Female Sexuality – A Forbidden Terrain

Female Sexuality – A Forbidden Terrain.

by Ishma Mahajan

I recently read Ismat Chugtai’s short stories Lihaaf ( The Quilt ), and Gharwali ( The Homemaker ). These short stories expose some of the society’s hidden wounds in a very courageous and convincing way. Chugtai touches on almost all aspects of a woman’s life – her unwelcome entry into the world, her thwarted aspirations and suppression of her innermost desires. The fact that women are denied the right to have sexual urges is brought out in these stories, in a very realistic and natural way. The distinction between a ‘decent woman’ and a ‘whore’ is uniquely illustrated. We are provoked to ask ourselves if this distinction is really that black and white, the way our society sees it or is it a grey area yet to be discovered. Chugtai wrote these stories in 1942 and 1941 respectively. At that time, it was generally held that literature had no place in women’s lives. As Chugtai said,

IN MY STORIES I’ve put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It’s my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life.These people think that there’s nothing wrong if they can do things behind the curtains…They are all halfwits.

Ismat ke Shahkar Afsane

This is how Ismat Chugtai, Urdu’s boldest writer, asserted the validity of her literary work. I wish to celebrate Chugtai’s courage through this article and attempt to add spark to the fire initiated by her in her lifespan.

Lihaaf daringly depicts female sexuality in a manner not attempted before in Modern Indian Literature. Chugtai uses child narrative to say a lot of things explicitly which otherwise would have been censored. Homosexuality is treated in a very subtle way and gender bias even in the sexual preference of a woman is brought to light by the author. Begum Jaan, a young and beautiful but poor girl is married to the nawab who is of an “advanced” age but a “very pious man”. The nawab “installs” Begum Jaan in his house objectifying the wife, and forgets her completely. He also restricts her to mingle with people outside the house. Being denied the fulfillment of her sexual desires , Begum Jaan turns to Rabbu, her maid who constantly massages various parts of her body. The permanent itch of Begum Jaan is a wonderful euphemism, symbolic of her sexual yearning, the heat within her body which hadn’t been satisfied. This incident points out for us the mere need of identifying the importance of sexual urges in a woman and how female sexuality can erupt if ignored for too long. Chugtai made her intention very clear through her words,“ I wrote about a woman’s loneliness…who was deprived of her husband’s company. I wanted to portray her tension and desperation.”

On one hand, nawab’s only pleasurable time is with ‘young, fair-faced boys with slim waists’ and marriage itself becomes a lihaaf for him, a sign of normalcy socially acceptable by the society. On the other hand, Begum Jaan and Rabbu become a topic of amused conversation at social functions and gathering. Gender bias in the society clearly becomes visible. The nawab and Begum Jaan both have homosexual relations. But, lesbianism finds it harder to veil itself from mockery in the society. Lihaaf by Ismat Chugtai forces us to not only see the unseen, but it also gives a strong voice to the unheard. It sensitizes the readers towards an issue hidden in the darkest alleys of our society.

On the other hand, Gharwali is a story of a free spirited attractive woman Lajo, who lives life the way it comes to her. Found on the street, she has no clue about her family but sustains herself by working as a maid in people’s houses. All her masters turn into her lovers and turn her out after having a good time with her. Thus, Lajo is established in the society as a whore who is used to being beaten up by her masters. However, Lajo for whom love is the most beautiful experience of life is not ashamed of herself. Rather, she walks about confidently in the village. Mirza is one such master who treats her with generosity but in his heart Lajo is still a woman who doesn’t even remember when and with whom she lost her virginity. His decision to marry her comes across as an effort to make her a ‘decent’ woman. The marriage brings Lajo from the outside realm and restricts her to the realm of the home. This episode very subtly brings out the black and white distinction drawn in our society between good and bad women. Gharwali reveals a grey area where an established whore is suddenly termed a decent woman right after her marriage , which brings us to the question – Is there really any definition of a whore? Or that of a decent woman? . As soon as her sexuality is controlled by the bond of marriage, Lajo becomes an acceptable figure in the society. Marriage curbs her freedom and forces her to change her identity. Lajo’s struggle in wearing a churidar instead of a lehenga on being forced by her husband, is symbolic of her greater struggle – the struggle to have a say in marriage. Ismat Chugtai very subtly shows us how male chauvinism has its roots strongly in our society.

Another significant aspect is the whole concept of virginity. Mirza, Lajo’s husband is never satisfied with his marriage because Lajo is openly sensual in her manners and lacks the typical shyness of a virgin bride. Lajo is a strong woman who defies all conceptions of an ‘innocent girl’. She exhibits unafraid sexuality and establishes her right to have sexual desires. Mirza, in spite of being married is a regular customer of the courtesans but when Lajo sleeps with a man outside her marriage, her husband beats her almost to death. This episode brings to light the gender bias which exists even in a concept like infidelity. Chugati ridicules despotic husbands who all-to-readily surrender themselves to adultery and debauchery but expect unswerving loyalty from their wives.

Ismat Chugtai presents in front of us various layers of female sexuality through the characters Lajo and Begum Jaan who fiercely advocate selfhood and self-definition. Hitherto regarded as a taboo, female sexuality rises as an unstoppable force seeking its own space in the society. The silence is broken and women establish themselves as thunderous sexual beings in the society.