Purdah and Polygamy: Life in an Indian Muslim Household, published in 1944 by Hosali Press, Bangalore, is the story of three generations of a purdah-practising Muslim household at Dilkusha. Revolving around the complex lives of the polygamous protagonist, Kabeer, his father Umar who died early, his dictatorial mother and the family matriarch, Zuhra, his four wives, Nazni, Munira, Maghbool and Noorjahan and his progressive son Akram, the novel brings out the miseries of women in the zenana and the asymmetrical treatment given to them depending upon the social class they come from. Men in the novel hold varied opinions about women, ranging from the repressiveness of Kabeer's father Umar and the helplessness of Nazni's father Doulath Khan to the progressive views of Nazni's brother and her son Akram, who disapprove of Kabeer's polygamous nature. Maghbool, the third wife of Kabeer, is the only woman in Dilkusha who comes close to the image of New Muslim Woman,' one who is compassionate and economically liberated. The novel ends with Kabeer's miserable death, followed by the death of his mother Zuhra, Maghbool's exit from Dilkusha, and Nazni's taking over of the coveted position in the zenana, vacated by Zuhra. The novel makes a valuable intervention in discourses on the Muslim 'woman's question' in colonial India
lqbalunnisa Hussain (1897-1954) was an educationist, a social reformer, and a writer. Born in Mysore, Hussain grew up to be a life-long crusader for Muslim women's rights. Author of Changing India: A Muslim Woman Speaks (1940), and Purdah and Polygamy: Life in a Muslim Household (1944), Hussain exposed the absolute necessity of foregrounding women's specificity in place of treating them as emblems of community and nation's identity.
Nishat Zaidi (b. 1972) is Professor in the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Her publications include Between Worlds: The Travels of Yusuf Kambalposh (OUP, New Delhi, with Mushirul Hasan), Makers of Indian Literature: AghaShahidAli(Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi) and A Voyage to Modernism: Syed Ahmed Khan, (Primus, New Delhi with Mushirul Hasan).
Though by an author little known to fame, there is hardly a novel published in India and dealing with Indian life in any of its myriad phases and aspects which, in my opinion, has a better claim to become famous than Mrs. Iqbalunnisa Hussain's Purdah and Polygamy. Without exaggeration I can hail her as the Jane Austen of India. She deals with the ordinary, the familiar, not with the romantic and heroic. It is by deft-touches, each minute in itself, but together constituting life and reality, that she wins first the attention and finally the heart of the reader. Observation, analysis, a penetrating insight into the working of the minds of the men and women of the mercantile class of the Muslim community in India, the fervour of a moral and social purpose which sometimes leads her to didactic outpourings, and above all, the painter's gift of portraiture that brings out the very soul of the persons figured-these and other graces have given to us a novel in which all the characters, and more especially the women, live and move before our eyes true to life, simple, natural, unsophisticated, intimate. The women depicted are not types but flesh and blood, individuals, particular, vivid, full of vitality and each an attraction in her own special way. I read the book at one stretch from cover to cover. For it was no task but an irresistible pleasure.
I sent it to some of my literary friends for their unbiased opinion without letting them know a word about the author or my interest in her who, I recently discovered, was one that I had helped in her educational career. Mr. Bezwada Gopala Reddi, a Tagorean with an established standing in Telugu literature, writes thus :-
"Her maiden effort at novel writing is quite a success. The book gives an insight into a Muslim's life within walls, which is a sealed book to most of us. She knows where the shoe pinches and has given expression to her agony through this book." I would say that it is better than an agony. It is all analysis which is intellectually convincing as well as emotionally stirring.
The same thought has struck both Mr. Gopala Reddi and myself regarding the psychological affinity between the Hindu and the Muslim women. As Mr. Gopala Reddi says-"The surface variety need not deceive us about the substratum unity." Hindu readers of this book will realise, perhaps for the first time, how close to their women in heart, soul, thoughts, feelings and aspirations, earthly as well as heavenly, the Muslim women are. After all, they are the daughters of the same race. It is more easy to change one's religion than to change one's life. As I read of the joys and sorrows of the women portrayed in this novel, it was borne in upon me that not merely in their lives but in many of their customs, manners and superstitions, they were own sisters to Hindus. The trials and tribulations through which a Muslim daughter, wife or widow passes, her hopes and fears, the social inhibitions which suppress her personality, are hardly different from those that affect the Hindus of the same sex. In submissiveness, in the spirit of resignation, and many other traits of passivity and self-abnegation, differences in religion do not seem to have led to diversity in conduct and character.
I may be wrong but it strikes me that the Muslim men have diverged from the Hindu racial type to a far greater extent than Muslim women.
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