Today marks the 30th death anniversary of Ismat Chughtai. She was an eminent Urdu writer, known for her indomitable spirit and a fierce feminist ideology. Her outspoken and controversial style of writing made her the passionate voice for the unheard. Ismat Chughtai died in Bombay on October 24, 1991.
She was born in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, in August 1915. She grew up largely in Jodhpur where her father was a civil servant. She was the ninth of ten children (six brothers, four sisters), and her older sisters got married while Ismat was very young.
The better part of her childhood was spent in the company of her brothers, a factor which she admits contributed greatly to the frankness in her nature and writing. Her brother, Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai, already an established writer, when Ismat was still in her teens, was her first teacher and mentor.
In 1936, still working on her bachelor’s degree, she attended the first meeting of the Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow. After her B.A., Ismat worked for a B.T. (a Bachelor’s in Education), thus becoming the first Indian Muslim woman to have earned both degrees. In this period she started writing in secret on account of violent opposition to her education from her Muslim family.
She was considered the grand dame of Urdu fiction, as one of the four pillars of modern Urdu short story, the other three being Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander, and Rajinder Singh Bedi. She had become an inspiration for the younger generation of writers, readers, readers and intellectuals.
Ismat Chughtai is considered a path breaker for women writers in the subcontinent, as the many women writing at the time of Ismat’s birth and childhood – including, notably, Muhammasdi Begum, Sughra Humayun Mirza, Tyaba Bilgrami (to whose novel Anwari Begum Chughtai refers in Terhi Lakeer), and Khatun Akram, were considered to be too caught up in the ideology of slow, conservative and religiously sanctioned changes for women advocated by such male reformers as Mumtaz Ali, Rashidul Khairi and Shaikh Abdullah.
However, in Ismat’s formative years, Nazar Sajjad Hyder had established herself an independent feminist voice, and the short stories of two very different women, Hijab Imtiaz Ali and the Progressive Dr Rashid Jehan were also a significant early influence on Ismat.
During her heyday, a lot of her writings were banned in South Asia due to their reformist and feminist content offending Islamic teachings (such as her view that the Niqab, the mask forced on women in Muslim societies, should be discouraged for Muslim women because it is oppressive and feudal).
Currently, many of her books are banned in Islamic countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, on the grounds that her writings that advocate for reform in Muslim society are “anti-Muslim”.