She was born Ashrafun Nisa Begum in September 1840, in a Shia family that held a small zamindari in Bahnera, a small town in Bijnaur district, north-east of Delhi. She died in May 1903 in Lahore, where she was widely known as ‘Ustani Sahiba.’ Here we shall equally respectfully refer to her as ‘Bibi Ashraf,’ as was also done by some in her time. When she was growing up she was forbidden to learn to read and write. But when she died, Bibi Ashraf had been teaching little girls of Lahore to read and write — and much more — for 25 years. What had transpired? How did she obtain what her guardians had forbidden?
Bibi Ashraf grew up in her grandfather’s house. Her father had struck out on his own, much against the wishes of his father, and worked as a lawyer in the princely state of Gwalior, far away from Bijnaur. Her mother had died soon after giving birth to a second child, a son, when Bibi Ashraf was only eight. Consequently she was raised by her grandmother, who loved her, and an aunt, who did not, with everyone under the strict control of her grandfather.
Since there were other little girls in the extended family, a live-in ustani, a young Pathan widow, was hired to instruct them in homemaking talents such as cooking and sewing. She also taught them to ‘read’ the Quran, i.e. to vocalise the Arabic text but could not teach them how to read Urdu because she herself did not know it. After only a couple of years, however, the young ustani’s parents found a match for her and got her remarried. With that, Bibi Ashraf’s grandfather ended the girls’ education. “I can’t even bear the thought of having a stranger in my house teaching my girls,” he declared, “It would be better if the girls remained illiterate.”
Bibi Ashraf could have studied with her mother, but unfortunately she died very soon after the ustani’s departure. By then Bibi Ashraf had learned to vocalise seven chapters of the holy book. Her grandmother, seeing her inconsolable grief at losing her mother, told her to read those chapters every day, and then offer their ‘reward’ to her beloved mother’s soul. Bibi Ashraf was soon doing that several times every day. “The constant repetition improved my reading skill, and soon I could decipher and read forward on my own. In that manner, through God’s favour and my own effort, I finished the Quran in just one year, and a majlis was held to celebrate the occasion.”
But she still could not read Urdu, the language she spoke. Urdu texts did not come then, nor do they come now, equipped with extensive diacritical marks. And the few female relatives who could read Urdu refused to teach her. She begged and begged but they were either scared of her grandfather or just couldn’t be bothered. “‘What would you do with it if you learned to read?’ they said, ‘In any case, teaching isn’t easy, and we don’t have the time or energy to waste.’” Then, if she persisted or began to cry, they would say, “Your crying all the time made you lose your mother; God knows what further misfortune your tears might bring now”. On one such occasion, the little girl wiped her tears and walked away, but when alone she prayed to God for help, and also made a promise: “If I ever learned to read Urdu, God willing, I shall teach that skill to anyone who seeks it, and even forcibly to those who might be unwilling, for I shall never forget the pain I feel right now.”
She then decided to learn on her own, but first she had to find some texts to read. She sent the word out among her female relatives to let her have any devotional poems that they might have, promising to return them after getting them copied. She also asked her grandmother to get her some blank paper from the market. Very soon she had some poems and some paper, but who was there to make copies for her? She could not ask her fearsome grandfather and equally irascible uncle, and no female relative had the necessary skill since writing had always been forbidden to the women in her family.
Tenacious and intrepid, the little girl again decided to do it herself. “I resolved that when at noon everyone rested I shall make some ink with the soot from the tava in the kitchen and start copying. And that is exactly what I did. I gathered some soot, the lid from a water pot, and a few twigs from the broom, then sneaked up to the roof [to be by myself] and happily started copying a poem. Childhood can be so innocent — no sooner had I copied a few words than I felt I had won the battle.”
Before coming back downstairs she broke the ink-stained lid and threw away its pieces. That routine she followed for many days — much to the annoyance of some of the ladies: “They grumbled and cursed the wretch who stole a lid from the pots every day”. And then, much to her dismay, she discovered that though she had made copies she was still not able to read them. “I had spent so much time and effort, but for nothing. I tried but could not make any headway. Then God brought me a teacher.”
One day as she was reading the Quran a younger male relative asked her if she could help him with his daily Quran assignment — he wished to be saved from the thrashing he received daily from his Maulvi Sahib. She agreed. One day, when she was helping him with his assignment, a book fell out of his book bag. It was an Urdu book, its text unmarked with diacritics. “What book is that? I asked. The script is like that of a marsiya. Read me some of it.” The boy did. She liked the contents, and asked him to teach her to read that particular book. The boy refused — he didn’t have the time; the book was too difficult for her; she could never learn — but quickly changed his mind when she threatened to stop helping him. Her joy, however, was short lived. Three days later the boy was sent away to study at Delhi.
