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59 c h a p t e r 4 On Purdah and Poetry Social Reform and the Status of Urdu Poetry in Nazir Ahmad’s and Hali’s Fiction The Revolt of 1857 had a devastating effect on the social, cultural, and intellectual life of sharif (upper-­ class, feudal) Muslims, who had hitherto been regarded as indispensable intermediaries between the British and the waning Mughal Empire. After 1857 the British regarded Muslims as collaborators in the Revolt and criticized Muslim society as morally suspect and dissolute. They pointed to the decadent literary culture of Muslims and the practice of purdah, which confined women to the constricting prison of the zenana (women’s quarters), where they languished in servitude, as proof that the Muslims were uncivilized barbarians. The British firmly believed that Muslim society could be improved if women were educated and the decadent influence of Urdu poetry was done away with. To this end, in 1868 they passed the Resolution on Native Female Education, although they doubted its effectiveness in a society that did not value women. Further, the events of 1857 made them wary of using force to implement the Resolution.1 Simultaneously they encouraged Muslim men of letters to reform Urdu poetry by expunging it of its immoral themes—­ wine, women, and pederasty—­ and making it more like English poetry. In response to British criticisms, Muslim men spearheaded two opposing social movements to improve the lives of sharif women: the Deoband movement and the Aligarh movement. The Deoband movement (1858–­ 98) was begun by a group of Hanafi scholars led by 60 ❘ On Purdah and Poetry Maulana Qasim Nanotwi. Its purpose was to initiate an Islamic revival in South Asian society, which the reformers believed had been corrupted by British colonialism.2 The Deobandi scholars were concerned with improving the lives of women through instruction in the codes of Islam.3 They agreed with the British that Urdu poetry was in large part responsible for the deterioration of Muslim society, but unlike the British they believed the cure for this was Islam. In contrast the Aligarh movement (1858–­ 98), spearheaded by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–­ 98), attempted to reform Muslim society by making it more like British society.4 Like the British, Sir Syed (as he is popularly known) linked the decadence of Muslim civilization to the immorality of Urdu literary culture. Echoing British criticisms of Urdu poetry, Sir Syed dismissed Urdu poetry as licentious and strove to strip it of its ornate flourishes and make it simple and “natural” (nechari, an Urdu term coined by him), adhering to the model of British romanticism.5 Likewise he believed that Muslim society could be revitalized if Muslim men were introduced to discipline, order, and high levels of education. When it came to the education of women, Sir Syed, like the Deoband ulema, was content to let women be schooled in housework and scripture.6 Teaching them to read and write was dangerous because they would write letters to unknown men and become immoral and licentious.7 While Sir Syed himself was quite unconcerned about women’s education , his acolytes Nazir Ahmad and Hali were vociferous advocates of women’s education and wrote essays and didactic novels to this end. Ahmad (1830–­ 1912) was trained as a religious scholar and was well versed in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. While his predecessors could have earned a job in the courts of the princely nobility based on this education , in the aftermath of 1857 there were no jobs for men with Ahmad’s education because the nobility were increasingly financially dependent on the Crown. Undeterred, Ahmad joined the government education service as a teacher; he later became a deputy inspector and then an inspector of schools. Although his father had prohibited him from learning English, Ahmad assiduously taught himself the language, which undoubtedly facilitated his rapid rise in the ranks. Ahmad was deeply committed to social reform through education and he wrote several didactic novels on this topic, including Mirat ul-­Arus (The Bride’s Mirror, 1869), Fasana-­e-­Mubtala (The Story of Mubtala, 1885), Ibn-­ ul-­Vaqt (Son of the Moment, 1888), and Taubat un-­Nasuh (The Penitence of Nasuh, 1874). On Purdah and Poetry ❘ 61 Khwaja Altaaf Hussain (1837–­ 1914), a contemporary of Ahmad’s, better known by his poetic takhallus (nom de plume) Hali [literally, the adjective “contemporary”], also received a traditional education in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. Hali aspired to become a poet and ran away from...


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