Urdu Shaeraat Aur Nisaee Shaoor:
Sau Baras Ka Safar (1920-2020)
By Fatema Hassan
Virsa Publications, US
ISBN: 978-6277567002
277pp.

Her male-sounding name notwithstanding, British writer George Eliot (1819-1880) was a woman. Born Mary Ann Evans, she was a novelist, poet, translator and one of the leading litterateurs of the Victorian era. However, she was compelled to assume the masculine pen name so that critics would ‘take her seriously’.

This, in itself, is a reminder of how hard it must have been — even in the West — for women writers to claim their rightful status in the literary world. And that was not too long ago. Meanwhile, in our part of the world, it was even harder for women who chose to express themselves with words: they either did not publish what they wrote or, like Eliot, had to hide their identity behind the veil of a nom de plume.

Our early literary historians were almost all male, and almost all of them completely ignored women writers. If they ever did mention any, it was cursorily. The names of many women who composed poetry in the Urdu language in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier are not known, even though a large number of them were writing verses, as proven by Bahaaristan-i-Naaz, the first book to ever record the names and works of Urdu’s women poets.

Bahaaristan-i-Naaz was written by Hakeem Faseehuddin Ranj Meruthi, a disciple of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and the first edition was published in 1864 (for comparison’s sake, this was about five years after George Eliot published her first novel).

Tracing and recording this sensibility could not have been an easy task, as Urdu’s literary criticism is yet one more world dominated by male critics and researchers. Surmounting this obstacle was key, the reasoning being that “even if male critics write on women’s creative works, their attitude is either partisan or patronising.”

Meruthi’s book recorded the names of 70 women poets and also contained samples of their work. The third edition came out in 1882 and in it, the list of names had swelled to 174.

This was no mean achievement in a society that frowned upon even mentioning a woman’s name in public and many women poets had to use a fictitious name. Some who belonged to comparatively enlightened families used their father’s or husband’s name instead.

For instance, renowned author Qurratulain Hyder’s mother used to write under the name ‘Bint-i-Nazrul Baqar’ or ‘daughter of Nazrul Baqar’. Later in life she took the name Nazr Sajjad Hyder. And who can forget poet Sirajuddin Zafar’s mother, who wrote under the name ‘Mrs Abdul Qadir’? Her own name was Zainab, but she never mentioned it.

It was not until quite late into the 20th century that our female writers began to publish under their own names. Zahida Khatoon Sherwaniya — a remarkable woman poet who died quite young in the early 20th century — would use her initials Ze Khe Sheen (Z.K.Sh). Now, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of women authors writing in Urdu who use their real names and they are rightly proud of their work. But it has not been as easy as it looks today.

For women, demanding their rights or raising their voice against unfair treatment was among the deadly sins. But with the rise of feminism, women writers not only began to claim their rightful place in society and the literary world, but also found it easier to have their voices heard.

An interesting account of this long-winding and treacherous, but rewarding, journey has been presented by poet, critic and fiction writer Fatema Hassan. Her book Urdu Shaeraat Aur Nisaee Shaoor: Sau Baras Ka Safar (1920-2020) [Urdu Poetry and the Feminine Consciousness: A 100-Year Journey (1920-2020)] captures the essence of the feminine sensibility that was the guiding light in this courageous journey.

Tracing and recording this sensibility could not have been an easy task, as Urdu’s literary criticism is yet one more world dominated by male critics and researchers. Surmounting this obstacle was key, and Hassan mentions in the very first sentence of her foreword that to do so meant “women writers themselves would have to write criticism on women’s writings.”

The reasoning is that “even if male critics write on women’s creative works, their attitude is either partisan or patronising.” Hassan feels that women writers’ works were being misinterpreted by male critics and it was of utmost importance to unearth the real themes in poetry written by women.

To achieve her purpose, Hassan analyses the works of those poets who published their collections between 1920 and 2020. Beginning with towering figures such as Ze Khe Sheen and Ada Jafri, the book takes readers through 100 years of poems and ends with representatives of modern feminist sensitivity, such as Ambreen Haseeb Amber and Hassan herself.

In between, we find about a hundred or so women poets from both Pakistan and India, who composed verses in Urdu with skill and finesse. Hassan’s book speaks of not only them, but also of the volumes of the proverbial midnight oil that must have gone into compiling such a comprehensive critical analysis.

The reviewer is former professor, Department of Urdu, University of Karachi; former chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board, Karachi; and now heads the National Language Promotion Department in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 24th, 2022

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