Remade womanhoods, Refashioned Modernities: The construction of Good woman hood in Annisa an Early 20th Century Women’s Magazine in Urdu

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In recent times, the figure of the Muslim woman is seen as a cause of concern as well as a site of “reform” in the public discourses in India. Her alternating figure swings between the image of the oppressed victim and that of the perpetrator of a threatening minority culture. The national (read ‘majority community’) perception in India, due to many accidents in history, coincides with the figure she has become inthe international scene also after the tragic events of 11 September2001. But the construction of the Muslim woman’s image within the community has not been discussed enough. This is the context which takes us back into the colonial past. Journal publishing for women during the turn of the twentieth century was crucial for social reform groups throughout India. The Muslim community, like others, took up their social reform through this method, and Urdu journals proliferated during this time. We look at a Journal, edited by Sughra Humayun Mirza, Annisa, along with other such journals, which served to fashion the “good Muslim lady” at the turn of the century.
Edited by Koray Melikoğlu
New Readings in the Literature
of British India, c.1780-1947
Edited by Shafquat Towheed
6. Remade Womanhoods, Refashioned Modernities:
The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa,
an Early Twentieth-Century Women’s Magazine in Urdu
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad
[T]he underbelly of every attempt towards identity has been
a redescription of women of different classes. (Vaid and
Sangari 9)
In recent times, the figure of the Muslim woman is seen as a cause of
concern as well as a site of “reform” in the public discourses in India.
Her alternating figure swings between the image of the oppressed
victim and that of the perpetrator of a threatening minority culture.
The national (read ‘majority community’) perception in India, due to
many accidents in history, coincides with the figure she has become in
the international scene also after the tragic events of 11 September
2001. But the construction of the Muslim woman’s image within the
community has not been discussed enough. This is the context which
takes us back into the colonial past.
“Re-forming” the Muslim woman
The late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries were periods of
the extension of control and influence of colonial ideology in India.
The understanding of these times as formative periods in modern
Indian history is unquestioned. During that period, almost all the
communities in the country underwent profound changes in
negotiating with modernity. Identities were changing or being formed.
Along with other changes in the public sphere changes in the family
structure occurred. For the nascent middle classes, the private sphere
was being moulded into a particular shape during this period. Many
communities moved towards notions of the modern individual. This
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
imagined individual was ideally placed within a nuclear family.
Gender, it has been well documented, served as an important site for
such a transformation and “reform.” Recent works on this period even
suggest that the process of gendering was central to the programme of
“reform” itself (Vaid and Sangari 9; Devika 6). Social reform in India
did not come about through the sudden emergence of the “individual”
in the public field. In the context of sharp caste and religious
divisions, the reform agenda could only be taken up on a community
basis. The Nationalist movement later appropriated (and many say,
silenced) reform movements within communities (Chatterjee 233-53).
While Bengali forward-caste Hindu modernity has been well
documented from this perspective,1 very little effort has been made to
hear the voices of other communities. The aspiration for modernity
among the minority communities in India has rarely been taken up for
study. The formation of gender identities within the community would
reveal the particular contours of this modernity. This paper tries to do
precisely that.
As a theorist has put it, the practice of purdah literally as well as
figuratively” veils the Muslim woman (Minault 2). Assuming that the
group most likely to be articulate about their historical situation will
be the elite Muslim women at the turn of the century, our effort in this
paper is to unravel the making of these women during the turn of the
twentieth century by looking at one particular Urdu journal.
The Deccan region, with Hyderabad as its capital, had a different
history from other places of comparative Muslim dominance. Ruled
by the Nizam, the area was officially not a British province and
therefore not subject to direct rule. Yet, the advent of colonial
modernity was experienced in this area just as in many other places in
British India. For the Muslim community though, the state of
1 Most of the well-known work on colonial modernity, for various reasons,
takes Bengal and along with it the forward-caste identity as its study object.
Two studies picked at random would be Lata Mani and Mrinalini Sinha.
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
Hyderabad, as the largest princely state in India still represented one
of the last bastions of Islamic glory and power.
Literature, as we understand it, was a very important vehicle for the
propagation of reformist ideas. But the inclusion of the regions,
minority identities, and questions related to women belonging to
minority communities requires that one does not confine oneself to the
English language. Conversely, Urdu print literature serves as a very
good source to see the advent and spread of modernity in the
nineteenth and the twentieth centuries among a specific community in
the Deccan.
Journal publishing for women during the turn of the twentieth
century was crucial for social reform groups throughout India. The
Muslim community, like others, took up their social reform through
this method, and Urdu journals proliferated during this time.2 The
Muslim social reform movement produced a number of husband-wife
teams who were both equally involved in raising questions related to
the community and who served as models of social reform. There are
a number of examples of journals for women started by these
reformist couples. For example, Sayyid Mumtaz Ali and his wife
Muhammadi Begum (who served as the editor till her untimely death)
started Tahzib un-Niswan (The Civilized Woman) in 1898 from
Lahore. In a similar vein, Gail Minault notes that Shaikh Abdullah and
his wife Wahid Jahan Begum of Aligarh starting a magazine for
women, Khatun (The Lady), in 1904 (110). The main purpose of the
magazine was to advocate women’s education and to convince men of
the need for it.
