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Rasheed Jahan played a pivotal part in the growing role of Muslim women outside the four walls of the house in the third decade of the twentieth century. Though she is remembered more for her afsanas that were published in the explosive issue of Angarey in 1933, she was greater than the sum of all her parts. Being a medical doctor, a political activist and a writer paled in comparison to her symbolic contribution as a flag-bearer of a new role that was being chartered for the women of the subcontinent, especially the Muslim women.

Now a collection of her essays, short stories and plays by Humaira Ashfaq has inveigled us to take a second look at those momentous events and times, and the pioneering role played by her on issues like women emancipation and their role in society. It is all the more poignant because even after almost a century the same issues, some of them foundational, still bedevil this society. One of the more thorny issues is the education and role of women in the society at large.

Perhaps the question may have been settled in actuality because in the institutions of higher learning in particular, women outnumber men and there is also a growing number of them in the workforce. Still, at the intellectual and emotional level, the resistance is just as stiff and waiting to explode at any moment. It does so in limited form from time to time. Therefore the struggle of Rasheed Jahan becomes even more relevant and pointed than ever before.

The tragedy of Rasheed Jahan was that she gained notoriety by getting published in Angarey in 1933, a magazine that challenged many stereotypes of this society. It provoked an instant reaction. If the intention of the writings of Ahmed Ali, Sajjad Zaheer, Mehmoodur Zafar and Rasheed Jahan was to shock, it was more than achieved. But, in retrospect, it may be conceded that the quality of those writings, particularly of Rasheed Jahan, did not square up to a certain level of literary finesse. She has been forever judged by the quality of her writings in retrospect rather than the impact they had at the time of their publication.

She went to a school set up by her enlightened father Sheikh Abdullah in Aligarh and later to Isabella Thoburn and Lady Hardinge Medical Colleges in Lucknow where she graduated to become a medical doctor in 1929 which must have placed her as being one of the first Muslim women to qualify for this profession. She formed part of the revolutionary bohemian lot of that period and while the Progressive Writers Association was being set up in India by her friends led by Sajjad Zaheer she was fully associated with it in both theory and practice. She got married to Mehmoodur Zafar, her ideological soulmate in Amritsar where he was the vice principal of MAO College.

For years, all the writings of Rasheed Jahan were not available or readily available and there was also the issue with Angarey which was banned after the fierce reaction that it caused and was lost to history. Her two pieces, a short story Dilli Ki Sair and play Parde ke Peechey, were realistic and not provocative but some of the other writings were and she was bracketed and hence condemned and threatened.

Though Rasheed Jahan continued to write, she was also kept back by her other professional engagements — being a medical doctor and an activist. Then, unfortunately, she died rather young of cancer in Moscow where she had gone for treatment. She was perhaps in her mid-forties at that time. Her death cast a pall of gloom among her friends, fellow ideologists and men and women belonging to the artistic/literary community.

Rasheed Jahan was greatly inspired by the new wave of realism that was sweeping poetry and fiction in the early decades of the twentieth century. Urdu prose was struggling to come out of the cocoon of highly romanticised narratives and a florid descriptive style and was thought not suitable to express the seething problems that faced society at large particularly the condition of women. Many of the subjects were considered taboos and were only mentioned indirectly. Rasheed Jahan plunged the surgeon’s knife of her writings right into the middle of this cancerous growth and it led to the spilling of a lot of bad blood.

This realism was being developed by greater writers like Munshi Premchand in Hindi and Urdu. He had started to write about the people and landscape with his greater realism but for a women to be writing about sex was akin to a volcanic eruption and it caused so much commotion that Rasheed Jahan was put on the defensive and was made to doff an armour. She did not grow to become a writer of higher merit.

Her first attempt at writing was a short story Salma written in English while she was a student at Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow. She got to write in Angarey because a sister of Ahmed Ali was her friend in college and she got to know the family well. Humaira Ashfaq has collected these writings from various sources mainly Rasheed Jahan’s collection of stories like “Aurat Aur Doosrey Afsaney” and Shahida Hasan’s doctoral thesis “Dr. Rasheed Jehan –Hayat aur Karnamey”.

Humaira Ashfaq is a short story writer, folklorist, critic, and a Phd scholar and is associated with the Urdu Department of International Islamic University in Islamabad. It appears that many of her manuscripts are under print and she is involved in many projects associated with culture in and outside the country.

Nasre Rasheed Jahan

Compiled and edited by

Humaira Ashfaq

Sang-e-Meel Publication, 2012

Price Rs 500

Pages 295

This article was originally published at: The News

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.