In the realm of literature, just like many other domains, women have come a long way. Urdu literature, too, witnessed a phenomenal rise of women writers in the 20th century.
But it would not have been possible without the pioneering efforts of those who paved the way for women’s participation in Urdu literature and journalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Unlike other genres, women started quite early when it comes to autobiographies in Urdu and Urdu’s first autobiography was written by a woman. Paradoxically, in the 20th century, Urdu biographies by women were few and far between and it was not until the last quarter of the last century that women really began contributing to this genre prolifically that allures a vast readership.
March 8 marks the International Women’s Day. This piece is a humble gesture to pay tribute to women writers of Urdu who have penned their autobiographies. Because of constraints of space, many books written in the late 20th century and in recent decades had to be left out of this brief piece. Though Shabana Saleem’s book on the topic has recently been published, it does not cover all Urdu autobiographies by women and a more detailed study is still needed.
Beeti kahani (1885)
Though first published in 1995, it was written in 1885 and revised by the author herself in January 1887, which makes it one of the earliest autobiographies of Urdu. In fact, Jafer Thaneseri’s Kala pani, considered to be Urdu’s first autobiography ever written, was written in 1886. Penned by Shehr Bano Begum, a descendent of the Nawab of Pataudi, the book was edited by Moinuddin Aqeel and its second edition appeared from Lahore in 2006.
Sultan Jahan Begum, the female ruler of Bhopal, was one of the pioneers of women’s education in the subcontinent. The book consisted of three parts and the second part, ‘Gauhar Iqbal’ appeared in 1909 and ‘Akhter Iqbal’, the last one, in 1914.
It is a sort of epistolary memoirs by Atiya Fyzee. She went to England in 1906 and began writing detailed letters back home. Her sister Zehra Begum would send the edited version of these letters to Tehzeeb-i-Niswan, an Urdu magazine for women published from Lahore. Zamana-i-tehseel first appeared in book form in 1923. Edited by Mohammad Yameen Usman, the book was published from Karachi in 2010.
As the title suggests, Vazeer Sultan Begum, the author, has narrated the story of reversal of her fortune when she was divorced and went to court to claim mehr. The brief work is rather emotional and reads like a melodramatic novel.
Aik actress ki aap beeti (1942)
Bimla Kumari, or Prema, a well-known actress of her times, penned her brief biography, narrating how innocent girls are trapped.
Aazadi ki chhaaon mein (1975)
This book by Anees Qidvai, sister-in-law of India’s then minister Raf’i Ahmed Qidvai, sounds more like a diary as it covers the events that took place during Independence in 1947 and a few years later.
Sualiha Aabid Hussein, a well-known Indian fiction writer, published her autobiography that reflects life, especially the atmosphere at Panipat and Jamia Millia Delhi.
Jo rahi so be khabari rahi (1995)
Ada Jafri, a well-known Pakistan poet, narrated her life story in a captivating manner. Describing her early life in Badaun and her later life along with her husband Noorul Hasan Jafri, the book has many glimpses of the times.
Hum safar (1995)
Written in a simple yet flowing and highly readable language, Begum Hameeda Akhter Hussein Raipuri’s autobiography depicts many well-known figures such as Zafar Umer Zubairi, her father and the writer of Neeli chhatri, one of Urdu’s earliest detective novels. A serious scholar like Moulvi Abdul Haq is painted quite differently and in bright colours by Begum Hameeda Akhter.
Buri aurat ki katha (1995)
Kishwer Naheed’s iconoclastic autobiography first appeared in 1995 from India and was then published from Pakistan. Both the versions differ slightly at certain places. Why? One can understand well.
Dagar se hat kar (1996)
Saeeda Bano Ahmed’s autobiography reads exactly as the title suggests: away from the beaten path. Depiction of working for All India Radio and life in Lucknow and Bhopal in pre-independence era in simple and chaste prose is readable. A Pakistani edition was published from Lahore in 2006.
Parde se parliament tak (2002)
It was first published in English in 1963 under the title From purdah to parliament. Begum Shaista Ikramullah rewrote it in Urdu and added a few details. The Urdu version appeared in 2002.
Zindagi ki yaaden (2003)
First written as Urdu essays and then published in English under the title Remembrance of the days past, the book is an expanded version of the two previous works by Begum Jahan Ara Habibullah. A slim volume subtitled Riyasat Rampur ka nawabi daur, it offers rare glimpses of the princely state of Rampur and its grandeur along with the social rites and rituals of the past. It has a historical significance, too.
These Urdu autobiographies by women show how women perceive the world and how they feel about it. One feels that men must read these books to see the world though the eyes of women. It will be quite an experience!
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in Dawn, March 5th, 2019