Sheelalipi Sahana – ECR Spotlight

Non-modern Women in Modern Spaces

On the subject of Muslim women, scholars have had a lot to say. Are Muslim women traditional? Can/should they modernize? These questions have initiated debates in recent years on whether modernity is as all-inclusive as it appears, and on its validity as an effective marker of freedom and liberation. The ethnographic trajectory of writing these women started out as an Orientalist project that exoticized women from diverse Islamic and Islamicate societies of the ‘East’ by reducing them to objects of a harem fantasy. Imperial ethnographic work consecrated a singular perception of Muslim women as lacking interiority while inhabiting interior spaces of the home — the zenana or women’s quarters which was strictly off-limits. It consecrated a still image of a ‘Muslim woman of the East’ whose identity stemmed only from her religion and gender. With India gaining independence from British rule in 1947, apposite decolonizing strategies informed the nation-building practice in India. However, while earlier, the Muslim woman’s presence in the subcontinent was noted, with the nationalist struggle, she was completely written out of India’s modern history. This was until feminist scholars began (in the later decades of the twentieth century) to excavate the women and rewrite a history that included them, not merely as the Other of the Modern Indian Woman, but as possessing subjectivity that elided previously enforced templates. My PhD focuses on the myriad ways in which Muslim women protagonists in the short stories and novels of select writers within the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA) engaged with their space and place in the evolving modernizing nation. The AIPWA (1930s-1950s) was a literary movement in India that sparked social realist writing fuelled by a consciousness of societal inequity, with a zeal to forward communism in the country. Studying the works of Ismat Chughtai, Rashid Jahan, Qurratulain Hyder, Khadija Mastur, Attia Hosain, and Jeelani Bano who were either members of AIPWA or were influenced by its socialist leanings, my project argues that Muslim women, as agents, negotiated with their ‘single story’ through complex modes, wrestling with nationalism, patriarchy and modernity. Their interiority is explored through alternative lenses that locate it in their interactions with modernizing spaces, such as the train, school, college, and more, in which they express themselves as agents of change.

The delineation of gendered spheres — into the public and private — has materialised into, and also developed from the physical demarcation of the space of the house. In India, this ideology has subsisted in different ways in colonial and post-colonial decades. In the late nineteenth century, a new idea of femininity was proposed by Hindu upper-class, upper caste men within a hegemonic national culture that recast the spheres to represent two cultures — ‘material and spiritual’, with embodying the latter (Chatterjee, 1990). While this patriarchal project relegated women (Hindu and Muslim) to the everyday space of the home, women challenged this spatial division by crossing boundaries and participating in a “dialogue” with the ‘material’ sphere outside (Gopal, 2005). The material/men’s sphere on which modernity played out, was in fact not self-contained and women were not keepers of tradition. Even within this dichotomy of ‘home’ and ‘world’ (Chatterjee, 1990), Muslim women were regarded as ‘non-modern’ (Sarkar, 2008) due to their perceived status of leading a life behind the veil. They were consequently written out of this new femininity that inaugurated India’s modern age in the twentieth century, with the focus being solely on Hindu elite women that fit into the country’s reform agenda. There is a need to identify alternative modes of agency within the constraints imposed on Muslim women in order to situate them as women that were interlocutors, either actively or passively, in heralding modernity into the subcontinent.

Amrita Sher-Gil, In the Ladies’ Enclosure, 1938, Oil on canvas, 21.5 x 31.5 in, Source: Saffron Art Blog

My dissertation focuses on gender and space broadly, taking its cue from postcolonial feminist studies that offer diverse theories on the ways in which women wrote themselves as selves-in-society. Each of my chapters focuses on a material space that falls on either side of the constructed public/private dichotomy; the works of two or more writers are chosen in each chapter to deconstruct the choices made by the women protagonists in various situations. ‘Private’/traditional spaces like the women’s courtyard, as well as more ‘public’/modern spaces such as trains, schools and colleges serve as ‘contact zones’ (Pratt, 1991) where cultures meet; in these ‘zones’, women’s gender identities are forged in relation to their own racial, ethnic, religious, sexual identities as well as those of others that they come into contact with. These points of contact elicit responses from women that either negate their ‘non-modern’ status or accept it, on terms that are their own. Irrespective of the outcome of their decisions, Muslim women (in the stories) engage with questions of modernity, such as bodily autonomy, education, marriage, and work, among others, as agents that “bargain with patriarchy” (Kandiyoti, 1988) to achieve the best outcome feasible. Through the texts studied, my dissertation hopes to add to the corpus of new studies being conducted on women’s agency that approaches it from outside the realms of both patriarchal nationalism and liberal feminism, where the former negates women as agents and the latter privileges only certain notions of agency, while ignoring others. Both approaches cause the effacement of Muslim women’s powers of negotiation with oppressive structures. My study highlights alternate, ‘passive’, subversive strategies that women employed in different spaces to challenge their erasure from modern Indian historiography.

Works Cited

Chatterjee, Partha. “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question”. Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 233-253.

Gopal, Priyamvada. Literary Radicalism in India. Routledge, 2005.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. “Bargaining with Patriarchy”. Gender and Society, vol. 2, no. 3, 1988, pp. 274-290. JSTOR,

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone”. Profession, 1991, pp. 33-40.

Sarkar, Mahua. Visible Histories, Disappearing Women. Duke University Press, 2008.


Sheelalipi Sahana is a first-year PhD candidate in English Literature in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. She has previously published academic articles in Forum, Cerebration, and informal/creative articles in Feminism in India, and South Asian Today. She has set up a Postcolonial Studies Network in Edinburgh which hosts reading groups, seminars and discussions. In her free time, she makes bad zines, listens to Bollywood music and fantasizes about the next meal that she will eat. You can contact her via email: