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Ismat Chughtai: The Iconic Feminist Writer Of Urdu Literature

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Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) born in a small town in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh is one of the best short story writers, and one among the first few feminist writers in Urdu literature. Ismat Chughtai  is considered a trend setter in Urdu short stories and she touched upon new topics which were considered taboo when Urdu literature was in its infancy, and its scope of topics was very limited. Ismat wrote eloquently on the issues of women of lower and lower middle class.

Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991)

Ismat knew about the issues and problems of women of her era and took keen interest in highlighting these through her short stories. She laments about the wretchedness and plight of women and of being uneducated. She wants to see women free from any male bondage and suppression.

“Chauthi Ka Joda” (The Wedding Suit) is about a poor widow, Bi Amma who has two daughters, Kubra and Hameeda. The story focuses on Bi Amma’s obsession to get Kubra married as soon as possible, but every time she nears her goal of marrying off Kubra, something terrible happens and Kubra’s marriage remains on hold. And then one day Kubra’s and Hameeda’s cousin Rahat arrives at their home for a stay for one month for police training. Hameeda, sister of Kubra feels happy on this and tells Bi Amma to use this opportunity to impress Rahat to marry Kubra. They leave no stone unturned to make Rahat’s stay comfortable at their home and leave everything at his disposal. But Rahat develops interest in Hameeda and flirts with her by making livid remarks and touches her inappropriately on various occasions and after a month Rahat leaves without marrying any one of them and this leaves Bi Amma devasted. Bi Amma laments on the fate of Kubra,

“Khuda ne soorat nahin di, isi liye rahat uski taraf dekhta tak nahin” (Rahat doesn’t even look at her because God hasn’t given her fair features).

This shows how society, especially the lower class is worried about the complexion of the girl and how it is one of the obstacles in getting a girl married. On leaving Rahat, Kubra dies the next morning of TB and thus comes an unexpected end to a miserable and wretched life of a poor girl. And, “Chauthi Ka Joda” becomes Kubra’s shroud. The story depicts how financial burden is another reason for the plight of a lower and lower middle class women. Rahat’s character shows how men in privileged positions easily get away with their wrongdoings.

In “Jadein” (Roots) Ismat tells a story about an old woman who is unable to understand the intricacies of Partition. She doesn’t want to leave her house for newly formed Pakistan. She loves her roots and doesn’t want to get cutoff from her roots. She is not ready to leave her land, country and her neighbors and likens this leaving to death.

“Time passed on, but Amma stayed steadfast in her position like a banyan tree that stands upright through storms and blizzards.”

“You all go. As for me, where shall I go at this age.” Amma tells Sardar Ali, the leader of the National Guards. Finally, Amma’s sons, daughters, son-in-laws, daughter-in-laws and other relatives start to leave the house for newly formed Pakistan, Amma’s heart flutters and tears come in her eyes and she thinks,

“Who knows whether the new soil will be conducive to these saplings or make them wilt. These poor saplings.”

Amma couldn’t sleep the whole night, thinking whether his sons and daughter and other relatives will be able to survive or get killed in the way. And after sometime her Hindu neighbor Roopchandji brings back her children from Loni railway station and Amma heaves a sigh of relief. Thus, a happy family is saved from this devastating partition which destroyed lacs of lives dividing thousands of families. The story also depicts love between Hindus and Muslims not ready for partition.

“Lihaaf” (Quilt) is a story about homosexuality. It is a story about a women namely Begum Jaan, who doesn’t get the required attention and sexual satisfaction from her husband Nawab and this neglect ruins her life. The husband of Begum Jaan, Nawab takes much interest in young and fair boys. Begum Jaan feels dejected and frustrated with this neglect of Nawab and then, it was Rabbu who rescued her from the fall. Soon her thin body began to fill out. Her cheeks began to glow and she blossomed in beauty. It was a special oil massage that brought life back to the half-dead Begum Jaan. Sorry, you won’t find the recipe for this oil even in the most exclusive magazines.

And we see how Begum Jaan’s life and eventually a family is ruined and destroyed, as Begum Jaan falls to lesbianism.

“Kaisi Biwi Kaisa Shohar”(Husband and Wife) is a story of woman named Aamina whose husband initially loves her very much, but after sometime loses interest in her and Aamina becomes,

“The severely beaten living woman in the world.”

Aamina also faces harsh treatment from her mother-in-law and initially ignores everything, but when after sometime she sees no improvement in the behavior of her husband and mother-in-law, she protests and revolts against this oppression and exploitation.

Aamina starts giving tuition to children and helps her husband and thus shows the way to other woman who are suppressed from centuries to raise their voice against the injustices meted out to them. And through Aamina’s character, Ismat wants to depict a woman who is independent and free from oppression and exploitation.

Ismat Chughtai, in her short stories has depicted the oppression and misery of middle class Muslim women with artistic depth. She knows the language of these women and her characters speak this language with finesse and ease and with much boldness, and here lies the distinctness and greatness of Ismat Chughtai.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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