One of the most prominent female Urdu writers, who have explored feminine sexuality with her unconventional stories in the pre-partition era in India, was Ismat Chughtai. Born on 21 August 1915, her writings are quite evident of her observant style and expose the hidden gender inequalities prevalent in the Indian patriarchal setup. Given the status of a lady with iconoclastic ideas in that era, even Google paid a homage to this woman with an illustrative doodle. She has set an example for all the young feminists of the 21st century.
In her time, she was severely criticized for taking up issues that were labelled as obscene. She even had to undergo trials for offending conservatives through her stories. Also, she often mentioned the heavy burden of modesty that women had been carrying which made her feel suffocated. Surely, her stories have been narrated to break such patterns and voice feminist issues. Her popular short story ‘Lihaaf (The Quilt)’ in which she presented her homosexual concerns in the social context of that age made her gain the tag of the scandalous writer. The cinematic adaptation of this story has been done by Deepa Mehta in her famous movie Fire (1996).
Chughtai has often been placed parallel to Manto, another stalwart writer of Urdu literature. Both these writers left an indelible imprint on the mind of their readers with their nuanced works using explicit imagery and witty words. Their works compel us to think about issues prevalent in Indian society for long and we could even find them resonating in contemporary times.
A member of the Progressive writer’s association, she struggled immensely to get recognition for her writings. In 1944, she faced trial along with Manto and it garnered media attention. Even after being criticized, she continued writing about what according to her was the truth of her time. Through her characters, she regarded the need for self-identity, personal space and freedom of expression for women in a rather male-centric society. She has been awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 for her commendable contribution to the oeuvre of Urdu writings.