From Deccan, Begum Sughra Humayun Mirza (1884-1958) was
one of the important figures who worked for issues related to Muslim
women’s education, situating this issue within the general matrix of
2 Anwaruddin gives a detailed list of all journals from Hyderabad, dividing it
into different fields like Medicine, Culture, Law, Literature, Agriculture, Edu-
cation, Poetry, Children, and journals of various educational institutions (351-
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
the reform of the community. She was the daughter of Captain Haji
Safdar Hussain and Mariyam Begum. During her childhood in
Hyderabad (now in Andhra Pradesh state) she learnt Urdu and Persian
from her parents. After her marriage, she travelled widely and was
quite well-read and knowledgeable.
Begum Mirza served as the editor of many journals related to
women. They include Annisa (The Woman) and Zebunnisa (The Beau-
tiful Woman). She was quite prolific as far as literary output was con-
cerned and had come out with works like Musheer-e-Niswan
(Women’s Advisor, 1920), Mohini (Mohini, 1931) Safarnamah-e-Iraq
(Travelogue of Iraq, 1915), Majmuah-yi-Nuhahjat (A Collection of
Elegies,, 1989 edition), Mukhtasar Halat Hazrat Bibi Fatima (A Short
Life History of Hazrat Bibi Fatima, 1940) and Nasihat ke Moti: Ma-
jmuah-yi-Nasaeh (Pearls of Instructions: A Collection of Advice,
1955) Most of them were written using her pen name “Haya.”
This paper analyses one of the magazines edited by Begum Mirza to
examine the constructions of elite Muslim femininities at the turn of
the twentieth century in India. The difficult balance between
modernity and tradition which the women’s journals were advocating
during those times would serve to show the present-day gender
constructions as well. For our detailed study, we will be looking into
one particular journal for Muslim women published during the 1920s
in Urdu from Hyderabad, the magazine Annisa.3 Edited by Sughra
Humayun Mirza, Annisa, along with other such journals, served to
fashion the “good Muslim lady” at the turn of the century.
The journals were not the only mechanism for propagating the idea
of the good woman.” This was being continuously enforced through
various institutions like family, women’s associations, religion, etc.
The good woman was supposed to be educated in affairs to do with
the home, her children, Islam, and sometimes, on her special
3 Referred to differently as Al-Nisa in Tharu and Lalitha (378) and An-Nissa in
Minault (151).
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
community identity, as a Deccani. We can see the refashioning of
Muslim patriarchy through the eyes of this journal.
Perhaps the story of Annisa cannot be told without a preceding story
the story of Mu’allim-e-Niswan (Women’s Teacher). Edited by
Muhibb-e-Hussain, Mu’allim-e-Niswan was a pioneering journal in
Urdu for women. It was published from the 1880s onwards from
Nizam’s capital, Hyderabad, and lasted for fourteen years. In the
1880s the discussion on women’s education was only just beginning,
but this did not prevent Muhibb-e-Hussain and his magazine from
taking up controversial topics for discussion, including purdah.4 Gail
Minault notes that as a result of the editor’s outspoken opposition to
purdah the magazine had to be closed down in 1901 (109).
After the demise of Mu’allim-e-Niswan, there was a gap of some
years before women’s journals started appearing again. This time, the
difference was that many of these journals were edited by women
themselves. According to Minault, Annisa appeared between 1919 and
1927 (151). But Mohammad Anwaruddin, who has worked on the
early journals from Hyderabad and Deccan, claims that it appeared
from 1918 onwards continually for three years only (194). Our own
search took us to an issue in 1919, and we could manage to get issues
up to 1925, but not continuously. Anwaruddin also says that due to
Sughra’s ill health and her European travels the publication stopped
for a while and restarted after a break (194).
The story of the magazine is connected to the other reform activities
at the all-India level. There were many women’s organisations,
including Muslim women’s organisations which were started during
this period by various elite women, often under the influence of their
husbands, who encouraged literacy among women. Sughra Humayun
Mirza must have been influenced by the Tayyiba Begum Khediev
Jung (1873-1921), a social reformer who was her contemporary. She
4 In 1880, Hyderabad had only eleven girls’ schools (Minault 205).
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
also frequently acknowledged her husband’s influence in her life
The magazine’s audience was not limited to the Deccan region. It
spread throughout the mainland of British India, which included La-
hore, Delhi, Lucknow and Aligarh, as can be inferred from the intro-
duction of writers or references to earlier writings in the magazine it-
self. Though announced as a women’s magazine, the intended readers
(and sometimes writers) were also progressive men, who had to be
converted to support issues related to women. The following couplet,
printed on the title page of most issues shows how the magazine saw
Dakin mein is tarah taleem-e-niswan ki taraqqi ho
Ki pardeh mein bhi har khatoon aflatoon-e-dauran.
If there is such development of women’s education in
Every woman, even in veil, will become a Plato of her times.
It shows the main agenda of the magazine women’s education. The
profusion of women’s journals edited by women themselves was al-
ready under way by the time Annisa appeared. For example, Humjoli
(A Woman Friend), a magazine from Hyderabad, was edited by Sayy-
ida Begum Khwishgi.
