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How Chugtai’s ‘Lihaaf’ Encourages Readers To Explore Feminine Sensibility And Queerness

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If you’re looking to understand the unfiltered social milieu of the 20th-century subcontinent, Ismat Chughtai is the author to turn to. In her short story Lihaaf (The Quilt), I found an insight into the pre-Partition domestic world, dynamic in its robust beliefs and delicate relationships. One of the famous literary deviants of that era, Chughtai published this story in 1942 in the Urdu literary journal Adab-i-Latif and later faced strong allegations against the same.

Narrated by Chughtai from a child’s perspective, the story is purely suggestive, yet deeply meaningful. The candid testimony is sparked by her trademark witty descriptions, lending the story an essence of acknowledgement curtained by innocent language. The controversy around this story is not unknown to many — it was an obscenity trial that dragged the author to the Lahore Court.

But the fact that Chughtai was able to win the case against alleged vulgarity is owed to precisely this clever use of simple language. Through the incidents that take place in Begum Jaan’s house, Chughtai breathes life into the well-known (but far less understood) concepts of sexual awakening and lesbianism.

Lihaaf and Lesbianism: On Reading a Feminist Text
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From Nawaab Sahab’s queer shenanigans to the sexual games that his wife finally resorts to with her masseuse (Rabbu), every tangent of the story highlighted for me how no two people can be deciphered the same way and that what happens under the lihaaf (both literally and metaphorically) can only be left to the imagination. Picture this going public in the conservative misogynistic society of the 1940s!

I believe it is the duty of the reader to contextualise a rich text and do away with their personal bias to the maximum extent. What stories like Lihaaf instigate for me is a deeper keenness to discover the relevance of feminism and feminine understanding in changing social contexts.

So, while it is interesting to read about the dynamic layers of a gendered society, it becomes equally important to study its criticisms and scholarly interpretations to form an unbiased opinion. Being a student of literature made me see the lack of exposure to background readings among this millennial generation. This often sprouts a limited and often misunderstood perspective on important topics such as gender, identity, queerness and feminism.

A deeper study of the story enlightened me on the nuanced concept of lesbianism and how it is often confused with homosexuality today. Adrienne Rich describes lesbianism to be a phenomenon way deeper than consistent sexual engagement. It is, according to her, a perpetuity of growing mutual affinity, shared ideal against male dominance, and inclination towards female autonomy.

What this means is that a relationship categorised under lesbianism is done so not merely on the basis of a sexual experience (the kind described by the author in Lihaaf), but multiple other factors that fail to find standing in Begum Jaan’s relationship with her masseuse Rabbu.

In this light, deeming Chughtai’s narration a ‘lesbian text’ becomes a far more complicated process. The author goes at length to describe the multiple ways in which impressing Nawab Sahib took up Begum Jaan’s days. However, Sahib’s constant fascination with young fair boys clearly alludes to the real reason why the marriage failed to work: he is gay.

Ismat Chugtai

Suddenly, there are new questions arising in one’s mind — what is the nature of the relationships being described here? How does one decipher meaning from subtle observations? What about this text make the reader think about lesbianism? Where does our understanding of that concept even arise from? and so on.

A good story, similarly, is not always about the plot itself, but often about the way it is narrated. This is one of the biggest elements that account for Chughtai’s idiosyncratic writing – one that unequivocally exposed and negated the social norms of her time. So much so that her writings are still banned in parts of the world today.

And yet, the action fails to speak louder than words sometimes. Chughtai’s writing has crawled into modern society as a prescribed academic reading and a work of classic feminist literature.

Having said that, Lihaaf also touches upon something deep inside the reader not just with its insinuations, but with the possibility of there being something more, of there being a hidden door into this handpicked domestic tale and the flavoured backstories of a grossly unjust marriage.

Quite naturally, the misogynistic culture of the time is embedded in the crux of this story, being the very reason why the narrator ends up tangled in this web of possibility in the first place. Women through generations have faced discriminatory social and psychological dismissal, age hardly playing a factor in the affliction.

While The Quilt expresses ideas and norms perched in many cultures around the world (to some degree or another), not a lot of writers have been successful in translating its essence in just honesty. The text I read was the translation by M Asaduddin, which takes on a sardonic tone with a touch of malice that somewhat overpowers the beauty of the original perspective.

What an art it is to paint shameless adultery with a pure perspective of innocence! What a timeless lesson it is to dive deep into the minds of the characters without breaking them down or stripping them bare of their eminent social facades. All of this in just a handful of pages.

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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