TEHZEEB-I-NISWAN was not the first Urdu periodical for women, as is often erroneously mentioned. But its editor Muhammadi Begum holds the distinction of being the first woman to have ever edited an Urdu magazine. She was among the first women who wrote Urdu novels, too. Muhammadi Begum and her magazine were in fact the forerunners of women’s education in the subcontinent. They were sort of precursors of the feminist movement in Urdu literature.
Rafeeq-i-niswan was the first Urdu magazine published exclusively for women. Launched from Lucknow on March 5, 1884, by a Christian missionary, it was a fortnightly. Akhbaar-un-nisa was the second Urdu magazine for women. Syed Ahmed Dehlvi, the well-known lexicographer and the compiler of Farhang-i-Aasifiya, launched it from Delhi on Aug 1, 1884. Published thrice a month, it used to advocate women’s rights but with a meagre circulation of 350 copies, it could not last long. Munshi Mehboob Alam, a well-known journalist and writer of Urdu, used to publish Paisa akhbaar from Lahore. He launched on Sept 1, 1893, Shareef bibiyaan, an Urdu monthly for women, but had to close it down soon. One of the reasons for the closure of these women’s magazines was a general displeasure of society over the issuance of magazines for women.
In such circumstances, launching a new Urdu magazine for women and making it survive — and that, too, under the editorship of a woman — would have been a pipe dream. But Moulvi Syed Mumtaz Ali (1860-1935), a writer, publisher, editor and follower of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, decided to launch from Lahore a new Urdu magazine for women. He named it Tehzeeb-i-niswan, styled on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Tehzeeb-ul-akhlaaq, and made his second wife, Muhammadi Begum, its editor. Taking a cue from Sir Syed, the couple wanted to promote education among women and reform them. Tehzeeb-i-niswan was not Urdu’s first periodical for women but it was a first such weekly. It was also the first such periodical to survive beyond a few years. Its first issue, consisting of eight pages, appeared on Friday, July 1, 1898, from Lahore.
Initially, the publication of this journal for women was scoffed at and it faced stiff resistance. Mumtaz Ali used to send complimentary copies which were returned without being opened and often accompanied with letters abusing him and his editor wife. The public was suspicious of their motives, though Muhammadi Begum was a perfectly pious and purdah-observing lady, educated at home and immersed in eastern and Islamic culture. Mumtaz Ali was a Deoband-educated moulvi, though he had later embraced Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Islamic modernism. The number of subscribers was very discouraging: a mere 60 to 70 — even three months after the journal began publication. But Mumtaz Ali persisted and slowly the journal began to make inroads into educated middle-class Muslim families of the subcontinent. At the end of 1901, Tehzeeb-i-niswan had 345 subscribers, but the number rose to 417 in 1902 and 428 in 1903, wrote Mumtaz Ali, in Jan 2, 1904, issue of the magazine, as quoted by Beena Rasheed, in her MPhil dissertation recently submitted at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad.
Tehzeeb-i-niswan outlived both Muhammadi Begum and Mumtaz Ali and many Urdu periodicals, too. After their death, Mumtaz Ali’s daughter Syeda Waheeda Begum edited it and later Mumtaz Ali and Muhammadi Begum’s son Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj became its editor in 1935. It lasted for over 50 years and its last issue was published in 1949. Tehzeeb-i- niswan played a vital role in creating awareness of women’s education and their rights. In addition to Muhammadi Begum, its contributors included some luminaries of Urdu literature such as Atiya Begum Fyzee, Zehra Begum, and Nazar Sajjad Hyder Yildirim.
Muhammadi Begum was born on May 22, 1878, in Shahpur, Punjab. Her father, Syed Ahmed Shafi was the principal of Wazeerabad High School and the made sure that she received good education at home. In 1897, Muhammadi Begum was married to Syed Mumtaz Ali, whose first wife had died a few years before. Mumtaz Ali had been an advocate of women’s rights and female education and had been planning to launch a women’s magazine. He owned the famous Dar-ul-isha’at Punjab, a publishing house, and Rifah-i-aam press, a printing press. Being a writer, publisher and printer, he soon realised that Muhammadi Begum could be trained to become a good editor of the proposed magazine.
Thus began her training in English, Hindi, Persian, Arabic, proofreading mathematics, and editing. In addition to tending home, she had to look after Mumtaz Ali’s two children he had with the first wife. A few years after Tehzeeb-i-niswan was launched, her son Imtiaz Ali was born. Later, she began writing stories and books, often handwritten and bound, especially for Imtiaz Ali, whom she used to call Taj. With her education and training, her son turned out to be a famous playwright, researcher, editor and director of Majlis-i-taraqqi-i-adab, known as Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj. She wrote a number of lullabies for Taj when he was quite young, which later appeared in book form under the title Khwab-i-rahat, one of the few collections of Urdu lullabies. Muhammadi Begum’s other works include Imtiaz pachchisi, Imtiaz phulwari (stories and essays handwritten especially for Imtiaz but could not be published), Anmol moti (poems for girl child), Aaj kal, Aadab-i-mulaqaat, Paan ki glori, Taj phool, Taj geet, Chandan haar, Hayat-i-Ashraf, Khana dari, Rafeeq-i-aroos, Riaz phool, Sachche moti, Sughar beti, Shareef beti, Safia Begum, Ali baba chalees chor, Naimat khana and some other books. Names of some more books of hers are mentioned, but no copy has been reported found.
Muhammadi Begum established some organisations such as schools for girls and a shop in Lahore exclusively for women, run by women, where only women could shop. In 1905, she also launched another magazine named Musheer-i-maadar for mothers, which closed down after her death.
All this hard work took a heavy toll and she fell seriously ill. Muhammadi Begum died, aged 30, on Nov 2, 1908, at Simla and was buried in Lahore.
Most of her works and copies of Tehzeeb-i-niswan are extremely hard to come by. C.M. Naim has published Hayat-i-Ashraf, a biography of Ashraf Bibi or Ashraf-un-Nisa, a female teacher who inspired Muhammadi Begum. Files of Tehzeeb-i-niswan have been digitised at Mushfiq Khwaja Library and can be accessed online.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2015