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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '21 & Jan '22



The Theme of Gender in Imtiaz Dharker’s Poetry

Amandeep Kaur, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Post Graduate Govt. College for Girls, Chandigarh
Ramandeep Kaur, Punjabi Mistress, Govt. High Smart School, Brahampuri, Ludhiana



Gender is the social construction of sex; means masculinity and femininity are matched up with male and female bodies. Thus we grow up believing that a female body would produce feminine behaviour/feminine identity. So if sex is a biological given, gender is a social construct. Gender refers to the roles and responsibilities of men and women that are created in our families, societies and cultures. The concept of gender also includes the expectations held about the characteristics, aptitudes and likely behaviours of both women and men (femininity and masculinity). These roles and expectations are learned. They can change over time and they vary within and between cultures. The concept of gender is vital because it facilitates gender analysis revealing how women's subordination is socially constructed.  As such, the subordination can be changed or ended. It is not biologically predetermined nor is it fixed forever. This paper proposes to reflect on how we should understand Imtiaz Dharker's works. What is Dharker's stand on Gender? What are the issues and challenges Dharker tries to engage its readers in? How does Dharker construct a different notion of the suffering of women and underlines issues for critical reasoning for the emancipation of women?   

Keywords: Gender, Subordination, Freedom, Feminism.



Indian women writing poetry is not a new phenomenon in literature. It is quite old. Eunice de Souza tells us, “Women have been writing poetry in India since about 1000B.C. on religious and secular themes, and it is among these rather more distant ancestors that contemporary women writers are likely to find congenial voices and styles.”

Imtiaz Dharker is one of the contemporary English writers who have gained popularity through courageous writings questioning gender roles and the status of women in particular. The intensity and eloquence of her life and poetic accomplishment have dumbfounded the male-chauvinist and have left her female counterpart in soaring spirits not only inside the Islamic social, cultural and religious set-up but also outside it.      

Dharker is primarily concerned with the status of Muslim women and expresses her anguish for Muslim women being treated as objects, denial of education to women, lack of freedom and equality. The lived experiences of Dharker have been honestly expressed in her poetry with the courage of conviction. She belongs to that generation of post-independence women poets who have given a convincing assurance that Indian English Poetry matches the best anywhere. Among these poets, we may include Kamla Das, Melanie Silgardo, Sujata Bhatt, Eunice de Souza, Mamta Kalia, Tara Patel etc.

She is a poet of feminine concern. She focuses on how over a period of time, religion, patriarchal society, family, education have all developed as tools of exploitation of women. She further reinforces that the mindset has not been confined to the past only but is also there in the present. We must comprehend that she does not believe in making women equal to men politically. She accepts biological differences between men and women. Her approach is to end the dehumanizing of women in Islam. She believes the perversion of Islamic tenets to oppress on denigrating women in the Muslim world as subhuman 'other' should stop. Koran should be interpreted liberally.

Dharker is, no doubt, badly disturbed at the dehumanization of women in Muslim societies including India. She is not a feminist like western critics. Her approach is radical. She believes in ending Muslim women's segregation from the social and cultural life of the people. In "Purdah" Imtiaz Dharker attacks 'Purdah' or 'Burka' as a cultural construct of orthodox Islamic interpreters and scholars to dehumanize Muslim women and deny them human rights.

She regards herself as a Scottish Calvinist Muslim and her poetry is a confluence of three cultures. Her sincerity in handling the issues of social, cultural and religious significance sensitizes the reality equally well. The delicacy and the tenderness that run in her silky strain awaken us to the wrongs and songs of the daily life of women under the norms, rules and sanctions laid down by the patriarchal society for power dynamics. She has encountered both the culture of the east and the west. Indians and western concept of feminism is different because in India we are just fighting for the basics of feminism. It has not yet developed as a movement in India.

