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SK Sagir Ali

SK Sagir Ali: Select Stories of Saleem

Surviving Theory: A Portrayal of Indian Muslim Women in Select Stories of Saleem

The general picture of Muslim women shows someone who is oppressed by men, restricted to home, and veiled in public. The recent activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who denied women education and even the basic rights, have influenced the scenario that Islam is dedicated to the oppression of women. Muslim women in particular seem to be squeezed between Islamic fundamentalism and modernity. Salman Rushdie in his novel Shame(1983) depicts the socially constructed discourse of women:

“Women […] is there no end to the burdens this word is capable of bearing?
Was there ever such a broad backed and also such a dirty word?”

(Rushdie 1983: 62)

He advocates the need to break the shackles from rigid gender definitions and explore a more all-inclusive, non-coercive, androgynous identity. It is important to note that Ashis Nandy in his Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (1983) said about colonised man who was frequently defined as ‘feminine’, ‘immature’, ‘irrational’ and inferior to his ‘masculine’, ‘responsible’, and ‘rational’ European Masters. In her Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly’ Englishman and the ‘effeminate’ Bengali in the late nineteenth century (1995), Mrinalini Sinha develops Nandy’s ideas within a historicised context, to show how the concept of the effete babu (a gentle man) emerged in the nineteenth century Bengal where the ‘feebleness’ of the Bengalis raised to justify their loss of independence to the British. Thomas Babington Macaulay is perhaps the most quoted source on Bengali effeminacy:

The physical organisation of the Bengalee is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds. Courage, independence, veracity are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable.

(qtd. in Sinha 1997: 16-17)

All these are the machinery of socialisation aimed to keep out women from the social scenario and to efface the ‘soft’ or ‘emotional’ in men.

Syed Saleem, Sahitya Akademi Award winner, in some of his short stories (written in Telugu) brings out the voices of Muslim women from the different sects of Muslim society in India. Muslim social order revolves round the concepts and values associated with izzat (respect) and sharafat (honour), in which women’s actions are pivotal. Fatema Mernissi, one of the Arab feminists said “if women’s rights are a problem for some modern Muslim men, it is neither because of the Qur’an nor the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite.” According to the Qur’an, men and women have the same spiritual nature and Nikah ( marriage) is considered to be the strongest bond that brings oneness between husband and wife. The Quar’anic teachings clearly outline the equality and co-operation: “… your Lord who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two many men and women...” (An-Nisa 4:1) Again about the concept of wilayah (protecting one another), the Qur’an establishes the relationship between men and women as partners (awliyaa) of one another in establishing a healthy family and a just society. This concept guarantees that men have no level of superiority to women: “ And (as for) the believing men and the believing women, they are guardians of each other;” (At-Tawbah 9:71). It is true that Allah has made women physically weak in comparison to men ; but He has not made it a criterion to ascertain superiority or inferiority.

It is the dark facet of history that the distinction in the physical capability of men and women has later become the touchstone in discriminating between their status . In the story ‘Talaq’, Ibrahim, the protagonist with his wife Jameela acted in the play titled the same with a purpose to bring some change to the mindsets of young people about the misuse of pronouncing the word talaq ( the divorce). But the opposite is achieved in the course of the drama when Ibrahim uttered talaq thrice and the elderly persons who were relishing it with rapt attention disparaged that their marriage came to nothing since a husband has proclaimed talaq to his wife in the presence of the elders of the community. They, also, declared that they could not live as husband and wife. Ibrahim pleaded them but he had to face the diktat if Ibrahim needed her; then Jameela had to marry another man. Then Ibrahim could marry her if she was divorced by the immediate husband. She said agitatedly:

Don’t her likes and dislikes have any important? Is she a play thing? one will leave her, another will marry her and he will divorce her … then the first one will marry her again ….I am not a human being made of flesh and blood, but I also have a heart and respond, not only do I have dreams and hopes, but also have firm opinions. Won’t you give it a little thought at least?” (71)

