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Deciphering Rashid Jahan’s ‘Behind the Veil’ as a Critique against Patriarchal Hegemony

 


Dr. Sarita Singh

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Maharaja Bijli Pasi Govt. PG College

Aashiyana, Lucknow, India

 

Abstract:

For all the feminist ideology, there still persists exploitation of women in all its possibilities. Thus, exploitation becomes the sole predicament of women, of any colour, age, caste, race, nationality, financial status or of holding any position in the society.

One such thought-provoking fearless portrayal of women exploitation is witnessed in Rashid Jahan’s one-act play, ‘Parde ke Peechhe’, translated in English as, ‘Behind the Veil’. It is a strong attack on the practice of giving birth to too many children, early marriages, polygamy, and the way a wife is treated as only a body to satisfy one’s physical lust. The play strongly condemns misconstrued religious constraints that make a woman suffer incessantly in a patriarchal society.

This paper is an attempt to decipher how through a conversation between two Muslim women, Rashid Jahan conveys the acceptance of their exploitation as a normal routine at the hands of patriarchy. They seem to be totally oblivious of the fact that they are living a life of use and abuse. They complain at times during the conversation, but that complain lacks cohesion and assertion.

Keywords: Feminism, Religious Constraints, Patriarchy, Family Planning, Marital Sex

Dead or alive, chivalry, in whatever sense is interpreted, is a man’s inclination to defend a woman against everyman but him. Thomas de Quincy writes that chivalrous good intentions in the male are fatally undermined, so that the woman, in spite of everything, meets her destined fate.For all the feminist ideology that exists or has existed, there is a continuous lurking idealism of hearth and heaven, where ever and whenever, a woman is discussed. This refuge is mostly violated, the household wrecked, not by social interference from without but by suspect guardianship from within. Thus, exploitation becomes the sole predicament of women, of any colour, age, caste, race, nationality, financial status or of holding any position in the society.

This is the 21st century, yet we are being witness to horrendous stories of Nirbhaya, Asifa, Disha (rape victims), Nisha Sharma, Gitanjali, Deepansha Sharma (dowry victims), Lakshmi Agarwal, Reshma Qureshi (acid attack survivors), and cases of triple talaqs, even when a legal bill has been passed against it. All this, accelerated by filed and unfiled numerous cases of molestations, work place harassments, eve-teasing, and domestic violence, agonise our hearts at the pitiable condition of women, in an age where we are talking about exploring lives on another planet.

With this background, I intent to begin my paper, which offers a critical commentary on Rashid Jahan’s one-act play, ‘Parde ke Peechhe’, translated in English as, ‘Behind the Veil’. Though the play was written almost ninety years ago, yet the issues raised and protested against, in this play are still prevalent and continue to corrode the inner fabric of various feminist stances, like termites. This short play is a strong attack on the practice of giving birth to too many children in a Muslim household, without caring for the health of the woman. It also criticizes early marriages, polygamy, non-consensual marital sex and the way a wife is treated as only a birth giving machine, with no access to contraceptives. Furthermore, it highlights the gruesome fact that in order to keep his wife’s body prim and proper to gratify his incessant sexual arousals, the man does not even hesitate to succumb her body under a surgeon’s knife again and again. She boldly raises the issue of sexually transmitted diseases, a taboo topic in almost all the sections of the society, irrespective of their religion. The play strongly condemns the ways through which Maulavis and others manipulate Islamic religious verses as constraints that make a woman, nonetheless a wife, suffer in a patriarchal society.

Before I embark upon my journey to critically analyse various facets of, ‘Behind the Veil’, it becomes a necessity to dig into the psyche of Rashid Jahan, that produced such a thought-provoking fearless portrayal of an elite Muslim family. One must mark that she herself was never subjected to the patriarchal subjugation in her life, yet she took the initiative and did what is expected of each and every individual who receives proper education; for the purpose of education is not solely to solve one’s livelihood issues but also to enlighten and ameliorate the society. This liberalism that fuelled her passion was not just an outcome of her family environment and education but was hereditary as well, as her father, Sheikh Abdullah, himself was a great advocator of women education who established the renowned Women’s College in Aligarh. She completed her medical degree as a gynaecologist from Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi. Having joined the Provincial Medical Services, she moved from city to city.

Her audacity eventually got reflected and noticed when her short story, ‘Dilli ki Sair’ and a one-act play, ‘Parde ke Peechhe’, was published in a collection of literary works of several other male writers, by the name, ‘Angaarey’ in 1932. Through her contributions, she tried to expose the religious dogmas, challenged the religious hypocrisy of the Maulavis and to share a glimpse of what happens behind the curtains, that are hailed as the keeper of women dignity, in any Muslim household. Her motive was always didactic and to bring about a social change rather then become the cynosure of all eyes for her defiant ways of expressions. Her bold and fiery manner, irked the consciousness of many ‘intellectuals’, religious conservatives and self-proclaimed ‘guardians’ of Islam. It is interesting to note here that in 2006 again we have another Muslim woman writer, though not from India, Tasleema Nasreen who too gets ‘Fatwa’ issued; this once again confirms the hollowness of the discourse of female emancipation.