Purdah in Muslim society is a symbol of reducing women to a dehumanized form as the ‘other’. Dharker deconstructs the dominant hegemonic power structures operative in Muslim communities. In her Purdah Poems, she questions patriarchy, family, women as daughters, wives and mothers, rituals and norms. "Purdah-1" is a critique of the tradition of 'purdah' imposed on Muslim women. Dharker underlines the turning point in the life of a Muslim girl when she suddenly becomes conscious of her sexual growth and how others are perhaps more conscious:

“One day they said
She was old enough to learn some shame”

“Purdah is a kind of safety.
The body finds a place to hide.
The cloth fans out against the skin
much like the earth that falls.
On coffins, after they put the dead man in"

Purdah is viewed as a flagrant violation of the basic rights, freedom and dignity of women. Purdah is treated as a symbol of repression on women as it is devastatingly ruinous to the personality of Muslim women. To be covered from head to foot in the black veil is more indispensable to Muslim women. There has been and is a sporadic revolt and heated controversy in the print and electronic media against this practice to regenerate and rejuvenate the female psyche. That is why its evils are viewed as outweighing its good. Imtiaz Dharker, with her social and cultural growth and lived experiences spanning three countries- Pakistan England and India has shown her subtle artistry in exposing the Purdah system in her title poem.

Purdah has been sung and celebrated age after age in poetry, films and common parlance. With the rise of feminism and becoming a worldwide rage, a force, it is seen in a new light and new perspectives however, it has greater socio-culture and socio-religious association for Muslim women, educated or uneducated, advanced or backward, prosperous or penurious. Purdah was necessary at the beginning of Islam when the Arabian countries were torn by turmoil and social strife. Thus it ensures safety to women then and it also became a symbol of high status.

But now in this male-dominated society, Purdah has become a source of oppression. Comparison of Purdah with a shroud, in Dharker's poetry, indicates that Purdah is a kind of death in life. The conservative society, cautious and conscious, must teach her some manners, decorum and dignity for the women in the Purdah is—

“carefully carrying what we do not own
Between the thighs, a sense of sin”

Dharker wants to convey that women do not own even their sexuality. It is owned by others/men. They are mere puppets in the hand of men. They cannot utter any resistance to their condition.

Eunice de Souza regards "Purdah not just as concealing garment but as a state of mind". Purdah is a symbol of alienation and isolation from the outside world. It is a wall between the women and the world. The result is that she is devoid of the first-hand experience and the enlightenment this world has to offer. Nothing is refreshing in it, it curbs and restricts speech and full expression, it is a repression of will and choice. Her mind and memory are stuffed with impressions from other women. 

"Purdah-2" is more elaborate, more dramatic and more eloquent in voicing the imminent concerns of lasting significance.  The movement of the poem reminds us of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land". It is a poem about many women and all these women in the poem merge into one woman. They all serve the same servitude physical, psychological, social and cultural. Those who are to break cover with the hope and dream of a free new world face uncertainty and suffer ex-communication. So the poem is an undaunted criticism of the way the society works against the freedom, dignity will and choice of women even in alien land here England.

The tenet of the Islamic faith, "Allah-u-Akbar", comes as reassurance and comfort even there. The early morning call comes and the mind throws back shadows on the marble. The speaker reveals how Muslim women offer namaaz/prayer in the strange land. A group of twenty women hears the mechanical recitation from the hustling pages of the holy Koran without understanding a word, its meaning or sense. They rock their bodies to this rhythm and this gives to them a sense of belonging.

“You were scorched
Long before the judgment,
By the blaze
Your  breasts, still tiny, grew an inch.”

This results in her traditional marriage. All these girls are fated to live and die with no will or choice of their own. They are “unwilling virgins” who had been taught to bind

“Their brightness tightly round,
Whatever they might wear,
in the Purdah of the mind.”
“They have all been sold and bought.”

These girls feel a sense of pride in them and surrendered gladly to each other’s passionate delights-

“Night after virtuous nights,
You performed for them,
They wormed your bed.”

How ironic it is that these women have to observe Purdah from God even!

“That when God comes,
You hide your head”

The speaker is well acquainted with many of such women their past and their present she has a daily meeting with them and.

“I can see behind their veils,”

Some of these women dare to break these ghosts of the girls. The speaker tells us about two girls, the swan-naked and tragic eyed, Saleema and Naseem. Saleema had learnt from the films that heroin was always pure and untouched. She surrendered herself to the passion of the mad old artist and wondered "at her own strange wickedness." Still, there is worse in store. She gains age after losing her youth and marrying again. Then a revolt? Again she receives a sign of life behind the veil, finds another man and becomes another wife, begging approval from the rest. She is badly bowed under the burden of such a life. Naseem's elopement brought shame and disgrace to the family. She was remembered among the dead at Moharram. Her encounter with the English boy brought her a promise of freedom. She behind the veil are always on their knees.

