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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2018



What about our own roots?  : Problematizing Female Identity in Rashid Jahan’s ‘Behind the Veil

Mohd. Sajid Ansari, Research Scholar, Department of English, AMU Aligarh, U.P. 


You tell me to quiet down cause
My opinions make me less beautiful
But I was not made with a fire in my belly
So I could be put out
I was not made with a lightness in my tongue
So I could be easy to swallow
I was made heavy
Half blade and half silk
Difficult to forget but       
Not easy for the mind to follow. (Kaur)

This poem by Rupi Kaur manifests a sort of issue of feminist writing, claiming an emotional gratification which is both physical and spiritual. These lines are proved as means to confront male-dominated society with an awareness of everyday’s struggle and austerity. Going beyond the established social boundaries and limits, these lines stimulate a range of images to weave a compelling representation of the sexual exploitation of women and motivate to influence the conscience of society.

This paper is an attempt to focus intimate and exact details of the lives of married women as well as their experiences in puritanical and patriarchal society as mirrored in Behind the Veil: A One Act Play by Rashid Jahan, a founder member of Progressive Writers Movement in India. The choice of topic was determined by the increased interest of gender issues in South Asian Literature. The paper tries to capture the musing of radical feminist perspective by interrogating the meaning of identity for the women who belong to middle class Muslim family. Through the portrayal of the protagonist Muhammadi Begum in patriarchal ideology, the research paper will also explore the meaning of identity and its connection to self-actualisation and self-realisation.

Born in the society of traditions and conservative outlook, Dr. Rashid Jahan, popularly known as Angareywali, has distinguished herself as a prominent writer of outspoken characters with autonomous subjectivity. She, as one of the pioneer of radical writings on women’s issues, shaped and moulded her ideas giving form and substance to her desire to bring about lasting social change. She was a writer by choice, doctor by profession and communist by ideology. She came into literary limelight after the publication of her famous short story Dilli Ki Sair (A Trip to Delhi) and her One Act Play Parde Ke Peeche (Behind the Veil) in the literary collection Angarey written in Urdu. Her anthology Angarey is considered as the foundation event of Progressive Writers’ Association. Remembered as a lifelong champion for women’s concerns, Rashid Jahan made use of her writings to convey the plight of the womenfolk of her contemporary time. Locating her narrative in diverse cultural surroundings, she expresses her concern for the reaffirmation of personal relationship with the shift of traditional values. Behind the Veil is a harsh tirade of an upper class married lady who passes her life in solitude. The short play also discloses the secrets of feminine inner world and startles all those who are accustomed to the traditions prevailing around us. The title veil refers to the discursive and material barrier that attempted to demarcate private from public and also unveiled the private sphere that tends to be less visible than the public. The play narrates the story of an ill woman Mohammadi Begum, who is neglected by her husband. The protagonist Mohammadi Begum‘s illness and her husband’s indifferent attitude towards it weaves together a narrative condemning patriarchal society and its seclusion of women, and its oppression through the domesticity of the women.

In early Muslim social arena, women’s identity is defined in terms of relationship with men at various roles of daughter, wife, fiancée, and so on for she does not have an identity of her own. Man needs her to be present around him as an unobtrusive being. The presentation of Muslim women in public life is a challenge in early social literary history. Rashid Jahan maintains that the dogma of female-privacy was prevalent in Muslim gentry. Purdah or Hijab was an exclusive feature among Muslim women. However, the houses of Muslim elites were divided into ‘Mardana’ (the portion exclusively for men) and ‘Zenana’ (place for women where males’ entry was restricted unless they were family members). As a result of it the role of women was governed by patriarchy. Even education was denied to most young, specially privileged Muslim young women. Most importantly she was a woman deeply and passionately engaged with the great debates of her age: anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, gender justice, and more. (Jalil xvi). Behind the Veil from the anthology Angarey is a compact one act play penetrating reflection on life behind the pardah and the blindness of male prerogative towards the women who lead disruptive lives. According to its structured pattern, the short play is an extended dialogue between two women from elite Muslim family lamenting over men’s (their husbands) complete lack of concern for them. It makes a strong enunciation about the women who lived within four walls of their houses whose duties were only limited to the domestic arena. The play reflects the pitiable condition of these women’s health and importance of taking care of their bodies. Rashid Jahan places her women characters mostly as high elite or middle class Muslims in conflict with a parochial society and depicts their struggle of popping out of their shells.

