Muslim women of 20th century India are being celebrated through a history project that decimates stereotypes

Manik Sharma
A new history project-cum-exhibition called Pathbreakers puts together the stories of 21 Muslim women who — the horrors of Partition notwithstanding — rose to prominence in modern, independent India.

Anis Kidwai learnt Urdu and English literature by overhearing her brother's tutors. Nine years after she lost her husband to a communal clash during Partition, Kidwai became a member of the Rajya Sabha. In 1974, she wrote her memoir, Azaadi Ki Chhaaon Mein (In Freedom's Shade).The rest €" as they say €" is history.

Except, it isn't.

History (or recorded history, if we're being more precise) has €" and in large part continues to be €" told by men. It also places them at the forefront of each shift, each turn. Men have also been kindest to themselves, elating in a saviour complex that oft confuses male oppression with heroism. Take into account religious biases, stereotypes, and a past written by partisan authors €" and you'll see why the prospect offers women little hope. Muslim women, even more so.

Muslim women's representations have been frequently restricted to "hijab-wearing conservatives" yet to cross the thresholds of their own homes. However, a history project-cum-exhibition €" Pathbreakers: The Twentieth Century Muslim Women of India €" hopes to change that.

Pathbreakers puts together the lives of 21 Muslim women who, the horrors of Partition notwithstanding, rose to prominence in modern, independent India.

"We did it to address the stereotyping of Muslim women into a homogenous lump of chulha-chadar-chardeewari-polygamy-triple-talaq and other things. This cacophony has grown in the last four-five years," said Syeda Hameed, chairperson of Muslim Women's Forum (MVF), the organisation behind the project. Hameed felt it was important to go as far back as the Partition to trace these women's stories, because it is a moment when they would have been expected to recede quietly into anonymity. "A lot of these women were burqa-wearing ladies who, despite the brutal price that local communities had to pay for the Partition, were elemental to the building of a new India, however big or small their role," Hameed says.

The exhibition has already travelled to a number of cities in India and in its second showing in the capital, has elicited both praise and constructive criticism. Criticism because, as Hameed admits, it still focuses on a group of elite women. "We haven't yet travelled to the hinterland. We researched and selected our women largely from the cities. A lot of people have asked the same question: Where are the stories from smaller areas? The answer, simply, is funds. We have to put together enough money to expand and bring together stories from far off places. It can only get harder. But that is the natural step for the second part of this project," Hameed says.

Pathbreakers took two years to put together, and even though some of the women featured in it aren't exactly little-known, the exhibition throws light on stories that surprise all, including €" Hameed says €" Muslims.

From musicians to writers, politicians and health activists, Pathbreakers profiles an eclectic group of women. "I did not know Sharifa Hamid Ali was a member of the Constituent Assembly. Or that Hajira Begum was one of the biggest Communist leaders of her time," Hameed says.

Tyaba Khedive Jung wrote the Urdu novel Anwari Begum that called for reform within the Muslim establishment as early as 1905. An excerpt from her novel reads: 'The ploughman homeward plods his weary way/ And leaves the world to darkness and to me'. Into that darkness have disappeared many other stories that should rather have been read and heard.

"Aziza Fatima Imam was so adept at her public service that it is said she was sought after by both mantris and santris. Such women were regular and commonplace. But they have been replaced in popular culture by the image of a burqa-wearing woman who stands next to the poll booth and raises her finger for a photo," Hameed says.

Pathbreakers offers lessons not just about Muslim women, but also of the way history is recorded, and the way it treats its women, worldwide. History needs to be rexamined for the sake of the many women that have been lost in its pages. Pathbreakers offers a glimpse of independent India's first generation of Muslim women as liberal, 'woke' and thoroughly at ease with their place in the world. But is it inspiring enough for young Indian millennials? "For some reason, I feel we have regressed..." Hameed rues. "The global war on terror had a strong religious drift to it, which hasn't helped (the community). My grandmother never wore the burqa and she participated in national events. For some reason the burqa has once again become a mark of Muslim identity. Probably because we don't have role models like these women, or the fact that they are hardly known."

Pathbreakers is on display at India International Centre, Delhi

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