“I used to write criticism of every book or article which I believed needed to be countered. Apart from these, I had written fiction, non-fiction, satires, and novels. Unfortunately, I could not publish any of these works because my Father-in-Law (May Allah Bless him with Paradise) was old-fashioned. In his opinion, good women did not write or engage with the public. Still, I got a few of my articles published in magazines under a pseudonym.”
These are the words of a Muslim woman writer from Patna who lived about a century ago. She was Nisar Kubra, one of the first women Urdu poets from Bihar to get published. She had written at least 50 books that were never published. In fact her works got destroyed by natural calamities. Her first notebook with her poems was torn by her elder brother, who questioned her daring act of being like Sauda (a famous Urdu classical poet). The poems were lost.
Probably, looking back, one could have reconciled to her plight had she been from a less-educated or backward family. Kubra’s mother Rashid un Nisa was the first woman author to publish a novel in Urdu. She had also established one of the first girls’ schools in Patna. Her father-in-law was Syed Ali Karim, who took part in the 1857 revolt and was a well-known scholar of his time. Kubra’s family and her in-laws belonged to Patna’s intellectual class.
In her memoirs, Kubra wrote that in the early 20th century “women’s education was considered to be evil, and teaching them the art of writing was no less than a grave sin”.
Muslim women are taught to read the Quran but without understanding it. They weren’t taught to read or write Urdu, Hindi, or English. She was no different. The female tutor hired for her didn’t know anything but the Quran, without understanding its meaning.
Kubra would have ended up like other girls of those times, uneducated but for her passion for reading and writing. She imitated alphabets on waste papers with the help of a piece of straw dipped in colour. One day her mother, who was an advocate of women’s education but couldn’t do much against the wishes of male members to help her daughter, saw Kubra trying to write. She was moved. She immediately gave her pen, ink, and paper. A tutor was hired for her. A female tutor who herself didn’t know much about writing could teach only the basics. But, this was enough for Kubra. She started practising.
Kubra learnt Arabic by comparing Arabic with Urdu translations; English from male family members’ books and Hindi from a Hindu maid at home. She would read any scrap. She followed her mother’s advice that girls should be exposed to both good and bad literature. Their minds should be developed in a fashion that they could distinguish between good and evil.
Kubra and her niece, Asghari, started writing poems. Once, when the Urdu poet Shad Azimabadi was shown her poems, he appreciated those and said that she should have been sent to a formal educational institution. Professor Syed Abdul Ghafur also appreciated her writings but Kubra’s elder brother did not endorse a woman from the family writing poetry. He tore down her notebook of poems. Kubra recalled, “This humiliation killed my passion for poetry and I would not write another poem for years to come”.
Kubra felt independent only in 1934, after the death of her father-in-law. Her children had grown up by then and she was on a pilgrimage to Arab. She got her poems published and called it Khayalat e Kubra (Kubra’s thoughts).
Kubra’s poems written before 1934 were lost because she also feared the rage of male members of her family if she discloses her passion.
Kubra wrote on religion, women’s rights, political movements, social movements, freedom struggle, Hindu-Muslim unity, and education.
In one of her poems on Hindu-Muslim unity, she wrote, “Suno aey Hindostaan waalo tum aey Hindu Musalmaano, Tumhi aapas ke kul jhagdo ko bekhatke mita sakte” (Listen my Indian people divided into Hindus and Muslims only you can solve these internal communal feuds).
Kubra also wrote about the need for education among women. She welcomed the freedom of women with a caution that Indians should not get carried away with western ideas. Kubra was satisfied. She wrote, “Now the times are changing. Women are attaining freedom, rather they have gained freedom. Old traditions are now past. We have no dearth of teachers for girls. Girls’ schools are being opened. Muslim women should also move forward with women of other communities to educate themselves. They should not lag.”