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Daughters of the Urdu culture

Sunday October 31, 2010 08:22:20 AM, Dr. Fatima Shahnaz,

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A Marginalized Language
In the past decade, the drumbeats across the nation regarding the state of the Urdu language have sent conflicting signals. In the early phase, Urdu, assimilated with the Muslim population in India, was highly politicized. It subsequently experienced the same official and political neglect, even discrimination, as the Muslims themselves, penalized since Indian Independence as foreigners in their own land. The rationale behind the marginalization and alienation of an ethnic minority in its homeland lay in the creation of Pakistan, where Urdu is the official language. The flawed thinking behind this bias within India is a legacy of British colonial mindsets as India itself included the whole South Asian subcontinent. Urdu, a historic language introduced, founded and developed in the rich multiculturalism of India, was an Indian language, neither alien to this nation, nor a foreign injection. It was an indigenous creation generated in the Indian soil itself. But the adversarial relations following Partition vitiated the reputation and very existence of Urdu, so that it fell into the same state of moral despondency, stagnation and financial slump of the Muslims themselves who, according to the report of Justice Rajinder Sacher issued in 2005-2006 in Delhi, lagged behind SCs and other backward castes and classes (including Christians) in obtaining any support or status from successive Indian governments in every professional sector, welfare programs or the field of education. At the bottom of the Muslim scale, a ‘minority within the minority,’ stand Muslim women, even more deprived of these basic human rights than Muslim men. They remain second-class citizens not merely in their country, but often in their families through the politics of gender and disempowerment. This article probes some of the hidden secrets of the discrimination of these minority women that continues to prevail under male-dominant systems of traditional society.

Corpse of Urdu
While the past sixty years since Independence displayed the “corpse of Urdu,” (“Urdu ki lash” as a popular novel and Hindi film projected), a language in its death throes and onrushing demise, the corpse appears to have suddenly resurrected. Today, either as a political convenience for ‘vote-bank politics’ by political parties pandering for Muslim votes, or more likely through its extraordinary resilience, the Urdu corpse has miraculously resurrected. Like Christ rising in his cave, Urdu is alive and well globally, from the Persian Gulf States, the remote corners of Asia all the way to Europe and the United States where its cultural survival is celebrated in ‘mushairas,’ ‘qawwalis’ and other public gatherings highly attended by Muslims, Hindus and other non-Muslims alike. Some of the fine ‘qawwali’ singers this writer has heard in Delhi itself were by members of the Sikh community, or Hindus and non-Muslims, indicating the vast following and popularity of a language that refuses to die. The reason for Urdu’s survival has nothing to do with religion, as the distorting political propaganda has projected it. It has to do with ‘ilm,’ the Urdu word (derived from Arabic) meaning knowledge. Long before globalization, Urdu projected the multicultural and multi-ethnic richness and diversity of the South Asian subcontinent, of India. It is therefore a language crafted, skilled, sophisticated and developed in this area of the world specifically, nurtured by the composite cultural mosaic of India, its spirituality and history from the Indus civilization through the arrival of the Vedas and waves of foreign travelers or settlers who adopted the subcontinent as their own legacy. Urdu, originally an army language of the Mughals, was nurtured by the cultural cross-currents of Asia, from Arabic to Turkish and Turkic, Persian and Sanskrit, Bengali, even south Indian languages like Tamil and Malayalam, to Hindustani or Hindi, its later avatars. Today no sentence mouthed by Bollywood actors is allegedly uttered without “Hinglish,” or sentences half in Hindi and English. The English phenomenon, is however, globalized, In France, new academic dictionaries include English neologisms in the French language, such as ‘le weekend’ and others, equally sacred to modern French culture. All languages are part of the ‘ilm,’ the pursuit of knowledge through the cross-pollinations of science, technology, commerce, trade, and culture. Languages are evolutionary which is why Urdu, porous to extraneous influences, is ‘globalized’. This is one dimension of its resilience and survival in a fast-changing modern world. People in the Arabic-speaking Gulf states are allegedly now using words from the Urdu lexicon, or Hindi movies. “Salam Walekum,” an Arabic word associated with Muslims, is now a universal form of greeting in Europe, the United States, Africa and elsewhere.

The Urdu Resurgence
As Urdu rises like the mythical bird, the phoenix, out of the ashes of the dead, a window is opened up on the parallel developments shedding light on the Indian reality, and on whether the revival of Urdu is merely a political ploy, which would make its success short-lived, as it would suit short-term interests. This resurgence would merely perpetuate status quo mindsets of the past, traditional authoritarian attitudes which would limit the outreach of Urdu through sexist male dominance. This patriarchal and political direction of Urdu sheds light on the insidious realities of racial, religious and gender discrimination in India’s secular modern democracy, the shameful secret behind India’s economic success.