The strong criticism of the book by the All-India Shia Conference at Lucknow led to its ban and the Clerics even issued Fatwa in her name. All this conglomeration of censure and condemnation forced the government to ban this one act piece of raging thoughts. However, this strong criticism could not deter her from further revolutionising her life when she joined the Communist Party in 1933 and then later on founded the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936. Shaista Ikramullah acknowledges the contribution of Rashid Jahan as deserving special merit and mention in her survey of the development of the Urdu novel and short story (241.)

This one-act play, tells the tale through the conversation of two elite class Muslim women, who accept their fate and the exploitation as a normal routine; they seem to be totally oblivious to the fact that they are living a life of use and abuse. They complain at times during the conversation, but that complain lacks cohesion and assertion. It is as if the they are just not aware of anything like women rights and decisions. For them, the word and wish of their husbands, is their heaven and to think beyond that or to refute that, is blasphemy.

Through the conversation of both of her female protagonists, Rashid Jahan investigates marriage  the most celebrated, hallowed and a perfect structure for an edified social association and for the proliferation of the species, in almost all the societies of the world, as an all-pervading tool to dissipate various ways of patriarchy that aim at complete suppression of women. This play in a very modest manner highlights the patriarchal determinants that decide her code of conduct, her exclusion and inclusion in the family matters, in a way that she begins to consider the four walls of her household as her one and only existence.

The usage of the term, ‘veil’ also offers several connotations in this regard. The ‘veil’ or the ‘purdah’ not only is referred to as a piece of cloth separating the male quarters from the female ones, but it is a metaphor for the constructed difference between man and woman. It is a symbol of male dominance. The ‘veil’ ends up being a successful weapon to limit the advancement of the Muslim ladies who are kept to their conventional jobs. The ‘veil’ in this play hides the sufferings and the plights of Muslim women leading a disruptive life. The men of the house act totally oblivious of this suffering that they themselves bring about. Not only are they blind towards their physical torments but also have no qualms about their emotional requirements. The vanity of patriarchal veil not only blind their vision, but also, numbs their sensibilities as well.

The ‘veil’ also presents what happens behind it, through the conversations of both the protagonists of the play. The affluency of a socially respectable Muslim family is ruthlessly and unashamedly laid open through the heart wrenching chat between two female friends.

The play begins in a quarter restricted as ‘Zenana’ in a Muslim household, with all the regular paraphernalia that adorn any upper-class Muslim quarter. We have two women, Aftab Begum, aged about 40 and Mohammadi Begum, a bit younger than Aftab, as we are told later on in the play, yet she looks quite old, and worn-out. Having been married at an early age, she has been continuously bearing children every year, except once when her husband was abroad and again when they had a fight. Due to continuous pregnancy, she has become weaker and ill shaped and as a result her children are also under-nourished. The high temper and quarrelling nature of her children is a testimony that she is negligent towards them and her only purpose in life seems just to be there for her husband. Her plight is visible when she confides that her husband does not allow her to breastfeed her babies at it would hamper with the routine to satisfy his insatiable lust, and so she has a number of helpers or ‘aayaas’ to take care of her children. She even lost one of her babies who contacted venereal disease from one of the maids. She further shares that her husband often visits prostitutes to gratify his physical cravings and the blatant way she speaks about it, shows that she is least worried about that. She even had her tummy re-fixed twice to stay in shape, lest her husband should remarry and even gets her teeth pulled out, because her husband found breath stinking, due to pyorrhoea.

The mention of a lady doctor in the play with whom Mohammadi Begum confides in about her husband’s insatiable lust, is very important. Rashid Jahan, who herself was a doctor, is trying to show the difference and change that education and equal opportunity can bring into a woman’s life. She presents a comparison, with Mohammadi Begum on one side and the lady doctor on the other. In fact, Mohammadi Begum praises her independence that because she is financially independent, she can make her own decisions in life whereas she herself who is totally dependent on her husband cannot do that. Thus, Rashid Jahan very subtly enforces the idea that to change women’s lot, female education is a must.