Religious heads ignorant about the exact teaching of divorce, inhumanly, were bent on separating them. Jameela says: “Islam religion has bestowed men with superior authority over women, but it does not say that they should be treated like slaves. Only slaves do not have any independence to express their opinions. Our religion says that only when there is no mutual compatibility between the wife and husband and there is no scope for reconciliation, talaq becomes the last resort. My husband and I do not have any misunderstanding or differences. Ours is an ideal marriage. Leave us to our fate. We will never stage any play on Muslim lives. I guarantee it. My husband who wanted to reform you is innocent … please don’t separate my life from me.”(72). Ibrahim prayed to the Muslim elders: “our religion does not recognise talaq that has been said at one go. If the couple intends to separate then having said talaq once, they have to wait for some times. If there is no desire change in the wife or if she does not rectify her mistake then talaq must be said for the second time. After an interval, if there is no other go then the third talaq must be given. Hence the talaq I uttered at one go is not valid, isn’t it ?” (70) The elders justified their decision and said : “It is said that it must be uttered in intervals, but it is not written anywhere that talaq said at one go is not valid. What is important is that the husband should utter the word thrice.” This method of giving divorce is against the Sunnah. Therefore, such divorces are called the ‘divorce of bid’at’ (innovative). But the religious heads were very adamant to separate the couple. Jameela resolved to rebel against them: “ Ibrahim is her husband – That is Allah’s will . Who has given these Mullahs and Qazis the right to challenge God’s will ? They can’t distort Shariat according to their whims and fancies and play with her life. She will not be a mute spectator. She has to be answerable only to Allah… and not to these mortals who have forgotten human values.” (74) .

When a man initiates a divorce, the procedure is called talaq, likewise when a woman initiates a divorce with a consent of her husband it is called khula. In the story ‘Khula’, a mother of two girls stood against her husband when she had lost her daughter to the nincompoop attitude of her husband. She petitioned Allah to bless her with a son in dua. When Fatima delivered a girl, Fakir asked her to stuff the child’s throat with some poisonous seeds. She silently bore his beatings and protected her daughter from his ire like a mother hen. Fakir unleashed his abuses and ranted like a mad man: “I will sell her off some day without her knowledge” (130). After some time he said, “I am pronouncing talaq. Take your two daughters and go away. I don’t care where you would go and how you would live. My two sons will live with me” (130). He held Fatima by her neck and threw her out with the children.

But the status and dignity of woman as it is present in the Holy Qur’an is completely revolutionary in comparison to her position in the said events. Prophet (SAWS) said, “Who ever brought up three daughters and treated them well, the heaven is for him.” (Abu Dawud-Tirmizi). In Islam the dignity does not depend upon being male or female or any other consideration, but on being righteous. According to the above-mentioned verse, there remains no discrepancy between men and women, and much weightage has been given to woman. The elder daughter Razia was married off when she reached puberty. Fakir promised to give five thousand rupees and bicycle as dowry to the son-in-law Khaja. On the day of Nikah, Fakir provided Khaja only with two thousand rupees and promised to pay the rest, buying some time. But she had to meet the sad end when the news of her death confirmed that she had died in a fire accident. Six year old daughter Nazia lost her virginity by a son of an influential Hindu village head and the girl was thrown into a pond. The village panchayet influenced the elders of the village to save his son. A mutual agreement was sought with a help of monetary compensation that had made Fakir excited and he nodded for the compensation. Fatima shouted, ‘I’ll not agree to that ... he should be hanged.’ (136) she argued with the panachayet members. Her husband shouted at her, ‘shut your mouth or else I’ll throttle your neck and kill you.’ The religious head advised her, ‘woman! Don’t you dare speak before the elders! We men will decide the issue.’ Finally, a compensation worth rupees two thousand was accepted by Fakir. She was told if anyone inquired about her daughter’s death, she should informed them that she had died of dengue. She cursed herself: “Chi! A woman’s life is worse than that of a dog…even that has a better life, it has the freedom to bark, if it is angry: but freedom for a woman, that too a Muslim woman? Does she have any freedom at all? (137) At last, to keep the dignity of being a mother she uttered for her husband: “You good for nothing fellow! What talaq will you give … I am pronouncing khula...even if you plead holding my feet, I am not prepared to be your wife any longer” (138). Khula is the right of a woman to seek a divorce from her husband for compensation paid back to the husband from the wife through a consent of husband or a Judicial decree. Eugene Genovese (1974) in his study of slave culture shows how paternalism, while it softened the harshest features of the system, also tended to weaken the individual’s ability to see the system in political terms. Gerda Lerner quotes Genovese from her classic text The Creation of Patriarchy (1987) to assert this blinding effect and its consequences for women : “It was not that the slaves didn’t act like men. Rather, it was that they could not grasp they are collective strength as people and act like political men.” This description has great significance for a reading of the position of women in Saleem’s stories, since their subordination has been primarily expressed in the form of paternalistic dominance within the structure of the family. The structural condition inscribed in the locus of the family makes any development of the female solidarity and group cohesiveness extremely difficult, inhibiting not just female resistance to invisibility and silence but also trivialising the existential need of the female to feel useful and wanted in a social setup.