Saturday October 23, 2010, was a busy day for Urdu in the city of Hyderabad, which one observer called the “Urdu City”. As the writer of this article, and a woman, I attended two seminars in the city, which gave me a yardstick to measure the vast disparities in the mindsets and attitudes of the Urdu revival in the country. One feature to emerge out of both seminars celebrating the Urdu re-birth was how this has, or has failed to bring about real change in Muslim society. Has it touched a vital segment of the Muslim population itself, Muslim women? What is the role and function of Muslim women, wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, in this Urdu revival? Will their status quo role as ‘camp followers,’ the foot-soldiers of men, trophies and appendages, continue into the next phase of development? And if so, what are the real dimensions and implications for Urdu in the future? If its rebirth is to be anchored and grounded in the real transformations of our time, how do these changes truly impact Muslim women? Or is change itself cosmetic, a political hypocrisy to keep power in the hands of men, while the so-called uplift of women continues to hide their subservient roles through their marginalization and subjugation?

The Money Trail
Minority women continue to be trapped in a Catch-22 situation with regard to the funding to which they are entitled through government welfare programs. Often, due to male politicians, or a lack of education of their own rights and the RTI (Right to Information Act) it is hard to follow the money trail; cash flows may not reach the victims themselves. But poverty is both an economic and a social stigma, that cuts across the lines of class to gender, making women a ‘soft target’ as they are the vulnerable sector.

As an educated and professional woman who has lived in Europe and the United States, where women’s movements have made revolutionary changes in traditional mindsets regarding gender, I have had to survive in the highly competitive environment of these countries, where I was an alien. But my perceptions of the realities confronting women in my own country, specifically Muslim minority women, were revealing when I attended the two seminars in my hometown, Hyderabad. In both these seminars I witnessed the extent of real change in the lives and attitudes toward women. I came away somewhat disillusioned and disheartened by both. This was perhaps because I was steeped in the dynamic approach I had witnessed in Western women’s groups and organizations, and the quantum leap they have made for women, although much still needs to be achieved for full equality and economic parity even there. The first seminar, which was organized by a brother of mine who resides in Europe (supported by my father) gave me some personal insights into an inter-generational conflict between traditionalism and modernity, on how women’s roles are defined and perceived from the male chauvinism of the feudal era to the modern democratic system. Hyderabad, like my own family, has the lingering hangover of feudalism. The second seminar was organized by a member of the Congress Party, and was therefore more relevant to the values of republican India.

A Secondary Role
In both seminars, my observations disclosed the secondary role played by women. They continue to be cast through tokenism, or as appendages to the male agenda, to fathers and sons in the traditional setting. While female Urdu writers or artists may be encouraged, they are nonetheless under the supervision (or as voices) of that male agenda. They are not decision-makers nor participating in the equal sharing of powers as they should in a participatory democracy. When my father spoke at the seminar on my maternal grandfather, the late Professor Agha Hyder Hassan Mirza, a renowned professor of Urdu, his own daughter, my mother, or those of his own bloodline, such as my siblings and myself, were not included in sharing our impressions of the Great Man. Only our father, like the proverbial traditional patriarch, spoke at the first seminar. In the political arena it is often male politicians who remain decision-makers. Similarly, in the Congressman’s seminar there were only males (mostly VIPs) seated on the dais. I was shocked when a sherwani-clad bearded Muslim shouted at me when I entered the second conference, “Go over there and sit with the women”. I yelled back at him, “Who are you?” and then, waving to the burkha-clad ladies huddled on one side of the room, I retorted in my Deccani Urdu, “And these are not ‘women,’ they are ‘ladies’. Please address them with respect.” In Urdu the term “aurat,” women, can be disparaging, while the classical word, “qawaateen” is generally a polite way of addressing women in public audiences. The ladies in burkhas were ecstatic, almost applauding my response in a hall containing perhaps over a hundred people. One came to interview me, taking notes on my education and background as a human rights activist. Another, a Hindu lady, was a qualified principle of a school in the city where Urdu was taught, although she herself spoke little Urdu. It was exhilarating to see such women, and their struggle to participate in the education of Urdu.

Cultural Conditioning
The first seminar, as mentioned earlier, was a family affair, and therefore more personal as it touched me more intimately. This raises the cultural conditioning that women are subjected to in the Indian family environment, specifically Muslim women as this article focuses on them. I was once shocked when a left-wing activist declared in Hyderabad that fathers in Muslim families did not encourage the equality of their daughters, which hampered the careers and developments of Muslim girls. Many Muslims are sensitive to what they perceive as such bias against their faith; but this misplaced defense mechanism prevents them from attaining the true development of their community. Additionally, it blocks change while keeping Muslims in a state of cultural pessimism as well as economic depression, accelerating their backward status. In my own family I had always taken my own father as a liberal man, never suspecting male rivalry with a daughter whose academic or intellectual achievements might be superior to males in the family. But in a subtle male dominant system, I discovered the cultural dichotomy of the roles of women in Muslim families, even those considered privileged such as ours, when it came to the competitiveness of genders in the public forum. Male control and domination continues to prevail, albeit in subtle and covert forms. Invisible walls of discrimination and gender inequality continue to favor the woman in the traditional role, subservient to a male member, a husband. But with rabid modernization, new insecurities make a sector of Muslim men view women’s rights, economic freedom and equal empowerment as a threat to their traditional dominance. I was sensitized to this fundamental bias in the male patriarchal system because of my own status: I happen to be single, divorced, a woman who raised a family as a single parent with two professionally well adjusted successful sons in the United States. My life may be perceived as a success story both in the West and in India: I obtained a Ph.D. in literature from the Sorbonne University in Paris. Last year I was awarded the highest honor for the arts, letters and culture by the Government of France. I am a published writer, journalist and single-handedly founded an international human rights organization in New York. Later, on return to India, I continued my humanitarian work here while working as a visiting professor teaching political science at some of India’s most prestigious universities. I give these personal details to indicate the arduous struggle that Indian women have to undergo (without the support-groups or state benefits provided Western women), not just juggling dual roles as wives and mothers, but in the professional arena.