It is important to note that Annisa, rather than the feminist journal
that one expects, was educational and didactic. Also, we cannot
compare it to contemporary popular women’s magazines of India like
Women's Era or Femina which are overtly consumerist. This is not
just because of the small circulation of the magazines but also because
they started functioning with a clear reform agenda. Print had not yet
proved its capitalistic potential. Published by local printing presses,
the magazine contained very little illustrations and no photographs.
Annisa was printed at different presses including Matba-e-Nizam-e-
Dakin, Taj, Gangasagar, Shamsul Islam, Moin-e-Dakin, Matba-e-
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
Mufeel-e-Dakin, Imad, Matba-e-Rahbar-e-Dakin, etc. According to
information in the magazine issues most of these presses were in
Chatta Bazar, where even today printing is done.5 Annisa had the
subtitle Women’s and Girl’s Monthly Urdu Journal and had around
forty pages in a standard issue. The usual fare included childcare,
health and hygiene, cooking, home management, religious thoughts,
recipes, discipline, travelogues, novels, poetry, biographies along with
reformist and educational information. Writing contests for women
writers were organised and prizes distributed.
Various organisations for Muslim women were also spreading
throughout the country during the same time, and the magazine should
be seen in this context. Very often, these journals served as
mouthpieces for the organisations. An example of such an
organisation was the Anjuman-e-khavatin-e-Islam (Association of
Muslim Women). Gail Minault observes that it was started in 1914 by
the Begum of Bhopal who presided over the function. According to
Minault, it was formed “as part of the colourful ceremony
inaugurating the new residence hall at Aligarh Girls’ School” by
Shaikh Abdulla and Wahid Jahan Begum who worked behind the
scenes (285). Perhaps as a sister organisation, Anjuman-e-khavatin-e-
dakin (Association of Deccan Women) began functioning in 1919
with Tayyiba Begum Khediv Jung as its President. But due to
Tayyiba’s ill health, Sughra served as the “chief motivator” (Minault
210). The organisation stood for Muslim women’s education and
social reform. The proceedings of the Anjuman meetings were
published in the magazine every month, thus confirming the
mouthpiece status of the magazine.
5 We do not know who owned these presses. Annisa had an Asfiya registration
number (24) for the registration in the Nizam’s domain, as well as a British
Government registration number (1294).
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
Muslim modernity at the turn of the twentieth century
While the above-mentioned would be the immediate and local context
in which one can see the inception of the magazine, the larger context
would place it within Muslim modernity at the turn of the century
itself. The magazine and the articles in it should be read in the context
of the Khilafat movement. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire
with which the muslim subjects of British India had felt a strong
identification, faced imminent dismemberment. Under the leadership
of the Ali brothers, Maulana Muhammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat
Ali, the Muslims of South Asia launched the Khilafat Movement to try
and save the Empire. This unified the Indian Muslim community with
an international Islamic brotherhood against the Western powers,
especially the British. In India, this was also the time of the non-
cooperation movement launched by Gandhi. This led to an alliance
with the majority community which was organised around nationalist
sentiments. Sughra Humayun Mirza, belonging to an elite family,
must have strongly identified with the urge for national integration
and Hindu-Muslim unity. Her adopted son Yousuf Ali Mirza in an
interview said that she was a supporter of the Congress Party, with
Sarojini Naidu being a close friend.6 He also added that her brother
Baquar Ali Mirza was the first Member of Parliament who won from a
Congress ticket in Hyderabad after independence.
Yet, as a minority community, the Muslims in colonial India and
Deccan could not ignore the specific identity of their community. We
see this being forged through efforts like Annisa. However, it was not
an assertion or revival of older traditions that was happening at that
time. The most important function that the magazine and perhaps
Muslim social reformers of those times took upon themselves was to
mould a special identity, that of the modern Muslim community.
Annisa was in the forefront of this enterprise. Let us examine the
6 Interview by K. C. Bindu and Viqar Atiya on 4 May 2007.
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
specific contours of this modernity in general before proceeding to the
question of gender.
There are a lot of discussions around the general theme of
modernity in the journal. The attempts of a community to reorganise
itself for a different and modern kind of life is seen in many of these
articles. This happens through a variety of processes and is sometimes
not quite open. One can for instance read this aspiration in prescriptive
and didactic poems which deal with time and its value, such as
Wakht(“Time”).7 It can perhaps be connected to a world that was
defining itself more and more in terms of the emerging capitalism in
the country. Yet another instance would be the Urdu translations of
quotations from English classics, strewn in Annisa; sometimes these
were even out of context. One example among many would be a
philosophical poem on death, “Shaher-e-Khamooshan” (“The
Cemetery”) that has a quote from the famous cemetery scene of
Hamlet. We can see which class of readers or at least intended models
of class the magazine wished to reproduce through these examples.