But Bibi Ashraf still had his book, and so once again she started teaching herself a new skill on her own. Months of effort finally brought success. She finished the book, then turned to the copies she had made, and found to her great delight that she could make sense of those scrawls. “I said to myself, ‘Whatever one gets, gets only through her own effort’. I then returned to my routine with twigs and kitchen blacking — considering them my true teachers — and started copying sentences from different books. After only a few days’ practice, I was able to freely write from memory.”
But she had to keep it a secret. Though her grandfather had passed away, her uncle was still at home. It was only after he joined his brother in Gwalior that Bibi Ashraf’s ability to read and write became known to all the females in the extended family in Bahnera. Many of them started coming to her to get letters to their husbands written. “The women would disclose to me their innermost secrets, things that they would never speak of in front of anyone. I understood only one-tenth of what they dictated. But the letters I wrote for them brought back replies.”
Then came the turmoil of 1857, and for 18 months the people in Gwalior received no news from Bahnera. When some peace had returned, her father sent a man to find out how everyone had fared. The man took back two letters with him, one from Bibi Ashraf’s grandmother that she had asked her own brother to write on her behalf, and one from Bibi Ashraf that she had written on her own. Her father wrote back to his mother, “Mamun sahib’s letter told me the news of only the members of the household; he didn’t write anything of the turmoil or about the other relatives. The girl’s note, however, made me very happy, for she wrote all that she had heard or seen. Her letter gave me the pleasure of a newspaper or a history book. I read it over every day. But tell me, who taught her to write?” On learning that she had done it on her own, he sent her many gifts; her uncle, however, was very upset, and sent only a chiding note.
In 1859, Bibi Ashraf was married to Syed Alamdar Husain, a second cousin, who had studied Arabic at the famous Delhi College. After a stint in a minor position in the Education Department, he had been appointed as the assistant professor of Arabic and Persian at the Government College, Lahore. Unlike the men of the previous generation, Husain brought his wife to Lahore, where they had four children. Only two survived beyond infancy. Then a bigger calamity happened. Husain died of tuberculosis in 1870; he was then only 39. (Incidentally, it was his vacancy that was then filled with the appointment of Muhammad Husain Azad, the famous writer.)
Shortly thereafter Bibi Ashraf lost her father too. The director of public education, an admirer of her late husband, offered scholarships to the surviving daughters and Bibi Ashraf a teaching job in the local girls’ school; she accepted the scholarships but declined the job, choosing to support the family by doing sewing and lace-making at home. But eventually, in 1878, some elders managed to persuade her to accept the job when it was again offered, and thus began her long career at the Victoria Girls’ School — and the fulfilment of the promise she had made to God when she was in despair over her own illiteracy.
We know about Bibi Ashraf because an equally remarkable woman left us a book about her. Muhammadi Begum was a novelist and poet; she was also the editor of the Tahzib-e Niswan, the famous weekly journal for women that her husband Munshi Mumtaz Ali had started publishing in 1899. (It is little known that it was one of Muhammadi Begum’s poems that provided the title for Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s Bihishti Zevar — he quoted the poem but did not mention her name to protect his own modesty.) Muhammadi Begum knew Bibi Ashraf personally, and persuaded her to write several pieces for the journal, including an account of how she had learned to read and write. At Bibi Ashraf’s death Muhammadi Begum published a poem in Tahzib-e Niswan; then some time later she further expressed her love and admiration for Bibi Ashraf in a short biography entitled Hayat-e-Ashraf. It was privately published and remained lost till it was reprinted in 1978, though again for private distribution. It includes the autobiographical essay by Bibi Ashraf from which I have quoted above.
It is a book that deserves to be better known for several reasons. Besides telling the story of a remarkable person, it throws light on certain facets of middle-class Muslim women’s life in small towns in north India while also giving us a glimpse into the emergent changes in the lives of a similar cohort of women in Lahore at the end of the 19th century. I wrote about it in 1987 in an essay, ‘How Bibi Ashraf Learned to Read and Write’ in The Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 6. I subsequently prepared an English translation of the entire book but have waited to publish it, for I also wish to include, in translation and in Urdu, the 18 short pieces that Bibi Ashraf published in Tahzeeb-e-Niswan between 1899 and 1902. All efforts to find the old files have so far failed. Like so many other things, we have failed to preserve most of the cherished Urdu journals of the past. May I hope now for some reader to step forward and prove me wrong?
C.M. NAIM is Professor Emeritus in the Department of South Asian Languages & Civilisations at the University of Chicago. His two most recent books of essays, A Killing in Ferozewala and The Muslim League in Barabanki were published in 2013 by the City Press, Karachi. A third book, The Hijab and I is expected this year. He blogs at http://cmnaim.com