Poor uneducated young girls in Muslim society are married off at a very tender age to the older Arab Sheikhs, who treat them like slaves. Yasmeen, a sixteen year old girl was married off to an Arab who is ‘like a bear covered in a red hide. Bald, thick glasses, one upper tooth broken and looking so ugly. He looked older even to Khan chacha by 5 or 6 years. He looked like a butcher taking Yasmeen to the altar to cut her throat.’(‘The sixth Son-in-Law’, p – 78) By paying twenty five thousand rupees the groom took his bride away. Ameer, who loved Yasmeen asked: “ what can they do, tell me… poverty, hunger, number of children.. miserable condition of being unable to spend money and perform the Nikahs of the daughters…avarice for money from the Sheikhs . In other words, they are just selling their daughters as they are desperate..” (81). He added: “ They do not have ‘mehboob ki mehandi’ in their country as we have in our country. There is a dearth of servants too. Our girls can be hired at very low wages. They can be used for both work and warm the bed and therefore, the Sheikhs come here and lawfully smuggle the girls into their countries, in the name of marriage”. (78) At last, the girl’s Abbajaan received a letter with a message written on it, ‘Abbajaan- I live with a sixth man now. Congratulations on acquiring the sixth son-in-law.’ (83). In The Subjection of Women (1869), John Stuart Mill argues that the principle of servitude in marriage is a monstrous antithesis to all the principles of the modern world, a relic from antiquity, made irrelevant in everything else. For Mill, the most liberating aspect of the modern world is that human beings are no longer born to their place in life. At present, this applies only to men; to be born a woman still entails ‘that a place in life is already waiting’. To transcend that place in life already determined by patriarchy, to collapse, in fact, Rousseau’s emphatic claim that women can’t reason in the requisite fashion, and explode the premise that women, their bodies and bodily passions must be policed if social order is to be created and sustained, in sort, to stagger the cultural prescriptions which engender female socialisation, Saleem decides to empower his women. Ironically, though, the empowerment lies in the act of negation: a refusal to acknowledge the tenets of valorisation in masculine terms.

