Bibi’s room, to somewhat simplistically summarize this volume, is a detailed study of three female writers from Hyderabad who wrote in Urdu and who have largely escaped mainstream attention due to the triple marginalization of the region, language and sex. Deccan Urdu literature remains in the shadow of its North Indian sister. Female Urdu writers have often been overlooked in favor of their male counterparts and not sufficiently translated into English or other languages.
There is an obvious gap in scholarship and in publication that necessitated a book like this, in a crucial step towards recognition and redress. While the book focuses on three writers – Zeenath Sajida, Najma Nikhat and Jeelani Bano – the author, Nazia Akhtar, skillfully weaves into the text the cultural and political history of Hyderabad, crucial questions of identity, critical historically contextualized understanding of patriarchy and the ways in which fiction, particularly that emerging from marginalized and oppressed communities/spaces, contributes to historiography.
In her introductory chapter, Akhtar writes about her difficulty choosing how to refer to the women mentioned in the text:
I was reluctant to abide by the principles of homogenizing academic-style textbooks that come from privileged, Western, and English-speaking places and demonstrate no understanding of the complexity of naming patterns in non-Western, non-white contexts, especially in this regarding caste, class and gender. Adhering to such standards would mean that I would have to use the family name, which is usually patriarchal, that is, belonging to the father or, more commonly, the husband. This didn’t sit well with me, especially in light of the fact that the patriarchal surname has contributed to the obfuscation and oblivion of many South Asian women.
Akhtar cites examples of women pushed into oblivion because the names that identified them were only markers of their relationships with men. Her solution is to “treat each name on a case-by-case basis, sticking to first names for the most part and only using middle names when I was reasonably sure it belonged to the woman in question.” For this simple yet affirming act that refuses to deprive women of their identity, an erasure deemed acceptable in academia for a very long time, Nazia Akhtar has my gratitude and our collective hearts that break the patriarchy.
Study of a writer at work
The title of the text is a welcome piece of audacity and intertextuality and a snub to patriarchal expectations. Virginia Woolf, tracing the history of women and fiction almost a century ago, wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she wants to write fiction. Zeenath Sajida, several decades later, in a clever reworking and re-contextualization of Woolf’s insistence on the autonomy of creative expression, wrote an essay, a inchaiyain which she lays bare the reality of a bibia young woman in a middle-class household, who has a space nominally marked as her own but never truly allowed to be claimed by her.
Addressing his reader, Sajida asks, “Tell me honestly, have you ever seen a house where a housewife or housegirl has her own really separate bedroom? In name, of course, the room is different. But the whole house is contained inside. Bhaijaan’s necktie, Abba Jaan’s sherwani, Bi Aapa’s crumpled dupatta, Dadi Amma’s basket of paans, Bua’s bundle, Ammi’s box, Munne Bhaiya’s wooden horse and toy sword , a torn carpet with a dirty white blanket, pillows, the sewing machine, a mirror, a comb, everything is here. Obviously, this is Bibi’s room.
The irony is rich. The subversion is obvious. Women, in Sajida’s world, as in ours, almost never have the luxury of time, space, and financial independence. It is the insistence of the female writer to carve out a place for herself, despite countless social, family and financial constraints, that Akhtar explores through the writers she has chosen for her study.
The book is structured in the form of six chapters, with a comprehensive introduction addressing the aforementioned research gaps, followed by a literature review and contextualization of issues of literature, gender, identity and politics. He devotes a chapter each to the three writers studied.
Each of these chapters begins with a representative text in Urdu translated into English, followed by a detailed commentary on the chosen piece as well as other works by the writer. Each chapter also includes a brief biography, placing the author in his historical and cultural context. The choice of the translated text as an introduction to the writer is obviously political. Akhtar allows each of his chosen writers to speak to the reader, giving them a voice, instead of treating them as passive subjects of academic study.