Also evident is the imagining of a “modern” individual through the
pages of the magazine. This modern individual is built by discarding
what is useless and “backward” in tradition. An example would be the
article Tark-e-Rasumat-e-Fuzool” (“Get Rid of Bad Customs”),
which warns the women of the community to get rid of useless
customs and move forward with times. While the first surprise comes
with the fact that women alone are identified as the culprits
responsible for the backwardness of the community, the next one
comes with the listing of avoidable customs. Most of these are quite
7 A note on the referencing of Annisa articles: We have used the full name of
the authors as given in the articles. This makes following the Western
standard of having the surname followed by the first name difficult. For this
reason, we have used the Urdu titles of the articles for in-text citation and
alphabetical listing in the list following the Works Cited below. If the cited
articles form a series, we have also used the author’s name in the in-text
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
local in character and had become a way of life before modernity.
Moreover, they are also customs related to women’s lives. Thus,
viladat, or customs related to birth, rozah kushai, the function when
the child opens her/his first fast during Ramadan, mangni or
engagement ceremony, mehndi or ritually putting henna on the hands
of the bride, chawthi or the bride and the groom putting colours on
each other, etc. are all seen to be an unnecessary waste of money and
un-Islamic. The understanding of “wasteful” expenditure for feudal
customs shows a shift towards capitalism and modernity with puritan
values. We can also see that the move to get rid of useless customs
was taking the community towards a more “modern,” i.e. scriptural,
tradition of Islam that was refashioning local Islams.
The construction of Islam as more text-bound and scriptural, rather
than based upon customs and local rituals, has to be seen as a sign of
the shift towards modernity itself. Middle Eastern feminists have
noted this trend in Islamic countries and have also commented on the
loss of women’s power over some of the ritual spaces with this kind of
a reinterpretation of the religion. For instance, Leila Ahmad in an
interview has commented on the “difference between living, oral
traditions and written texts,” which in the context of Islam means a
divorce between the “living Islam of Muslim women and the official
Islam” (Ahmed 8-9). While one need not romanticise the pre-modern
as a heavenly women’s space, one can yet read the changing notions
of patriarchy that modernity seemed to advance. This analysis of
Islam does not mean that the other communities were taking totally
different turns. A similar move had already occurred in Hindu
communities with attempts seen as “reducing orality to textuality”
along with colonialism (Pande 22).
Another point to be noted is the curious intermixture of Islam, India,
and the West that the magazine and perhaps Islamic reform
movements themselves were advocating. It was not at all a complete
and unproblematic acceptance of Western ideas. On the contrary,
there are clearly anti-colonial sentiments expressed in the magazine,
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
very often as an assertion of Islamic identity. These also appear in
perhaps unexpected areas. For instance, in a travelogue, London ka
Ajaebkhanah(“The London Museum”), an author, while describing
the London Museum (perhaps the British Museum?) and the wonders
he encounters there, notes that the museum showcases almost all the
glories of the Islamic world. While taking note of Tipu’s sword, kept
in display, he feels it is Islam’s very sword which is taken from its
roots and displayed in the museum. In fact, the advocacy of modernity
in these pages, rather than blindly following of the West is the
imagination of an Islamic modernity. As mentioned earlier, the
magazine originates at a time when Hindu-Muslim unity is talked
about and is tried out in the national scene, and yet the special identity
of a minority community is visible even at that time.
The importance of social concerns, expressed in terms of
community, is very often pointed out in the magazine’s discussions.
The word qaum, which means nation, also has shades of the meaning
of community in Urdu. For instance, the simultaneous use of the terms
vatan ‘own land’ and qaum in the following poem is not a rare
occurrence at that time:
Abna-e-vatan keliye hain uzoo-e-muattal
Late hain yahi qaum pe adbar nikhattu. (“Taranah-e-amal”)
Useless to the mother land are they who sit idle
As body parts are which have stopped working.
A burden to the community are those lazy ones. (“Poem on
The word, which is used more often than not to refer to the social,
seems to be ‘community,’ rather than ‘mother land.’
In these journals, history becomes a rallying point for Muslim iden-
tity formation; the point to be noted is that it is not only a national but
an international Islamic identity that is being created. The connection
that is made with the wider Islamic world, in the Middle East and
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
elsewhere, is clearly visible in the magazine’s pages. Thus Muham-
mad Ibn-e-Rashid, introduced as an important Muslim thinker in one
of the series titled “Famous Muslims and their Achievements” by
Syed Humayun Mirza (“Musalman Namvaron Ke Karname”), is from
There are rarely instructional articles which deal with the specific
local identity of being a Deccani Muslim. Perhaps, when the call
seems to be to build a national and even international Islamic
modernity, the local was too uncomfortable to be foregrounded. An
example would be the article “Khandhar-e-Deccan” which is about the
historical importance of the place Khandahar in Deccan. But even
here, the recounting of local history is meant to contribute to a global
Muslim identity and alliance by equating Deccan’s Khandahar with
Afghanistan’s city of the same name, a very important place for South
Asian Muslims. One of the reasons for this absence of the local might
be that Sughra herself, though born in the Deccan, but belonging to an
elite family, might have identified more with the high culture of
Lucknow or other North Indian cities rather than with the Deccan.
Islamic contributions to science are very important for the building
of a global Muslim identity at this stage when the national/global
identity of the Muslim is being forged in early twentieth-century
India. An example of an important Muslim who figures in the above-
mentioned series is Allama Mohammadbin Moosa, known for his
contributions to Algebra; his achievements are highlighted by the
editors in “Musalman Namvaron ke Karname” (“Famous Muslims and
their Achievements”). In this editorial, a comparison with other
cultures, especially those of the West, is evident. It is yet another
effort to build alternative roads to modernity other than those imposed
by British colonialism. The point seems to be that when the rest of the
world, including the Western world, was in darkness, the Islamic
world was blooming in the Middle Ages.
