November 18, 2018


As a writer who happens to be a woman, I’ve often been asked to comment on ‘women’s writing’ in interviews and talk about it on panels at literary festivals. What I often say on this subject: it is useful to look at women’s writing as the study of a marginalised group of people, in order to tease out the subtle and not-so-subtle influences that society, culture, religion and politics have had on writing produced by women. However, this examination should not lead to false belief in the inability of women to produce works worth including in literary canons. And while space must be given to women’s voices in literature, the only reason for that is to catch up on the imbalance that has been caused by historical inequality, not because of the misperceived lack of merit attached to being a writer who is a woman.

Historically, women were not given the same importance or audience as men in the field of classical literature. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Western societies did not even allow women to become literate, so it’s no surprise that, at first glance, women appear to have produced less ‘great’ literature than men (Marie de France is a wonderful exception; her 12th century romantic adventures were popular all over Western Europe and translated into several languages).

Even when literacy among women spread and they began to contribute more visibly to the field of literature, men were still erasing their voices and excluding their contributions. In the days when it was common to view women as overgrown children, women writers couldn’t expect much solidarity from their male counterparts: 18th century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash ... Generally, women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly.”

The same ‘lack’ of and in women artists is observed in music, painting, sculpture or poetry — arts which women have always practised while facing societal opposition. Yet for every Pablo Picasso there is a Camille Claudel, for every Wolfgang Amadeus there is a Maria Anna Mozart, and for every Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Mary Shelley (recent studies show that her work was largely ignored and undervalued). Women have been creating from the beginning, on a par and often surpassing the efforts of their male counterparts. Male domination of the world in which they lived, though, made sure that women’s creative output was stemmed and ignored throughout.

Even in the 20th century, men were dismissing and discounting the work of women: V.S. Naipaul famously said that female writing was “unequal” to his own because of its “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.” Ernest Hemingway spent his life mistreating women (his third wife Martha Gellhorn is considered one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century) and then writing about it. And it is only being acknowledged now how much of an influence Véra Nabokov had on the career of her husband, Vladimir. If she hadn’t spent her life typing his manuscripts, writing his letters and teaching his classes when he was sick, she might well have produced a novel or two of her own.

In the subcontinent, women poets emerged with the advent of Buddhism in the 6th century BC; the Therigatha nuns produced the first anthology of women’s writing, and their poetry outlines life free from the demands of marriage and childbearing. There was even a university open to women in 100 BC, the University of Nalanda, but the records have been lost so all the writing from this revolutionary place has been lost. Moving forward in time, the Mughal era saw the first novel-biography ever written by a woman, Emperor Babur’s youngest daughter Princess Gulbadan Begum. Commissioned by her nephew the Emperor Akbar, she wrote the Humayun-nama, a rich telling of the lives of her father and her brothers, Humayun and Kamran Mirza, and the only piece of literature ever written by a Mughal royal woman.

Like Marie de France, these Indian women were exceptions at a time when women, Muslim and Hindu, were mostly excluded from formal literature. Throughout the classical era, the only women who had regular access to education in the arts and literature were courtesans; for several centuries the only women who could put their names to what they had written were actually called ‘tawaif’ as a title in their author bios. Yet with the advent of British colonialism in the early 1600s, even these women lost patronage and women’s writing came to a standstill until reformist movements and anti-British movements began to pick up pace in the early 19th century.

One of my favourite pieces of early 20th century Indian women’s writing is Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a science fiction short story about a utopia in which women rule and men are kept in sex-segregated quarters, like zenanas. This world, called Ladyland, is kept peaceful by women leaders, progressed by women scientists and perpetuated by love and responsibility for the environment. Although more 20th century Indian women writers favoured the modernist and realist movements, Hossain’s idealistic and optimistic story shows the extent to which women’s minds roamed free even when their bodies were kept imprisoned by the mores of culture, society and religion, and how far a woman’s imagination could go in redressing the injustices visited upon her sex by men.

Though the late 20th and 21st centuries have seen the emergence of some truly great writers who, like me, happen to be women, the idea still exists that women don’t write as well as men, or that even if they do, they won’t be read as widely as men. Such nonsense belongs in the dustbin of history. Women have won Nobel prizes in literature, produced groundbreaking canons and engineered entire genres, and they are writing some of the most exciting and innovative literature today. Thankfully, the academic area of women’s writing as a separate entity has helped to both understand and validate the female perspective. Apart from academia, however, I would argue that the art of writing is one where gender has never dictated merit, only practice and opportunity.

The columnist is a Karachi-based author of seven books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 18th, 2018