How These 2 Revolutionary Muslim Women Fought Patriarchy Before Independence

Posted by Sourodipto Sanyal in Culture-Vulture
September 18, 2017
Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival And Forum 2017 that is going on in Delhi (13th – 19th September), Youth Ki Awaaz will be featuring reviews of films and interviews with directors.

“Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya” is a documentary which explores the frustrations, ambitions and struggles of women who lived in an orthodox Islamic household in Lucknow in the first half of the 20th century. The lives of two women, Sughra Fatema and her niece Khadija Ansari, residents of the Firangi Mahal are traced. The family which resided there was at the centre of learning in Lucknow from 1695 onwards.

Despite being at the centre of scholarship in Lucknow, the family refused to break the shackles of patriarchy which existed in the corridors of the Firangi Mahal. The women had to live their lives within the strict confinement of the purdah, the practice of confining women within the household, away from the eyes of men.

Director Uma Chakravarti tells us why the story needed to be told: “Because Muslim women are being flattened into a mass with no variations in their multiple histories which was rich and distinctive as the histories of women in other communities, classes and castes; today the only way to portray a Muslim woman is to put her into a hijab and hide, literally hide, everything else about her. All we now hear is triple talaq and the need to rescue them from their miseries as if Hindu women have got emancipation! We know nothing of their political participation in movements in the past and in the present; their participation in the left movement is particularly unknown. So for me as a historian turned filmmaker this was a story that was waiting to be told.”

A still from the film

The film is a moving tale on how women less than 100 years ago were caged within rich households. Such was the insensitive hold of patriarchy that Sughra Fatema’s 15 years of mental illness was unable to soften its heart. Despite her mental illness, she was not allowed to venture out of the household. Her confinement was believed to be the reason for her not being able to handle it. Keeping a woman within the purview was a religious and patriarchal tradition which was non-negotiable.

Sughra Fatema, a poetess, was an unfortunate victim of the circumstances she had no role to play in. She was probably the first within the Firangi Mahal who expressed her resistance through her poetry on freedom, which were revolutionary for those times. Such has been her impact that her poetry continues to live on despite her dying at the young age of 40 in 1948 due to mental illness. There are shots of the extended family of the Firangi Mahal today living in Karachi paying tributes to her by singing her poetry.

Sughra’s life story is narrated through her niece Khadija and others who are part of the family of the Firangi Mahal.

However, her niece, born in the 1930s, when Lucknow was going through a political revolution in the backdrop of communism and the nationalist movement, did all that Fatema Sughra could not. She was allowed to venture out because of a liberal father. She took part in the communist movement as a teenager and even went on to marry a Hindu after falling in love. Uma says, “She and her husband were comrades in the party. That was their primary identity at that time and later too. She was secular but above all she was humane; she upheld the constitutional rights of all communities to not experience hatred or violence.” Excerpts of Khadija’s interview from the documentary make us marvel at how she kept her secular spirit alive despite being at the receiving end of barbaric communal violence. Her story on how she convinced her students in Miranda House, Delhi University that the anti-Sikh riots were condemnable can move one to tears.

Uma believes in putting the struggle of Muslim women in a much larger context.  She says this about the struggle of Muslim women today: “Triple talaq is not the main oppression among Muslim women: hunger, livelihood healthcare and social security are. If they had that and if all patriarchal laws would end they could get on with their lives. The struggle to end triple talaq is only one small part of it. If women were entitled to economic rights as citizens, they would not care for the crumbs that men toss in their direction: they would have agency.”

The film is a documentation of a very important aspect of Indian history which not many people in the country are aware of. This film is revolutionary for the topic it chooses to indulge in. Muslim women who resisted against both patriarchy and orthodoxy. Men become a mere footnote in a film which is about the struggles of women. By putting the narratives of men on the backseat, this hour-long documentary slyly takes revenge at a patriarchal structure which never felt guilty about locking women within the four walls of a house.

Catch Uma Chakravarti’s film “Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya: Lucknow 1920-1949” from 7:15 pm onwards on September 19 at the India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.