However, her suffering turns into torment when she comes to know that her husband wants to marry a cousin of hers, Razia, who is as young as their daughter, Sabira. This breaks her psychologically, and she seems to be leading a life which is just waiting to be freed from its last breath. She admits that if it were not for her children, she would have died. She vehemently opposes the re-marriage but then her husband threatens her with his Shariya right to re-marry. Here, we see how men contrive religion to suit their needs. The holy book of Quran states that “And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women”. (2: 228) She blows away the charade of Muslim religious leaders. Islam gives an important place to women in the society and there are several verses in the Holy Quran that implore men to treat women with kindness and respect, for ex., “And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them-perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good”. (4:19)

She is presented as a woman who is not allowed to have any desire of her own, no dreams of her own, no say in the cruel torture of her soul, mind and body, no decision in the manner of upbringing of her children, no identity of her own, in fact, she is even denied the maternal pleasure of breastfeeding her children. While the Holy Quran says, “Mothers may breastfeed their children two complete years for whoever wishes to complete the nursing [period]. Upon the father is the mothers' provision and their clothing according to what is acceptable. No person is charged with more than his capacity. No mother should be harmed through her child, and no father through his child.” (2:233) Thus, misinterpretation of the holy verses has continuously been used as a weapon to subordinated and terrorize Muslim women.

In fact, not only Mohammadi Begum, the other protagonist, Aftab Begum, also shares the same acceptance of patriarchal authority and advises her to conform to the fixed societal norms. Yet for once, she chides Mohammadi Begum for allowing her husband to remarry only to remain with him. As it is the time to offer their evening prayer, Aftab Begum takes her leave and the play ends as normally and abruptly as it began, leaving the reader’s mind in a flux of thoughts regarding the constricted life that women live behind the purdah. Their exasperation and disconsolation are quite evident to us as readers, though for them, the conversation might just appear to be a normal sharing of one’s grievances. Dr Shweta Mishra investigates this conversation at three levels, viz., first as a domestic talk between two women, second as sharing of one’s suffering with another woman who could understand, involving a feeling of sisterhood and third in pursuit of living a dignified life. (14)

Rashid Jahan enunciated this play to create a humane consciousness regarding female wants, desires, decisions and health. She longed to deliver the issues discussed by Muslim ladies in their regular talks so that she can bring on to forefront the real issues that traumatize women. She exploited her writing ability as an instrument of social change. She mocks the ideologies that perceive of women as an inferior object. A woman’s status is quite apparent in Oscar Wilde’s, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, wherein he wrote, “My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”

She has been a source of inspiration for the writers of the next generations like Ismat Chughtai, and Attia Hossain, who craved to establish a sense of identity for women through their works. She forced and inspired the writers of the next generation to explore the forbidden areas of a woman’s existence.

However, a pertinent question arise at this point, that even after so many years, why we still have works like Anita Nair’s ‘Mistress’, Tehmina Durrani’s, ‘My Feudal Lord’, Bharti Mukherjee’s ‘Wife’, Bapsi Sidhwa’s ‘Cracking India/Ice Candy Man’ and ‘The Pakistani Bride’, Shashi Deshpande’s ‘A Matter of Time’ and  ‘The Dark Holds No Terror’ and Arundhati Roy’s ‘ The God of Small Things’? Somewhere, it shows that women still are up against the same set of anomalies that they were facing hundred years ago. All these have the subjects of feminine sensibility, feminine aspirations and deprivations, feminine conflicts and resolutions and feminine struggles and survival as their main themes. Their works penetrates into the myriad chaotic layers of female consciousness to decipher their inner turmoil and bring about an awareness of her desire for equality and emancipation from patriarchal constraints. They bring alive the characters that yearn for recognition instead of being victimized. Through their works, it seems that the clarion call of Rashid Jahan still continues to wake and inspire the sleeping beauties to rise to a new dawn of individuality, equality and freedom.

Works Cited

 De Quincey, Thomas. Narrative And Miscellaneous Papers. 19 Nov 2002, www.gutenberg.org/files/6148/6148-h/6148-h.htm.

www.hindisamay.com/content/1093/1/. Accessed on 12/08/2020.

“Rashid Jahan”. Jan 04, 2018, www.alchetron.com/Rashid-Jahan

www.quran.com Accessed on 14/08/2020.

Ikramullah, Shaista Suhrawardy. A Critical Survey of the Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story. Longman Green, 1945, p.241.

Jalil, Rakhshanda. A Rebel and Her Cause: The Life and Work of Rashid Jahan.  Women Unlimited, 2014.

Singh, Madhulika. “Radical Writings on Women: The Work of Dr. Rashid Jahan”. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 75, Platinum Jubilee 2014, pp. 729-735, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44158454. Accessed on 14/08/20.

www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/the-picture-of-dorian-gray.pdf. Accessed on 15/08/20.

Mishra, Shweta. “‘Angarewali” Rashid Jahan’s “Parde ke Peechey”: As a Study of the Voice of Subjugated Muslim Women”. Research Discourse, No. XXV, Oct-Dec 2017, p. 14.