COLUMN: Early 20th-century Muslim women’s travel accounts

Published August 17, 2014
CLAIRE CHAMBERS teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers
CLAIRE CHAMBERS teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers

IN my last column I began exploring the written accounts of early Muslim migrants to Britain through an examination of Mirza Sheikh I’tesamuddin’s The Wonders of Vilayet (1784). Over a century later, we encounter two early examples of female Muslim travel writers in Britain, Atiya Fyzee and Shahbano Begum Maimoona Sultan.

Atiya came to Britain as a single woman aged nearly 30 to study at the Maria Grey teacher training college in 1906-7. Here she wrote letters to her sisters about her European experience. These letters were soon serialised in an Urdu women’s journal, published as a book in 1921, and reproduced as Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Sunil Sharma’s comprehensive English translation, Atiya’s Journeys (2010).

Five years later, Maimoona Sultan departed for England by steamship from Bombay, taking stops in Aden and France, and glimpsing a Sicilian volcano along the way. Just 14 when she published her book A Trip to Europe, Maimoona was from an even longer line of female Urdu travel writers. She was the youngest daughter-in-law of and travelled with one of these women, Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum of Bhopal, who had herself earlier written an account of her Hijaz pilgrimage.

Unsurprisingly, given her mother-in-law’s status, the purpose of Maimoona’s 1911 trip was more highfalutin than Atiya’s pursuit of education: she and Her Highness were to pay their respects at George V’s coronation.

The Fyzees were from an aristocratic Sulaimani Bohra Muslim background. Atiya’s father had a strong Turkish mercantile connection and she was born in Constantinople, raised in Bombay, and died in relative poverty in Karachi. The Afghan-origin Maimoona Sultan was born in Peshawar and was brought up from the age of five in Bhopal by the Nawab Begum. These authors demonstrate the porous borders between India, Afghanistan, Turkey, and modern-day Pakistan, just as many of the 18th-century male travel writers showed strong links between India and Persia.

Atiya, writing just a few years after the death of Queen Victoria, is a recognisably modern and independent traveller. This is reflected in her middlebrow modernist style, which is often frivolous and hyperbolic. She writes of a trip into central London a few months after arriving in Britain: “How many lights! What costumes! Such fashionable women!” and punctuates her text with the humorous exclamations, “oho!”, “uf!”, and “ahahaha!”.

On the other hand, writing in the immediate pre-war period, Maimoona uses a ponderous, Victorian style when reconstructing George V’s coronation through second- hand accounts (she was in purdah so had to rely on her mother-in-law’s and newspaper accounts). She solemnly and archaically writes, “a shout of ‘God Save King George,’ springing from loyal hearts, rent the air.”

This difference in tone can be accounted for, first, by the fact that Maimoona is half Atiya’s age and exhibits the earnestness of an over-protected teenager. By contrast, Atiya is worldly and does not lack for male attention — from writers Maulana Shibli Nomani and Allama Iqbal, no less. Second, Maimoona’s royal blood marginally trumps Atiya’s pedigree, but smothers her with rules about purdah. “The sequestered Maimoona,” write Lambert-Hurley and Sharma devastatingly, “gave the impression that she saw little more than the inside of hotels and curtained motor-cars.” Maimoona was stuck in London’s suburbs, rather than being close to the capital’s action as was Atiya. The greatest impact on Maimoona is the Nawab Begum, whose imprint is all over this travelogue:

“Her Highness says that Turkey has yet many things to learn and to do, the Turks being in almost all respects a long way behind Europe. Her Highness admits that owing to their religious training they are not wanting in Islamic civility and hospitality, but it is very sad that they have begun to show a sort of indifference to religion. Her Highness was specially struck with this religious remissness ...”

The repetition of “Her Highness” at the beginning of each of these three sentences suggests that the Nawab Begum’s opinions have been directly decanted into Maimoona’s reportage.

Atiya’s relatives have an unusual approach to women’s veiling, travel, and seclusion. Rather than ‘going native’ and adopting Western dress, Atiya wears a family version of the veil, the Fyzee charshaf, which is a Turkish women’s floor-length cloak worn with a head-covering and gloves. Instead of the ‘oppressive’ veil that is such a Western obsession to this day, it is a liberating garment that can be adapted to its context, as Atiya shows by teaming it with “good walking shoes” and thickening it to keep out the cold. This modest dress enables Atiya to travel where and with whom she wants.

Moreover, British women of the period had their own burdens. When Atiya goes to see the famed English contralto Clara Butt sing, she pities her:

“Regarding the waist I remembered this line of poetry:

Divan men khali hi jagah chhod di main ne Mazmun hai bandha teri nazuk kamari ka.

I left a blank spot in my book of poetry, When I created an image of your delicate waist.

God knows how she can bind herself and sing in such a constricted state, and that too with a smile. These people bear all kinds of tortures for the sake of appearance.”

In observing the cinched-in waist of the singer, Atiya is reminded of the ever-tinier waists of Urdu poetry’s beloveds, which shows that she astutely understands women’s oppression across cultures. (I have been unable to trace the origins of this she’r, and welcome readers to contact me if they recognise these lines.)

The women retain their pluralist Islamic faith while travelling in Europe and are not seduced by the various brands of Christianity and secularity they see there. Atiya’s distinctively Muslim sensibility is clear when she finds the new Underground railway “like the workings of a jinn.” Maimoona is sceptical of a shrine in Cairo that apparently has healing properties, but joyous when the Turkish Sultan gives her mother-in-law a relic said to be the Prophet’s (pbuh) hair.

Yet the two writers frequently rub up against fixed ideas about “Mahomedans” in imperial London. Atiya attends a talk at which Muslims are described as a backward-looking and “slothful” community. She finds herself in agreement: “Dear sisters, he spoke the truth, if we feel bad that’s our choice.” These women are thus perhaps too willing to accept Orientalist criticism of Muslim societies. Indeed, Maimoona argues that “it is wrong not to tell one’s co-religionists their weak points,” censuring the Turks, for example, for not having any “lady doctors” despite their Muslim faith.

Both are fascinated by education, which they regard as the only route to women’s and Muslims’ uplift. As Atiya, the budding teacher, argues, “higher education is a heavenly thing.” Her Highness also values learning, telling Maimoona that education is “a jewel, whose lustre can never fade.” But Atiya wonders when there will be universal education for South Asian girls.

Even back then, Atiya and Maimoona were debating this ongoing and seemingly intractable problem of how to benefit from a Western education while maintaining South Asian ways. In what became Atiya’s homeland, Pakistan, only 29 per cent of girls attended secondary school in 2008-12. But in their travels and writings, these women writers encapsulate the saying of the Prophet (pbuh): “Seek know­ledge even if you have to go as far as China.” They educate us with their texts, observations, and the bold spirit in which they lived.

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