The play begins with the sordid conversation between Mohammadi Begum and Aftab Begum exposing protagonist Mohammadi Begum’s withdrawal and helplessness:
Aapa, who is bothered about us anyway? We have lived most of our lives and Allah will see to the rest. I am so fed up and sick of this world that I would have poisoned myself if I was not concerned about these little children. (84)

It is evident from the above dialogue that Mohammadi Begum is searching a place for her in the society where she belongs to. Her dialogue renders her nuanced life emphatically exposing the social injustice and sickness of society. ‘Married at eighteen, Mohammadi Begum has borne children every year since, except twice, once when her husband was abroad and the second time when they had fought. She suffers from pyorrhoea and has had several teeth pulled out, because her husband returned from abroad and told her that her breath stank. Her children are pale, thin, emaciated, querulous, under nourished, ill-kempt and rowdy. It is evident that Mohammadi is a bad manager of her household and many of her troubles are a result of her not being good at keeping her house her children in order. She is ill and therefore not up to it may be one reason, but perhaps she is also disorganised, and Rashid Jahan gives her plight a sexist twist’.(Jalil 37)

The society in which Mohammadi Begum lives it was difficult for a woman to rebel against masculine yoke, against a male’s sense of superiority because the male almost occupied the position of a God. Rashid Jahan feels that a woman always belongs to the deprived category of human beings. This kind of gender arrangement must have disturbed her like anything. She realises that woman is not a slave and she has every right to seek freedom. That’s why through this play she wants to reflect the consciousness she wants to bring about women’s issues and importance of taking care of their bodies.

Early generation of women writers such as Rashid Jahan, Ismat Chughtai, and Attia Hosain have turned inward to explore the private rather than the public life of the individuals. Their works have become the confessional and the personal and their style labelled feminine. Conceptualisation of female identity among progressive writers has been a series of counter and ordeals on the part of the women to strike routs and to reassert their identity in a traditional society. A sense of identity is a constant sustaining creative force in a writer. Sometimes an individual seeks to explore his identity in order to understand his/her existence in the society. The documentation of the experiences of the female protagonists in early Urdu literature by these progressive women authors is unique. Most of their protagonists are Muslim women dangling with pressing social issues such as colonisation, exploitation, democracy, nationalism, poverty, racial and religious prejudice. Even our ancient Indian epics echo the lament of female identity presenting the distorted images of Sitas, Savitris, Damyantis and Draupadis that we are fed up with. These characters have been presented as long suffering women whose real heroism is suppressed with the message of loyalty and selfless service to their husbands. They have been portrayed as an epitome of devotion, sacrifice and pativarta. Their virtues of exhibiting sharp wit, intelligence, strength, firmness and affection have never been detained for simulation hitherto society has only emphasised their tenacity of self-sacrifice. Though some of Rashid Jahan’s characters are elite, well educated modern women, they follow the practice of so called pativarta – the idealized one devotedly.  

The present paper records the fate of Mohammadi Begum’s psychological exploration of her female identity and a social assertion of her individuality in straightforward terms. The play reflects that the existence of women in the patriarchal society is always stake. The women in the play are the puppets in the hands of the patriarch, though victimized yet struggling out for their lost existence. Mohammadi Begum is a thirty two year old affluent woman from a Muslim sharif family. She is an abandoned, tired and depressed woman. She is the possession of her husband. The relationship between Mohammadi Begum and her husband can be analysed on the inner properties of lust, because inside the layer of the body there remains the sexual desire and its dialectics. She herself has never been allowed to nurse a child since her husband has a voracious sexual appetite. Following dialogue exhibits the helplessness of Mohammadi Begum:

....all pleasure is limited to his own lust. His only worry is that he will be inconvenienced if a child stays with me. He is not concerned, be it night or day. All he wants is for his wife to be available to him at all times. And, of course, he does not stop at his wife. There is absolutely no holding him back from going to other places too. (88)

Her personal life is solely responsible for her head-long plunge into the uncharted sea of sexuality. This dialogue is bristling over with pathos which evoke the image of sensitive feminine body for freedom and redemption. The high pitch of her tone may appear hysterical but rather it is meaningful. The dialogue however, reminds us of what Juliet Mitchell says in connection with the discourse of hysteria:

Hysteria is the woman’s simultaneous acceptance and refusal of the organisation of sexuality under patriarchal capitalism. It is simultaneously what a woman can do both to be feminine and to refuse femininity, within patriarchal discourse. (Mitchell 427)

Mohammadi Begum knows her social status. Being a married woman, i.e. belonging from a conservative Muslim family, she is not even supposed to raise her voice against the patterns of patriarchy. The play can be read as a lively instance of reproductive health, marital rape, domestic abuse and gender inequality. Moreover she becomes restless after knowing that her husband wishes to marry Razia, a cousin of hers and as old as their daughter Sabira. Her husband’s strong desire to marry Razia gives her unbearable psychological blow. All her dreams shattered and she finds herself as a helpless individual. She is not able to decide as what to do, how to impede her husband from straying. At this moment of life she becomes aware of her broken image in the society. Her husband is very much an emblem of domineering psyche. It may be because of the environment in which he is brought up amid the patriarchal patterns. He believes his position is superior to his wife thus treated her merely as an object of sexuality. Mohammadi Begum is socially trained to accept her fate as other women would. She ponders: ‘God only knows where my death has gone and hidden itself’ (84). She thinks that death is the only suitable thing that she can be determined.