Zeenath Sajida’s essay, “If Allah Miyan Were A Woman”, begins with the narrator’s bodily experience of what could be menstrual pain, and continues by asking difficult theological questions about gender and gendered oppression, based on the masculine gender of God. Akhtar identifies in the essay a deployment of Spivak’s subversive tool of strategic essentialism, to critique patriarchal constructs of religion.
Najma Nikhat’s short story “The Last Haveli” is an indictment of an exploitative feudal system that reduces women’s bodies to either a womb or an object of pleasure, but is also an acknowledgment of evolution of the social fabric and the obliteration of a cultural space. .
Jeelani Bano’s “God and Me” also has the protagonist, Musa, asking questions of his god, but in complete departure from Sajida’s image of a benevolent and motherly Allah, Bano’s god is male and forbidden, the source of all power, against which Musa finds himself powerless. Borrowing from Sufi and Buddhist traditions, the story is grounded in a moment of self-affirmation and retains an almost mystical quality of ineffability.
The plays Akhtar has selected are as diverse as the writers themselves. Both Zeenath Sajida and Najma Nikhat were active members of the Progressive Writers Movement which insisted on engagement with class injustice, political freedoms, resistance to political repression and a representation of the voices of those who had until were then silenced. Many of the heroines of Najma Nikhat, we are told, were women forced into servitude in the feudal system of deodis in the state of Hyderabad. Nikhat’s writing also takes cognizance of the struggle of the Telangana people, class politics and the role of women in this space of resistance.
Jeelani Bano, while consciously refusing all labels, also displays a progressive bent in her writing, often criticizing the state and the state apparatus and exposing the dangers inherent in the abuse of power. All three have shrill feminist voices. Zeenath Sajida’s “If Allah Miyan” builds an argument for gender parity that is eerily reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Both see gender as socially structured and debilitating.
Nikhat writes about the solidarity of women within the zenana and draws attention to the violence exerted on women’s bodies inside and outside the institution of marriage. Bano, acutely aware of the patriarchal literary culture of her time, wrote revolutionary women who wrested social change from within the system. The works of all are impressive and deeply rooted in their particular socio-cultural spaces.
The Queen’s Tongue
While acknowledging that all three writers followed literary convention and wrote in what will come to be recognized as Standard Urdu, with very few Hyderabadi or local Dakhni inflections, Akhtar makes mention of the fascinating world of ‘Begumati zubaan’, the language of the begum, the form of the language that women used to communicate with each other, excluding men from certain discussions, from certain spaces.
Gail Minault identified the Begumati zubaan as a “feminine Urdu” that emerged within Purdah society in the 19th century and took its individual forms in Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad. Language itself is transformed into a tool of subversion in this singular form it takes, just as is the case with Hélène Cixous. feminine writing, a woman’s attempt to write herself. Akhtar highlights Najma Nikhat’s use of Begumati zubaan in her short stories, capturing “the imaginative, expressive, evocative, and richly connotative linguistic register used by zanana women.”
In her attention to the language(s) of the female writer, to literary spaces, to regional/linguistic identity, to personal and political challenges, Bibi’s room emerges as a crucial text for South Asian feminism. As an academic study, it has a little something to offer to a range of disciplines – literary studies, women’s writing, gender studies, translation, at least. It also attempts to map the literary and cultural space of Hyderabad, as a redress of the pattern of marginalization to which the former princely states were subjected.
Its greatest achievement, however, is closely related to the politics of translation. Translation, writes Akhtar, “does not occur in a vacuum outside of ideology, but in a continuum embedded in history and politics (…) it is the conversion of an audience to traditions and context of a text that the translators seek to achieve”. Just as the translator takes the audience to the text, requiring immersion, Bibi’s room inspires the reader to delve deeper into the writings of Zeenath Sajida, Najma Nikhat and Jeelani Bano. This disrupts the canon and creates space for more women to write to each other, to eventually, perhaps, make their own Bibi’s Room.
Bibi’s Room: Hyderabadi Women and Urdu Prose of the Twentieth Centurytranslated from Urdu by Nazia Akhtar, Orient Black Swan.