai as merely a spokesperson for the respectable women of the Indian Muslim middle-class owing to her unmatched knowledge of the inner lives of the middle-class Muslim zenana. For this special issue of Café Dissensus, I present an original translation of Chughtai’s little-known essay Aurat (Woman), which provocatively lays bare the hypocrisy of the male champions of women’s rights and the myths they have constructed about (our) women and their spaces; and then proceeds to invent nothing less than a new language for the new Indian women of our own time, a sort of primer on how best to combat patriarchal governance and attitudes towards space. The translation is a timely and original attempt to explore the role and relevance of Ismat Chughtai’s work in the progressive consciousness-raising of the ‘new’ Indian women as it relates to gender, work, space and society in the twenty-first century.




Bad, good, disloyal, loyal, this-that and God knows what else.

In every country and era, great thinkers have always established some opinion about woman. Someone is emphasizing her beauty; another insists on her purity and decency. One person thinks that “Woman’s status is second only to God”; another is hell-bent on making her the devil’s “maternal aunt”.

One person pontificates, “A deceitful woman is more dangerous than a deceitful man”. As if someone says that a dark woman is darker than a dark man. What a wonderful thing to say, one feels like dancing with joy; and had I not been a woman myself and these aphorisms (not) taken me aback, I would have kissed those uttering them. The problem is that these foolish aphorisms have made one totally lost.

And the interesting thing is that the extent to which men have claimed to understand women, the latter have never made any statement about the former to that extent by using their brains.

Men said: “Man is cruel.” The women quietly began to suffer the cruelty.

Men said, “Woman is a coward.” The women began to shrink even from a (female) mouse.

It was pronounced: “When the time comes, women put their lives at stake.” And pop! The latter put their lives on stake.

The whole world acknowledges motherly love. No one cries for fatherly love. Woman’s honour can be defiled, but not the man’s; maybe man doesn’t possess honour which can be ravished. Woman gives birth to a bastard or legitimate child, but not the man.

For centuries thinkers have been trying to bamboozle women by ascribing such absurd accusations to them; they either praise them to high heaven or throw them in the mud. But they are at pains to put them on the same pedestal with themselves. They will make a woman a goddess or heavenly creature, but will be ashamed to call them a friend or comrade.

I don’t understand whether this is an inferiority complex or a misunderstanding. After all, why do they fear equality of women? She is also a human being. Why do men become nervous having women on an equal footing with the former? Can’t a man forget for a moment that equality doesn’t necessarily mean inferiority? Everyone knows that a woman can only become a mother, daughter, wife and sister; but not a father, son, husband and brother. Then why say repeatedly that she was born for the former purpose? Doesn’t a woman even know that she is a woman, which is being repeatedly told to her?

Or do the men know that being a mother and wife is to chew on iron gram; that is why the latter are hammered into a woman’s brain as if she is born for this use. That she should be proud of this interesting status. Is there anyone who can make these men understand as to which accursed woman ever denied this? Who is inviting the former to come bear children and breastfeed them? Then why such a need to repeatedly make a show of it?

When a woman becomes a widow, her bangles are broken. No-one thinks about breaking a man’s watch, spectacles or hookah. A widow is also forced to change her dress. People’s hearts would burst were she to wear a coloured dupatta or bangles in her hands; it’s only the men who go about in their achkan, angarkha, all suited-booted. Such a pitilessness that he doesn’t even pretend to be mourning, although the way women feel for a dead husband, a man feels for his dead wife. Many women and men do not feel it. But the women have to put on a false show.

A person pronounces, “The glory of the woman lies in that the world should be unacquainted with her. The husband’s love is her abundant treasure and her small household (is) her world.”

Why sir, if a woman achieves fame, she is not wresting it away from your own share in it. It is Allah’s gift. Why do you feel pained by it? What cheapness! Woman or man, if he or she does something worthwhile in the world, how would it blemish anyone’s glory? If a man’s honour is not reduced by his fame, why would a woman’s fame affect her greatness?