The identity of the community is built through constant
comparisons, especially with Western colonisers. There are direct
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
comparisons with the British in many articles, and one can read the
sub-text of this comparison in almost all the general articles as well.
An example of a direct comparison occurs in an article on women’s
education where the writer brings in a direct reference to European
women, who are perceived to be able to do everything as well as their
men. In “Talim-e-Niswan” (“Women’s Education”) the author,
Noorani Begum Saheba, wonders how the children who are brought
up by these women will turn out to be compared to “our children.”
There are also other comparisons at work, mostly with the rest of the
elite communities in India with whom middle-class Muslims may
have been competing. In a piece of fiction titled “Ladki Tumhari Ghar
Mehman Hai” (“A Girl is a Guest in Your House”), again on the
methods of education, a “modern” Muslim father admonishes his wife
for the brutal methods she uses in imparting religious education to
their daughter. He compares his house, where the mother is shouting
at the daughter for being such a fool, to the more “sophisticated”
Bengali Hindu friend’s house in Calcutta. In this ideal household,
children do their work and play when they should. The girls learn
piano and sewing, both Victorian occupations of an elite woman.
There is an ayah who comes home to instruct the children. Thus, the
desire for a different life in the house in which women’s education
plays a major role is expressed by the male character through
comparison with the more “advanced” upper caste Hindus.
Yet another community to which Muslims are compared is the Parsi
community, where women are perceived to be better dressed and more
presentable: “Look at women from other communities. For example,
we feel happiness in seeing the cleanliness of Parsi women, the
simplicity of their clothes, and the way their houses are kept.
(“Saleeqah” [“Good Ways”]). This method of comparison was not
singular to the Muslim community. All over India, community
reforms were going on and comparisons, either with Europe or with
other communities in India competing for modernity, were constantly
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
The effort to build a modern identity is visible in the pages of the
magazine. This effort does not constitute a total acceptance of the
Western way of life; neither does it totally replicate the Hindu upper-
caste campaign for reform. The Islamic identity expressed is quite
specific in the sense that it attempts to build a global Muslim identity
which is constructed in comparison, contrast, and sometimes in
alliance with many other communities. Thus, while the global Muslim
is an ally, the West sometimes appears as a category worthy of
emulation, and sometimes as a competitor. Other elite communities
also serve the function of fashioning elite Muslim identity.
Gender in Urdu journals
While the community was building its own special brand of moder-
nity, we should also remember that gender played a central role in
this. As Yoginder Sikand observes
Muslim women needed to be educated in order to enable the
community to resist the challenge of western culture, protect
and promote Islamic “authenticity” and prove to be ideal
wives and mothers in order to groom ideal Muslim families.
The Muslim woman came to be seen as the first school of her
children, and hence as key to the development and future of
the Muslim community as a whole. The “backward”,
“superstitious” and “illiterate” Muslim woman was depicted
as a major hurdle in the progress of the community, being
seen as the repository of a range of un-Islamic” beliefs and
customs. Only by “reforming” her through proper education,
it was stressed, could the community as a whole prosper.
Thus, one of the ways in which women played an important part in
this scheme was by being a site of culture, tradition, or Islam itself.
We must remember that the upper strata of Hindu communities were
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
going through a similar confrontation, in their case, with the
missionary construction of India as barbaric. Nationalism emerged
from a creative use of the ideas coming from Orientalists scholars
(such as Max Müller) who, as Chatterjee observes, built an
“untouched” inner sphere for the colonised located in the home,
family, and spirituality. Women had become an important point of
contention in both missionary as well as social reform narratives.
Annisa also tries to build an untouched “inner sphere.” This happens
through a mode of presentation adopted by many women’s journals at
that time, namely by offering explicit instruction about what is good
and bad. While this appears to be non-gendered in nature, a closer
examination will reveal that the good and bad qualities are often
covertly gendered. Thus, in a general article praising “Self-Respect,”
(“Khuddari”) there is a call to distinguish between pride and self-
respect, which becomes a specific address to women. Another
example is the article “Sabr-vo-Himmat” (“Patience and Courage”)
which defines the qualities given in the title as desirable. These are of
course qualities which are important in any human being. Yet, while
one reads on, one understands that the space given to sabr ‘patience’
is not equal to that given to himmat ‘courage.’ Also, the author’s
concluding remarks make one understand that patience itself is
courage in a woman. The supposedly neutral analysis is thereby
explicitly gendered.
Upper-caste Hindu reformers of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, as Chakravarty suggests, had installed the figures
of Gargi and Maitreyi onto the popular consciousness of the nation as
exemplifying the glory of Indian women during Vedic times
(Chakravarty 27-28). In a comparable move, we find many female
figures from Islamic history being glorified in the pages of Annisa.
