Book review: Purdah to Piccadilly –A muslim woman’s struggle for identity

Book         Purdah to Piccadilly
A Muslim Woman’s
Struggle for Identity.
Author      Zarina Bhatty.
Publisher  Sage Publishing.
Pages          197.
Price          Rs 595/-.

This is a telling story of a middle class Muslim girl Zarina Bhatti born and brought up in pre-partition India and her experiences to break out of the stereotypical roles imposed by the society of her times. It chronicles her life as it panned out for more than 80 years coupled with the political and social conditions in undivided and post independence India. While the boys in the family were lorded over, the girls were discriminated against and expected to sacrifice their talents at the altar of the family izzat. She wanted to drive, swim and dream of such unthinkable activities when at the end of every academic year, her return to school for another year was in doubt.

Humanist by faith, sociologist by profession Zarina was brought up in Burkha in a traditional Muslim family in Lucknow. Despite her trials and tribulations, she studied Sociology and political science at the London School of Economics and taught at Delhi University. She is the former President of Indian Association for Women’s studies (IAWS) and headed the Young Women’s Christians Association (YWCA), New Delhi. She has researched, published and lectured extensively in India and abroad on Indian women’s Muslim issues and on women in the unorganised sector.

Her pioneering study on women in the Bidi industry, undertaken and published by International Labour Organisation received considerable recognition. Later she worked as gender specialist with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB).

She is the recipient of the Devi awards for 2015 and after retirement leads a quite life in Musoorie in the hill state of Uttarakhand. In the “Afterword” Zarina quotes apt Persian proverb “Himmat-e-Mardan, madad-e-Khuda” which loosely translated means “a man’s (or woman’s) courage receives God’s help. This proverb often came in her thoughts while writing this book because: “I have achieved my dreams and aspirations unmatched both by my personal circumstances and by the socio-cultural environment, and felt that some divine force kept pushing me into a certain direction despite the fact that I am not very religious.”

She maintains that the Indian Muslim society was highly feudal as well as caste and gender discriminative, yet it had a certain grace of its own. It took pride in its tahzeeb, refinement of etiquette, polite manners with subtle humour, sweetness of the Urdu language, and high standards of hospitality. She is reminded of her father’s saying that hospitality was his religion. The society had respect for age and other communities where the Hindus and Muslims lived their kind of life peacefully.

She has tried to bring out the dilemma of Indian Muslims who chose to remain in India, the land of their ancestors whose Indianness won over the religious pull of Pakistan, the newly carved out Islamic state. They participated in the freedom movement, opposed the partition of their country and had been an integral part of its polity and society. The partition of India on religious lines had turned them into a minority in the country which they regarded as their own, notwithstanding the fact that these Muslims had the option of migrating to Pakistan and yet chose to stay in India. “My family was one such family among many who had disapproved of division of India and stayed behind holding on to their roots. Those Muslims who were lured by the new found “Islamic state and migrated to Pakistan found themselves being unwelcomed by the Punjabis and the Sindhis, the original inhabitants of that part of the subcontinent.”

The immigrant Muslims found it difficult to adjust to a different culture and language and missed what they had left behind. Some of them had even decided to return, as long as it was possible to do so. She has also tried to show how Indian Muslims and Indian Christians adopted the predominant Hindu customs and rituals which depicted a highly patriarchal structure of Indian society.

Among the Indian Muslims the continuing practice of Muslim Personal Law is a serious stumbling block for the improvement of Muslim Women’s progress, especially when the law is now regarded as a symbol of Muslim identity. This is not to deny that desirable changes are taking place, such as the treatment of widows with personal restrictions on them having been removed. Divorce does not have a social stigma attached to it as before. Education among Muslim women and girls is on the rise and although they are still lagging behind, and employment of women is also better tolerated socially than earlier.

As she has overcame the obstacles, Zarina is confident others can also do it. By narrating her life’s experiences she wants to convey that it is important to have dreams and aspirations to grow along with self belief to pursue them. While still with the USAID, she attended the first women’s conference in the SNDT Women’s University, Bombay. We had no idea that so many women even from smaller universities and colleges were working on women’s issues.

Considering the wide interest a decision was taken initiated that an Association for Women’s Studies be formed and a year later the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) came into existence. It was decided since the inception of IAWS that a separate department for women’s studies would not be demanded as this would marginalise women. Instead they wanted women’s studies to be integrated into the higher education system and also into various academic disciplines. It was considered important to participate in advocacy programmes and work closely with the grassroot organisations.

“We did not want to create armchair academics blissfully unaware of the ground realities of the country. The Sixth Five Year Plan under the Chairmanship of Dr Swaminathan included, for the first time, a chapter on women’s situation. The women’s movement in this country adopted a multi-dimensional approach. It considered women as an integral part of Indian polity and economy. It focused on women’s economic condition, their health status, their educational backwardness and their legal status in family and society. The focus on gender discriminatory practices led to a number of gender friendly legislations.

What shocked Zarina Bhatti was the plight of first generation immigrants in Canada. Most families practised gender discrimination in bringing up their sons and daughters. However, they all enjoyed their prosperity which found expression in celebrating marriages and religious festivals with great pomp and show.

(For all the latest News, Mumbai, Entertainment, Cricket, Business and Featured News updates, visit Free Press Journal. Also, follow us on Twitter and Instagram and do like our Facebook page for continuous updates on the go)

Free Press Journal