In Purdah she memorializes the between-ness of a traveller between cultures, exploring the dilemmas of negotiations among countries, lovers -------? In her poem "Sacrifice", she views motherhood as a sacrifice. She compares a mother-woman with the sacrificial lamb by drawing a parallel with a lamb. In our countrywoman is considered to the complete when she becomes a mother. It is the time of "ripening and harvesting" without rest means a woman produces more and more children. She feels it like a knife on her throat.

“I can feel the promise
Glinting at my throat.”

Women have to do this because of this patriarchal society. The title connotes the Muslim concept and sacrifice of womanhood for motherhood.

Imtiaz questions religion also. It is biased towards women. Its orthodoxy is incapable of giving answers to the women's questions. She is questioning basic fundamental society. In "Grace" she is celebrating the strength of the women that can come from with Imtiaz Dharker suggests breaking the purdah so what if Saleema and Naseem had to pay, at least women should take a step. She depicts, gives up your own old identity to become a new persona by getting answers to all your questions.

You would be restrengthened.
“A clearing in the heart.”

"Prayer" is another poem about discrimination against women. The scene is set outside the mosque where the observer, perhaps the poetess herself, is denied entry. She expresses her strong resentment against man's writ which runs large here also in the house of God and he has also yielded to man's dictator. We are told that "The place is full of worshippers all poor, their sandals with soles, heels and thongs "forming a perfect pattern of need" are ragged and mended many times. They are thrown together in a heap-

“Like a thousand prayers
Washing against the walls of God”

They appear to be hopeful prayers to the poor. The observer is quite ironic when she questions out of sheer curiosity-

“what prayer are they whispering?”
“What are they whispering?”

The answer to this question and the message is conveyed by willful and tactical silence, in the subtle irony of the question itself.

In this poem, there is no feminism concern. Poet is concerned with the ordinary people who spend their entire life praying to the divine power for their condition. She tries to show the futility of their unanswered pray. Each footprint on the shoes tells a different story and the needs of ordinary people.

What makes this poetic trajectory fascinating is the changing stylistic and tonal texture of the work. The exquisite simplicity of her style lends to her poem on inimitable brilliant conversation, a lively and stinging comment trapping us in the enchanting romance of the 1000 nights deconstructed as a morale booster to feminism. The symbolism inherent in Purdah also finds its subtlety and simplicity in an alien culture setting. Her voice forcefully expresses her serious humanistic and feministic concerns success in the fulfilment of her poet purpose.

We may say that Dharker’s simplicity is a spell, her lyricism is a lull, her challenge is a charm and her effort is exorcise her language is simple not pidgin, images a taken from the religion- Mosque, prayer, Hazzi, Muslim, etc. symbols are contextual means they are not universal yet the poems speak universally for the women’s desire for freedom and the search for freeing from dogmas, rituals etc.

It can also be said that Dharker’s poetry makes a fascinating study in the crushing indictment of the suppressive prescriptions against the freedom, dignity and respectful living of women, especially in the Muslim society. Her poems are, infect, a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. The total emphasis of Dharker is on course and conviction, honesty and humanity to fulfil the purpose of living hither. She is comfortably at ease and never loses her calm or disturbs her poise while she is dealing with or handling sensitive strains.

The poet in Dharker has an inimitable touch of simplicity and spontaneity in all their profundity. This lends an added force to her thought and emotion. This “spontaneous over of powerful feelings” is everywhere in her poetic landscape. In all these issues that she raised she uses a fundamental tenant of Muslim religion, society, mosque as literally as well as symbolically.   

Most importantly Dharker also suggests that the women should struggle against changing this order for her freedom:

“Your history is a trap door
that you must struggle through
blinking from the darkness
into a shower of light.”



Works Cited

De Souza, Eunice., editor. Nine Indian Women Poets. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Bhushan, R.K. Diversions and Distractions in English Literature. Authors Press, 2011.
Dharker, Imtiaz. Purdah, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Dharker, Imtiaz. I Speak for the Devil. Penguin Books, 2001.
Jain, Jasbir., editor. Women’s Writing: Text and Context. Rawat Publications, 2004.