Many of these women were heroines and warriors who fought Islamic
wars; but this does not mean that they escaped the usual familial roles
prescribed for women. These women warriors were usually shown to
be fulfilling their familial responsibility itself by going to war. Thus,
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
in “Musalman Auraton ki Bahaduri Aur Behan ki Mohabbat” (“The
Courage of Muslim Women and a Sister’s Love”), Khaula, an Islamic
heroine who fights the Byzantines for the life of her brother, is
remembered as a brave warrior.
Women become very important in the perceived resurgence of both
the community and the nation; Annisa, like other magazines, makes
this connection between womanhood and nation or community. A
clear example of this is in the serialised novel Mulk ka Mustaqbil
Auraton ke Hath Mein (The Future of the Country is in the Women’s
Hands), appearing in the 1920s, whose title itself makes the
connection very clear. Of course this womanhood is an efficiently
domesticated womanhood, mirroring the Victorian ideals of the
colonisers. Annisa, like Victorian conduct books, also offers the
female reader training, not only in intellectual matters, but also titbits
on how to keep a house clean or how to keep eggs fresh.8
Almost nowhere in the pages of Annisa is there an argument urging
equality with men. Instead, there are discussions on the different and
complementary nature of women and men. In “Aurat Kya Cheez Hai”
(“What is Woman?”), Janab Maulavi Rafiuddin Saheb Rifat dispels
any doubts about whether a woman is an incomplete man or not.
However, he does not argue that she is a complete human being either,
but suggests that she is a different person altogether. Maulavi Rafiud-
din also claims that if men and women became like each other,
women would stop being women. His fears are explicitly voiced;
equality will mean the end of love between men and women.
In the few instances where equality is considered, the argument
comes from Western women. In one issue, Khaja Ahmed Mutalim
translates Mary Connely, an English author. In “Sinf-e-Nazuk” (“The
Fair Sex”), she speaks about how uncomfortable men become when
women speak about equality. This article, very rare by Annisa
standards, considers women as having like men independent roles
8 For instance, see Annisa 1.5 (Aug. 1920): 9.
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
in life. She speaks about the contributions that women have made and
demands equality. Another rare example that can be quoted is a report,
“Auraton ki Azadi ki Tehreek” (“Women’s Movement for
Independence”), again from the West, of an International women’s
meeting in Rome where Indian women participated. This article
reports that the meeting strongly demanded equality with men.
What are given as instructional materials from within the country
would be articles which define the wife’s duties. The wife’s main pur-
pose in life seems to be to keep her husband happy, which the author
of one article, “Insan ka Koi Kaam Gharaz se Khali Nahin” (“No Hu-
man Action is Devoid of Purpose”), claims will also keep God happy.
Maulana Rafiuddin in the already quoted “Aurat Kya Cheez Hai?”
(“What is Woman?”) stresses companionship between men and
women as well as woman’s role as mother. These roles, needless to
say, define women purely in relation to men. This construction of the
reform woman – an ideal companion, yet not equal to a man, and find-
ing ultimate meaning and fulfilment in motherhood can be found
everywhere in Annisa.
Constructing the educated Muslim woman
The issue of women’s education assumed such importance perhaps
because it stood for all reformist debates in a concentrated form. The
building of the educated and “reformed” Muslim woman was seen as
the most important step towards modernity. Sughra Humayun Mirza,
along with other women, had established schools for girls to apply her
theories on women’s education.9 At least one piece in each issue of
Annisa, catering to the Muslim community, emphasised the
importance of education for Muslim women. The question of
women’s education that the magazine took up with missionary zeal is
9 The Safdariya school, the Urdu medium girls’ school started by Sughra Hu-
mayun Mirza in 1934, still exists in Humayun Nagar (the area named after
Sughra’s father) in Hyderabad.
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
therefore worthy of examination. The importance of education and
national progress is explicit in some of the articles, e.g. in “Ahl-e-
Mulk ki Taraqqi ka Ek Tariqah” (“A Method to Develop the People of
the Nation”).
A closer examination of the articles in support of women’s educa-
tion reveals the contradictory nature of modernity built around “re-
forming” women. One example is the article, “Mardon ki Taleem Mu-
qaddam Hai ya Auraton Ki?” (“Is Men’s Education or Women’s Edu-
cation More Important?”), which apparently supports the latter even at
the expense of the former. This gendered argument, however does not
support women’s education for its own sake; in fact, the argument is
quite patriarchal. The greater importance of women’s education is de-
rived from the view of women as the first educators of men. Such ar-
guments underline the importance of the female roles of wife and,
above all, mother.
Sometimes men take more responsible stances regarding women
and their education. An article written by Janab Maulavi Muhibb-e-
Hussain Sahib, “Kya Purdah Nashinan-e-Hind ki Taleem Angrezi
Zaban ke Zarieh Zaroori Hai?” (“Should the Education of India’s
Veiled Women Necessarily be through the English Language?”) takes
the position that women need not be given an English education.10
What prompts the author is not the usual expectation that women
should not surpass men; he is clear that women have a right to English
education. Instead, his driving force is practicality: he argues that
women have very little time for education from the age of eight till the
age of fifteen, when they would be removed from school due to
marriage. He takes the stand that it is not wise to expect them to
become proficient in another language and also acquire a decent
education. Moreover, the author thinks that not just women, but men
as well should be educated in their mother tongues.