Throughout the play her life is surrounded by her children who give her incessant troubles and suffering. Her own wishes and desires are buried within herself. She spent all her youth in the service of her husband’s whims. She never imagines herself as an independent individual who is free to think, to take decision and to do whatever she likes. She observes herself and discovers that she becomes old before time. She laments over her lost youth. She looks like an old lady because her ailing health and constant reproduction of children made her body ill, feeble and shapeless. In her conversation with Aftab Begum she questions her youth:

.....youth? Who will call me young? I look like an old woman of seventy. This unending illness; the daily visits by hakims and doctors. And a child every year! (85)

She breaks into a disappointed figure by producing a child every year. This made her old, ill and distasteful towards life. She realises that her life is means to gratify her husband’s sexual needs. Being a wife, it is her duty to satisfy her husband rather she establishes herself as an individual. To keep away her husband from straying she leaves no stone unturned. She even has herself ‘fixed-up’:

My womb and all my lower parts had fallen. I got it put right so that he could get the same pleasure as he’d got from a newly married wife. But when a woman has a baby every year how can she stay in shape. It slipped down again. And then he went on at me and threatened me until he got me butchered again. And even then he wasn’t satisfied. (Jalil).

The protagonist lives in a society where women’s status is only dependent on her life behind the veil where she suffers never ending trauma of being a female. And because Mohammadi Begum is now old and ill and does not have the characteristic of an ideal woman to satisfy her husband sexuality, she feels rejected and marginalised. Even Aftab Begum whom she converse throughout the play, suggests her to adjust to the pre-fixed social roles without any complain. Through the play Rashid Jahan described step by step the development of Mohammadi Begum’s body like an object. The male dominated society expects women to fit into the norms of the society. But Mohammadi Begum is fed up with her secondary place in her own house. When her husband threatens her to remarry, she burst into tears and protests it vehemently but all in vain. Her husband cites Shariya justifying his decision to remarry saying: ‘when Islamic law allows four marriages, then why should I not marry?’(99).Unfortunately the more she rebels it the more her husband’s intention strengthens. Apart from it for Aftab Begum, a husband is a worldly god to his wife and it is indispensible for a wife to please his husband. The female identity has no significance for a male dominated world is reflected in the following dialogue spoken by Aftab Begum:

Mohammadi Begum, wherever you go, you will find the same problem. Men seem to have their way all along. They triumph in all situations – tails they win, heads we lose (99).
Aftab Begum’s character is a symbol of tradition and established conventions. She encapsulates an image of middle class Muslim women whose identity is always in a flux. She never, for once, likes Mohammadi Begum’s decision of letting her husband remarry for the purpose of staying with him as she has no place in society except him.

Thus the situations depicted by Rashid Jahan in her works are extremely grim where the protagonists undergo extreme pain and trauma. The social system and the state fail to give justice, rather these become tools to their exploitation, which makes the protagonists all the more vulnerable. The play ends with exposing conventional patterns of female’s accepting their lot in unpleasant situation wherein the possibilities of identity and status of their existence is rather remote. The play makes no resolution to the plight of domestic world where female characters such as Mohammadi Begum and Aftab Begum etc are content to bemoan their fate.


Works Cited

Abid, Attia., trans. Dr. Rasheed Jahan: Selected Short Stories & Plays. By Dr. Rasheed Jahan. Aligarh: Female Education Association, 2005. Print.

Chauhan, S. Vibha and Khlid Alvi, Angarey: 9 Stories and a Play. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2014. Print.

Jalil, Rakhshanda. A Rebel and Her Cause: the life and work of Rashid Jahan. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2014. Print

Mitchell, Juliet. “Feminism, Narrative and Psychoanalysis. Modern Criticism and Theory” ed. David Lodge (London and New York: Longman, 1988). Print.

Hameed, Syeda S, and Sughra Mehdi, eds. Parwaaz: Urdu short stories by women. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1996. Print.

Kazim, Lubna, ed. A Woman of Substance: The Memoirs of Begum Khurshid Mirza. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2005. Print.

Singh, Madhulika, Radical Writings on Women: The Works of Dr. Rashid Jahan , RSIRJLE An International Journal of Literary Explorations, Feb 2015. Web.