Mahr establishes the brides financial independence from her parents and in many cases from her husband, who has no legal claims to his wife’s mahr. Moreover, Islam makes it a pre-condition of marriage that the groom must give the bride the mahr or marital gift, otherwise the marriage is invalid. Allah says in the Qur’an, “and give the women (on marriage) their dower as free gift ; but if they, on their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it with right good cheer.” (4:4) Generally, mahr is misinterpreted as dowry. Islam does not approve of dowry in marriage. In the story, ‘Kareemun Laughed’, a young poor girl at a very tender age took up the role of mother of her younger siblings since her mother had died at an early age. Her father planned her marriage with the son of a grocery owner, who proclaimed to be devout Muslim and a namazi. The marriage was fixed with the payment of twenty thousand rupees after a lot of haggling by the girl’s father. When the vakeel came with a witness and asked, “with a mehr of five thousand nikah qubool hai?” ( Is the marriage acceptable with a mehr of five thousand? p-91) she agreed to the mehr but when her father proudly told her that her father-in-law had agreed to pay only two thousand rupees initially, he persuaded him to pay five thousand rupees. The girl broke into an uncontrollable laughter at her father’s childishness. Her father was frightened at her unwanted behaviour. She questioned her father, ‘Tell me what the purpose of mahr is ?’ She explained : “ In our religion, mahr is a great security for a woman.. It may be taken as the dowry the bridegroom keeps to the bride. After marriage if she becomes alone by quirk of fate, in such difficult times, the amount of mahr will give her succour. The woman alone has rights over mahr. (91) She also proclaimed : “If mahr is a dowry given to me by my husband, then what will you call the dowry of twenty thousand we give? my respected father-in-law who claims he strictly follows our religious customs and traditions, under which religious customs has he taken this twenty thousand rupees. Why has this not been mentioned in the nikahnama?(91). Gerda Lerner, writing in The Creation of Patriarchy(1987), underlines the principles of the politics of marginalisation: “Men and women live on a stage, on which they act out their assigned roles, equal in importance. The play can’t go on without both kinds of performers. Neither of them “contributes” more or less to the whole; neither is marginal or dispensable. But the stage is conceived, painted, defined by men. Men have written the play, have directed the show, interpreted the meanings of the action. They have assigned themselves the most interesting, most heroic parts, giving women the supporting roles.” Saleem lets the plot of her stories gravitate towards a stronger indictment of patriarchal domination. Fatima, Jameela and Kareemun ‘like other minorities who have been taught their natural limitations by the dominant culture in which they live, turn their anger against themselves … They know that woman cannot do what men can do, and they resent and scold and criticise any woman who tries to do it. They become instruments of the system, its perfect product, its most important achievement…’ Saleem represents muslim woman as either victims of the Islamic faith or its fortunate survivors and have portrayed their characters in terms of the representations of the self, their joy, sadness loyalties, betrayals as some of the many attributes of identity building.

Saleem’s stories thus depict all the different aspects of Indian Muslim women who unceasingly question their belonging, their fragmented history to re-engineer identities through hegemonistic discourses. Identities of Muslim women in Indian society are produced in a complex socio-cultural matrix and produced with an intention to control subjects by reforming them and, by so doing, making them conform to their fractured realities that they live day in and day out. Saleem propounds the need to abandon the politics of blame and formulate a trans-cultural, non-coercive identity based on respect for differences, in order that human beings may survive in a world, increasingly fractured by the belligerent assertion of essential identities. Saleem underlines the necessity of recognizing one’s gender identity not as naturally constituted or biologically given, but as shaped by social stereotypes with an ulterior motive to control and dominate.

End Notes:

Mahr: A mahr is part of every Muslim marriage contract. It is a mandatory payment, in the form of money or possessions paid by the groom or by groom’s father to the bride at time of marriage,that legally becomes her property.
Namazi: A person who prays to Allah regularly.
Talaq: The divorce initiated by a man.
Khula: The divorce initiated by a woman.
Abbajan: Father.
Nikahnama: Prescribed scripture of marriage in Muslim marriage.
Mehboob ki Mehendi: Bridal dressing on the eve of marriage.

Works Cited

Chittister, Joan. Heart of Flesh: a Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men, Cambridge and Ontario, 1998, p. 156.
Gopal, Sujata. Trans. & Ed. Three Dimensions and Other Stories. Bangalore: Prism Publication, 2012.
Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), p. 149, Quoted in Gerda lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York:Oxford University Press, 1987),p.241.
Lerner, Gerda. The creation of Patriarchy. Network, Oxford: Oxford University, 1987.
Mill, J Stuart, “Subjection of Women”, in Essays on Sex Equality, ed.A.S.Rossi(Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1970),p. 142-3, quoted in Carole Pateman,The Sexual contract (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988),p.165. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss & Recovery of self under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Rao, Bhargavi and Gopal, Sujatha. Trans & Ed. Ocean and Other Stories. Bangalore: Prism Publication, 2009.
Rao, Ranga. Trans & Ed. Man on the Road. New Delhi: Penguin Publication, 2006.
Rushdie, Salman. Shame. London: Vintage, 1995.
Sihna, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1997.


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