If the wife is crass illiterate, it makes no difference. If the husband is less educated than the wife, there will be darkness; since some great thinker’s aphorism will be dishonoured. When Dr. Naidu was referred to as ‘Mrs. Sarojini Naidu’s husband’, he used to act all embarrassed.  Millions of women throughout the world happily live as wife of their husband, not suffering from an inferiority complex. The moment a man is born, his superiority is blown into his ear; and his innocence is such that he actually believes that he is higher than the world’s most brilliant woman. Just for the reason that he is a man. Then when he finds a woman more educated and wiser than himself, he hates her, because at that time he cannot deceive himself. Can my cook be superior to Madame Curie just because he is from the male race, which is generally regarded as being above women? But if you don’t believe, ask your cook or washer man. He will say, that a woman can never be equal to a man!

Another person pronounces: “If a woman’s heart is pierced, it will contain nothing but perseverance, patience, hidden sacrifices and unseen qualities.”

Well this is the limit. I asked a male doctor, he said: “This is all nonsense. The structure of the male and female heart is exactly the same and nothing frivolous comes out of it.” Furthermore, listen to this. The same doctor says: “A woman is not more large-hearted than a man. It depends upon temperament. Education and training affects men and women equally. ”

Another person commands, “When a child is breast-fed for the first time, the mother goes red with happiness, and starts trembling.”

Women must have anticipated that the commanding personage is a man, and whatever he has written is based on hearsay. He has undoubtedly never fed a child himself and does not know how painful it is when a child is breast-fed for the first time. The mother who goes red and trembles definitely does not do so in love and mirth; her colour must have changed owing to anguish.

I am saying this because men coin these so-called proverbs for no reason. They don’t even think that according to them, even women are now not mere women anymore. They have started to obtain a lot of information. They will not be lured by these well-worn sentences. Please address them with plain judiciousness. It is better not to claim to understand women more than the women themselves. Your secret will be out for free. Wherever did you get the leisure to waste your time getting involved in arguments about superiority and inferiority? Discrimination based on gender, colour and race is disappearing at a rapid speed. The world is progressing in the fields of industry and the arts with great speed. Now there is increasing demand for workers; women are having to share the work in every sector.

The Western woman is forced to earn a living despite domestic machines of a thousand kinds. That is why men have to share equally in helping with domestic work and rearing children. If the wife washes the dishes, the husband does the brooming. The wife sets the beds, the husband feeds the child by preparing his milk bottle. Both prepare the breakfast and meal together, ready the children, then go to work. The woman who doesn’t go to work doesn’t sit idle, gossiping; she does the washing, ironing and brings the domestic provisions. Much of the time is saved, that is why she also works part-time; but despite this, manages to make do with difficulty.

But our men here are leading on the flock of women using the staff of long-winded, unwieldy aphorisms. However straitened the circumstances, the wife will stay at home adding to its embellishment. The husband will grow rickety but at least his honour will be saved. The woman will remain at home with her basket of femininity intact. However embarrassed their children might be due to nonpayment of fees, and the moneylender make life difficult for the husband with his incessant demands, but because some old man had died saying, “A woman’s world is her home”, so the women will remain confined to the house on the lines of their ancestors.

The most golden aphorisms have been ordered about the decency and purity of women. It is ordered that, “Nature has made woman such that she loves, and dies for, one person alone.”

And men?

Man’s nature has variety. He turns towards a new woman every instant.

Why sirs! Who has given you this news? A woman’s nature has also been adapted to your requirement, so that you can proceed with your whoring with abandon, blaming “nature”; and use it to chain the wife’s feet lest – by going against nature – she seek out the neighbor, and lose her feminine delicacy in the process. Over and above this, the men have even shoved in nature into this conspiracy; although this tactic has never been successful. Whenever women sought to attract men, the men never even knew. They kept believing that women are virtuous and decent, this is their nature. Then why to fear? But someone please ask them, who has told you that women only love once?

This is all artificial talk. The times are changing, and cannot be stopped by these aphorisms. The values of life will change good or bad directions, however much we mourn, rack our brains. The circumstances will not let women remain at their homes in peace. We should think what sort of training we should impart to our sister, daughter, mother and wife when we are forced to send them to work alongside the men.  Whether we should advise them according to the ancient aphorisms to maintain their shame and modesty and to drown themselves within the feelings of femininity at all times; or that when you go to work, do not take your femininity and airs with you. Do your work there on the basis of your labour, not on the basis of your femininity. It is better that your colleagues do not feel that you are a woman; rather they should mind their own business by treating you as a fellow worker. After all, they are men, you are a woman. Do not knowingly make a show of this to him so that both of you can keep your mental peace, and instead of being attracted to each other, you are inclined towards work.