10 The author was the editor of another important journal mentioned above,
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
Sometimes the debate provided aesthetic entertainment along with
intellectual pleasure. Thus, the comic poem by Mirza Mohammad Ba-
hadur Saheb, “Shikayat-e-Niswan” (“Complaints of Women”), de-
scribes the debate in well-turned-out Urdu rhymes. In this poem, the
illiterate husband blames the wife, saying her life is easy, unlike a
man’s. Men have the responsibility of supporting the family, he ar-
gues; women, on the other hand, can while away their time. The
clever wife answers by saying she bears as much responsibility as the
man, because she looks after the family, and therefore she requires
and deserves an education.
The debate on women’s education, while sometimes veering to-
wards demanding women’s human rights, actually stops short of doing
so; instead what it urges is a redefining of existing patriarchy.
Women’s education was a special field fraught with contradictions;
ironically, the anxieties of social conservatives regarding women’s
education were often shared by reformists themselves. As a result,
many of the articles (including those by women) supporting education
seem to be more apologetic than militant. When they write supporting
the cause, they seem to constantly be on guard to distinguish them-
selves from loose women or non-religious people. For instance, in
Hum aur Hamari Taleem” (“We and Our Education”), the woman
author has to constantly qualify her words, saying that “my intention,
when I speak about women’s education is not that she should be edu-
cated and become fashionable” (19). Women, when given education,
should ideally become “truly” religious (instead of what is conceived
as blindly superstitious, uneducated, traditional women) as well as be
ready for secular life. They should think about the community’s wel-
fare. In line with this thinking, the Hobart school in Madras is explic-
itly criticised for not giving enough attention to religious education
and for failing to observe purdah (young girls were found wandering
freely within the school, the author observes). The fear of Westernisa-
tion is also evident in her criticism that a “higher strata of girls use
English words instead of Urdu” (20). This anti-English sentiment is
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
religious as well as nationalistic; she quotes Lala Lajpat Rai’s state-
ment that the use of a foreign tongue instead of one’s own mother-
tongue is the first sign of the colonised people. Yet in the article it is
difficult to see whether the author is angrier at the women using Eng-
lish or the English themselves.
One of the strategies women used to build popular consensus for
women’s education was to bring in the sanction of religion. For
instance, Qaisari Begum, in Zakat (“Charity as Prescribed by
Islam”), says that the Prophet himself was supportive of women’s
education and that opposing this is opposing the Prophet. She asserts
that women’s education is important for the development of the
nation, urging women to speak within the community to justify any
move towards modernity. Otherwise, they would lose all legitimacy
within the group they are addressing.
This complex position of woman, where education is required, but
should remain within the limits prescribed by religion, is fraught with
contradictions. They manifest themselves in the welcoming of moder-
nity (brought by the colonisers) and the simultaneous demand for a
traditional space within the home. While the aspiration to building the
modern individual is there, it is also inscribed within the (reinter-
preted) textual sanctions and scriptural traditions of Islam. The de-
bates on women’s education thus most poignantly encapsulate the
contradictions of the social reform movement itself. Of course, similar
attempts to construct authentic” communities, religions, and nations
which were conducive to modernity occurred among all groups and
were not specific to Muslims. The Muslim elite women, in that sense,
should be seen as part of a broader group of upper-caste or aspiring
middle-class women emerging in colonial India.
The class basis of Annisa
While there is an effort discernible in Annisa to build a universal
Muslim identity (with the special inflections of gender written into it),
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
one need to be clear that it is a particular class that is articulating this
need. The magazine clearly stands for the elite sections of Muslims in
the country; there are many instances where the class basis of Annisa
is revealed. Most of the writers are from aristocratic backgrounds;
only they could have taken up the cause of the community at that time.
Often their right to speak is supported by a proud display of families
and social backgrounds, and sometimes this class basis is revealed in
the very names of the authors themselves. Women gain this legitimacy
by announcing that they are the wives, sisters, or daughters of
aristocratic and “honourable” gentlemen. For example, Mehmooda
Begum Sahiba, in “Insan ka Koi Kaam Gharaz se Khali Nahin” (“No
Human Action is Devoid of Purpose”), announces herself as
Mehmooda Begum Sahiba Mahal Nawab Qadir Nawaz Jang
Bahaddur, i.e. the wife of Quadir Nawaz whose military title (in the
Nizam’s army) is Jang Bahaddur and whose aristocratic lineage is
signified by the title Nawab. As Vir Talwar points out, this practice
was not confined to the Muslim community at that time (Talwar 209).
Sometimes this class bias is revealed quite openly in the magazine.
For example, in the appeal for charity towards the poor (central to the
Islamic religion itself). One volume announces in an advertisement
that Annisa copies will be given to poor women who request it.11 The
charitable activities of many of the patrons are listed along with the
monthly meeting proceedings of the Anjuman-e-khavatin-e-dakin (All
India Deccan Ladies’ Conference). The contradictions of charity are
clearly visible in the “Shazrat” (“Editor’s Comment”) of one issue of
the magazine. The author mentions the increase in the number of beg-
gars and recounts how forty beggars, most of them women and chil-
dren, died due to starvation in Bombay. She is also concerned about
how many more will die from diseases. While she says it is important
to wipe out begging, she also describes a group of beggars who are out
to exploit the hard-working and generous people from good families.