Senior Citizens
As a single woman and now a senior citizen over sixty, I am obliged to work to try to earn a living, even at this age when most people retire. My insights into the Indian system expose the glaring discrimination not just against my age, but even against my religion as a Muslim, and my gender as a woman. Each day is as much a battle for me, in my advancing years, as for any younger Indian woman. I have nearly an hour’s drive to work, in grueling traffic. The work-conditions are sometimes harrowing, but there are no alternatives. I am aware of the lack of career opportunities, even of obtaining a full education, for Indian women in general, not merely Muslim women. But while at the national scale there is some state support for women of non-Muslim minorities, SCs, Christians and others, for Muslim women there are seldom alternatives as they have neither support from the state, nor often from their own families. Tokenism, a little ‘pocket money’ as a ‘poor relative’ compounds the state of co-dependency as it is neither long-term nor economic independence. When there are no jobs and employment is non-existent for this category of the population, how is it possible to earn? What about healthcare, especially for women who are senior citizens? While my entire family vacation in Europe every year, I cannot afford trips abroad and remain in India, like any member of the Indian middleclass.

Double Standard
But the family secrets are even more insidious, exposing the truth behind the façade of Muslim feudal families like ours. While we are expected to maintain the glorious legacy of our heritage, of a non-existent past, as a non-earning female in this traditional paradigm, I am an aberration; I do not have a male as my back-up to define my social identity. I have heard many Indian women, even in Delhi, the capital of India, speak of the ‘cultural discrimination’ of women throughout the country. When my father, a brilliant former diplomat of the U.N., founded the museum dedicated to my maternal grandfather he announced it as a family venture to be equally represented by his five children, my three brothers, my younger sister and myself. But when the seminar in Hyderabad took place this week, it exposed the marginalization of the independent woman, the one who did not conform to the traditional role-models of women attached to a husband, like my own mother or sister. I was not considered part of the museum dedicated to my grandfather, although my brother visiting from Europe and sister (who resided in another town) were included as those who helped my father in his ‘pet project’. Ironically, I am the only one who lives with my parents, tending to their daily welfare and health in their old age, and I am therefore able to witness the walls of social and gender exclusion first-hand. The traditional legacy is handed to those who ‘fit the mold,’ conforming to the old definitions of a patriarchal society. Even my qualifications as a professor, the harrowing work I have in my retirement years to eke out a living financially, does not exclude me from the covert bias, the discrimination of women living alone or within the family fold. I discovered the double-standards and true plight of Indian women living and surviving alone across India. If they are not in the subservient roles of dependents on their families begging for alms or handouts from their wealthier siblings from time to time, or if they are not the appendages of rich husbands beneficial to the family, their status is, indeed, pathetic.

Veil of Shame
For Muslim minority women forced into traditional roles in a male patriarchy that continues to penalize them for being independent and therefore perceived as a ‘threat’ to the male-dominant system, their plight in the best of families is worse than that of poorer women: because in the case of privileged families, they are silenced from revealing the truth through a veil of shame which is enshrouded in the hypocrisies of the traditional discrimination against women. Theirs is a no-win situation: if they dare speak out, they are cast as the proverbial heretic, Taslima Nasreen, and other rebels. It is this insidious backdrop of Muslim society that must be redressed as it is the core of the fragmentation and divisions not only in families, but also of a culture, the Muslim culture in India, and its survival. It is a self-destructive process that perpetuates the corruptions of feudal systems, without inventing new mindsets. It is the destruction of those women in India, the aged and economically disempowered, who have neither the support of the state, nor their families. Like Urdu, these women are the living corpses of a dying society, a decaying civilization. They are symbols of exclusion, or internal displacement within a community; they underscore the need for a change dynamic in a functioning democracy which cannot exist without self-examination. Without an all-inclusive system, the legitimate rights and victimhood of Muslims will remain stagnant through narcissistic delusions and the self-aggrandizing myths of the past.


Dr. Fatima Shahnaz, Ph.D. Sorbonne University, Paris, France,

formerly a visiting professor (political science) at the Jamia Millia Islamia University and currently at Hyderabad Central University,

is a writer and president of an international human rights advocacy.



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