In Western countries, women work alongside the men, but blow the trumpet of their femininity rather more than is required. They will use make-up every hour, do their hair and will use every air and grace to get a date (or invitation) which have reached them via newspapers and magazines. Thousands of products and perfumes are advertised in their magazines merely to lure men as bait. It has also been ingrained in the heart of their woman that their life has only one purpose which is to be loved by someone, who marries them and bestows upon them the gift of progeny. But how many girls are there who can fulfill these life dreams by using the prescriptions given in magazines? The majority consists of those who lure men and then become the latter’s victims; and spend their entire lives waiting for the prince of the fairies. A country where women are so unfortunate and their thoughts so distracted, no wonder their boys become teddies and the girls forceful regarding their femininity.

I saw women working is every field in (Soviet) Russia. No one had any make-up on their faces, neither the hair had been done. Most of them were uniformed like the men so that it was difficult to identify them. They seemed absolutely like men. I thought ill of this murder of femininity.

I inquired and my (Soviet) comrade told me, “We don’t want anyone displaying their femininity or masculinity during work.”

“Why? In that case won’t they become machines?”

“That’s even better…so you think machines are something insignificant? The hand-made machine is only a little less sacred than the idol carved from stone. If stones listen to us, these machines too are our overlords; more beloved to us than cows and oxen. Because we ourselves have made them with great love. Now if we become like them and work with as much nobility and honesty, the purpose of our life will be fulfilled. There are neither women nor men among these machines; similarly their operators too do not have a gender. Everyone is a worker and machine.”

But at the night’s banquet I saw these machines had come alive, and the rights of life and humanity were being duly accorded in full.

In the factory, there was a machine to melt iron here, one for shaping it there; here was Masha, there Natasha. On one side were machines for shaping the (machines) parts, and on the other were Yuri and Vera.

But in the Bolshoi Theatre Yuri’s arm was around Nadya’s waist and Natasha was busy driving the arrows of her intoxicating eyes in Romanov’s heart. If a woman shows her womanhood at the right opportunity, it befits her. But what is this that she goes on gathering the basket of femininity in colleges, offices and departments.

When we know that women will indeed have to work with men tomorrow, if not today, we will have to construct new aphorisms, forgetting the present ones:

  1. In college or school, you are neither mother nor daughter; nor beloved, just a student; and the others are professors and students.
  2. In offices, you are neither loyal nor disloyal in love; just do your work properly and forget your airs.
  3. The people who are around you are all human; neither men nor women, they are either officers or clerks; here is a table, chair and peon. You are neither weak nor strong, neither the delicate sex nor the harsher sex. Your work is for what you get paid until you change your profession. You have been created by Nature for this same use; you are here not for luring a husband or wife but only for work. Neither take advantage, nor damage anyone with (your) physical or mental strength or weakness.
  4. Your destination is not just marriage; because marriage is not reaching your destination, rather negotiating it is actually the long road.

But Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) used to say: “O woman you are half woman, half dream!”

Had someone asked for his wife’s opinion, she might have said that Gurudev himself was a total dream as well as the most beautiful interpretation of a dream too!

But “women are not messengers”…  “women are not prophets”… “women are not spiritual”.

Then why doesn’t anyone stand up and say, “Women are not women!”’

Raza Naeem
is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, US. He is presently working on translations of the selected work of Sibte Hasan, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Abdullah Hussein, and contributes regularly to NewslineThe News on Sunday and The Friday Times. He has curated and moderated a first-ever edition of Banned Books Week in Pakistan in Lahore in September 2014; a second edition in September 2015; a third edition in 2016; and a fourth edition in September 2017 in collaboration with Olomopolo. He is the recipient of a prestigious 2013-2014 Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in the UK for his translation and interpretive work on Saadat Hasan Manto’s essays. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic partition novel, The Weary Generations. He can be reached at:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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