11 Annisa 1.4 (July 1920): 22.
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
The phrase she uses to describe these beggars in Urdu is hatte, katte
mustande ‘hale and hearty.’ The contradiction between this and her
own observation that so many beggars are dying from diseases is not
noticed by the author. She goes on to criticise the custom of khairat or
giving alms to beggars propagated by Islam.
Though claims about a universal Muslim identity seem to be made
constantly, the magazine is exclusive in its scope. The class
identification of its contributors and readers clearly defines its
ideology. It is within this context that gender should be analysed in the
Annisa should be seen in the context of “reform” literature that
populated the Indian scene from the nineteenth century onwards.
Representing Muslim identity by trying to fashion the good Muslim
woman (a reformist agenda based on community) seems to be a
mission taken up by the magazine. However, the qualities of the
subjects elaborated in the magazine show the contradictory position
that gender seemed to occupy in the social reform discourse; the
debate surrounding women’s education encapsulates this contradiction
of vouching for women’s education, yet trying to limit it at the same
The fact that women were taking up the pen for the first time, using
print media as editors, publishers, and writers would make them in-
scribe themselves as subjects into a hitherto male sphere. But that they
primarily spoke of matters related to the private realm, or were mainly
concerned with the creation of a private realm of a particular shape,
made the use of print media a contradictory step for women. Gender
should not be read based solely on the identity of a community. The
class assumptions of a venture like Annisa, and by extension, the so-
cial reform movement itself, need to be considered in any analysis of
modernity and gender.
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
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“Ahl-e-Mulk ki Taraqqi ka Ek Tariqah” (“A Method to Develop the
People of the Nation”). By the editor. 1.5 (1920): 9-16.
“Aurat Kya Cheez Hai?” (“What is Woman?”). By Janab Maulavi
Rafiuddin Saheb Rifat. 2.1 (1920): 5-13.
“Auraton ki Azadi ki Tehreek” (“Women’s Movement for Independ-
ence”). By Begum Abdul Munam Saheb. 5.4 (1923): 22-23.
“Hum aur Hamari Taleem” (“We and Our Education”). By Janab
Hamsheerah Saheba Ghulam Dastagir Saheb, Madras. 3.8 (1922):
“Insan ka Koi Kaam Gharaz se Khali Nahin” (“No Human Action is
Devoid of Purpose”). By Mehmooda Begum Sahiba Mahal
Nawab Qadir Nawaz Jang Bahaddur. 1.4 (1920): 8-9.
“Khandhar-e-Deccan” (“Deccan’s Khandahar”). By the editors. 1.4
(1920): 1-2.
“Khuddari” (“Self-Respect”). By Meharunnisa Begum. 6.8 (1925):
“Kya Purdah Nashinan-e-Hind ki Taleem Angrezi Zaban ke Zarieh
Zaroori Hai?” (“Should the Education of India’s Veiled Women
6. The Construction of “Good Womanhood” in Annisa
Necessarily be through the English Language?”). By Janab Mau-
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“London ka Ajaebkhanah” (“The London Museum”). By Hussain Ali
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“Mardon ki Taleem Muqaddam Hai ya Auraton Ki?” (“Is Men’s Edu-
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Sultan Begum Saheba Hamsheerzadi His Highness Nawab Saheb
Laharo. 1.4 (1920): 16-22.
“Mulk ka Mustaqbil Auraton ke Hath Men” (“The Future of the Coun-
try is in the Women’s Hands”). By Muhammad Marghoobuddin.
1.4 (1920): 13-15.
“Musalman Auraton ki Bahaduri Aur Behan ki Mohabbat” (“The
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Sultan Mahmood Muhiuddin Saheb Qadri. 6.8 (1925): 7-9.
“Musalman Namvaron ke Karname” (“Famous Muslims and their
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“Musalman Namvaron ke Karname” (“Famous Muslims and their
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“Sabr-Vo-Himmat” (“Patience and Courage”). By Manik Bai Sahiba
Mrs. Shahpurji Okarji. 1.4 (1920): 6-7.
“Saleeqah” (“Method”). By Hamsheerah Saheba Mansoor Jung Ba-
hadur, Rafia Sultan. 5.4 (1923): 18.
“Shaher-e-Khamooshan” (“The Cemetery”). By Lateefa Muzaffar-
uddin Saheba. 1.4 (1920): 22-25.
“Shazrat” (“Editor’s Comments”). 1.4 (1920): 31-32.
“Shikayat-e-Niswan” (“Complaints of Women”). By Mirza
Mohammad Bahadur Saheb. 1.5 (1920): 1-9.
“Sinf-e-Nazuk” (“The Fair Sex”). By Khaja Ahmed Mutalim. 2.3
(1920): 13-18.
Rekha Pande, K. C. Bindu, Viqar Atiya
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Saheba Binte Munshi Fazil Mohammad Shamsuddin Saheb
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“Wakht” (“Time”). By Sajed Valiullah Husain Saheb Vakeel. 1.4
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“Zakaat” (“Charity as Prescribed by Islam”). By Qaisari Begum. 1.5
(1920): 18-20.
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