Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani Urdu Writing
By Amina Yaqin
Folio Books
ISBN: 978-969-7834-45-7
320pp.

Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani Urdu Writing by Amina Yaqin is a comparative study of Urdu literature’s pre- and post-Partition eras. The author undertakes a comprehensive examination of the various conceptions and representations of gender, sexuality and feminism in Urdu literature during these eras across five chapters, as well as a separate concluding chapter.

Amina Yaqin is currently an Associate Professor of World Literatures and Publishing at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. She has researched and written widely on gender, Urdu literary culture, postcolonial theory and Muslim Studies.

Yaqin outlines her overall argument and its scope in the first and introductory chapter. She also simultaneously contextualises her overall topic in the light of various topics in South Asian Studies. These cover resistance movements, folk literatures, Sufism, 19th- and 20th-century Muslim upper class cultures, reform movements, women’s education, women writers and the Progressive Writers’ Movement, and post-Partition socio-political climes of Pakistan.

Her introduction could easily function as a literature review. Therefore, it will prove to be a great asset to any student or scholar of humanities and social sciences working in the realm of South Asian Studies, starting their research on any of these topics.

An academic book providing a comparative look at pre- and post-Partition era writing in Urdu literature is an extremely useful tool for researchers

The next two chapters are mostly presented as context-based overviews of 19th-century Urdu literary texts and women’s writings during the times of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. However, Yaqin has also selected certain literary texts from both these time periods, which she believes represent their respective eras and also connect with the overall scope of this book. She has given a textual analysis of each of these texts. The second chapter is, therefore, a textual analysis of the monumental works of authors such as Nazir Ahmad and Mirza Hadi Ruswa.

Similarly, in the third chapter, she analyses the Urdu poetry written by women poets who wrote under the influence of the tenets of the Progressive Writers’ Movement during the first half of the 20th century. Like the introductory chapter, the second and third chapters can be potentially useful texts for students and scholars researching on either of these topics.

Similarly, the next two chapters, four and five, form the central focus of this book. In Chapter Four, Yaqin discusses the life and works of the renowned and much loved Urdu poet Fahmida Riaz, exploring, among other aspects of her work, how Riaz expresses a gendered conception of identity that has been entrenched in the imaginations of both language and culture that transcend the boundaries of the nation in her writings.

Next, in Chapter Five, the author discusses the life and works of Kishwar Naheed, another equally renowned and much loved Urdu poet. Yaqin analyses how Naheed’s innovative contributions to Urdu poetry has helped her to breach the boundaries of sharafat, respectability and patriotism.

All the earlier chapters, which can be thought as standalone portions of the book, are essentially all contextualising the author’s arguments presented in these two chapters. For this reason, any student or scholar studying Urdu literature, especially feminist literature, will benefit from reading chapters four and five to a great extent.

Yaqin’s book is remarkable in the sheer clarity of its overall scope. For instance, its title encapsulates its main topics in a few concise words. Anyone considering purchasing the book at a local bookshop would immediately grasp what it is about by looking at the title. Within the book, the author has also consistently maintained this sense of clarity. One of the ways in which she has achieved this is by peppering the text, at somewhat regular but definitely well-placed intervals, with transition markers that clearly signal where the argument is now headed to.

Yaqin’s book is remarkable in the sheer clarity of its overall scope. For instance, its title encapsulates its main topics in a few concise words. Anyone considering purchasing the book at a local bookshop would immediately grasp what it is about by looking at the title.

Within the book, the author has also consistently maintained this sense of clarity. One of the ways in which she has achieved this is by peppering the text, at somewhat regular but definitely well-placed intervals, with transition markers that clearly signal where the argument is now headed to.

This is immensely helpful in directing one’s reading process and maintaining one’s focus while reading. In fact, this is very extraordinary indeed, because Yaqin’s book covers such a wide variety of topics and analyses so many literary texts that, if it lacked this clarity, it could have resulted in a sub-par reading experience.

Another positive aspect of this comprehensiveness is that it enables researchers to use various sections of Yaqin’s book according to their needs, based on their respective research topics. For example, someone researching Fahmida Riaz and/or Kiswhwar Naheed could benefit much from reading those specific chapters.

Similarly, someone researching 19th century Urdu novels and their representation of women and the overall Muslim society of that era might benefit from the second chapter. Hence, Yaqin’s book is not limited to only gender, sexuality and feminism in Pakistani Urdu literature, but can easily be of much use in various other research topics as well.

Unfortunately, one’s reading experience is adversely affected by terrible copyediting and proofreading errors that are littered throughout the book. One finds at least one proofreading/typographical error per page, which interferes with one’s comprehension and understanding of the complex concepts and arguments made by the author. The editorial team responsible for the book could have been a little more careful. However, these editorial oversights cannot, and do not, minimise the value of this book.

Yaqin’s latest publication is an important academic contribution to Urdu literary studies, as well as to the South Asian Studies discipline. It is, primarily, of great interest to an academic readership — mainly academics, students, and scholars whose research interests lie within the realms of Urdu literature, comparative South Asian literary studies, general South Asia studies, as well as several other disciplines within humanities and social sciences.

That said, since this book is heavily academic, it is likely that most general readers would lack the inclination or interest in buying and reading it.

The reviewer is pursuing an MPhil in English literature. Her research focuses on various South Asian literary traditions, including Anglophone literatures of South Asia, resistance movements and resistance poetry, as well as Urdu and Sindhi literatures. X: @sabro20

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 12th, 2024

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