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This Feminist Urdu Writer Wasn't Afraid to Talk About Sex

A writer who was considered a bad influence on Muslim youth during her lifetime is celebrated as an iconoclast today.

Ismat Chughtai was making waves the moment she put pen to paper. Born in 1915 in a small Muslim household in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh, she started writing Urdu dramas and novellas in the 1930s, at a time when her country was in the throes of a struggle for independence from British colonialism.

But Chugtai sought multiple freedoms — and her work challenged everything from a strict reading of Islam to society’s defined roles for women. Early submissions to a magazine drew letters from the editor accusing her of insulting the Quran. Then, her short story Lihaaf, which translates as “The Quilt,” went to press courtesy of Lahore-based literary journal Adab-i-Latif — and immediately caused a firestorm. In it, a young girl narrates a domestic drama unfolding in front of her, that of an unhappy marriage where first the husband and then the wife experiment with same-sex relationships. To a modern reader, it’s fairly tame and veiled. But in 1942, it was seen by many as not just titillating but also openly dangerous.

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Many of her stories, including Lihaaf,were banned across South Asia for their subversive takes on marriage, class, middle-class morality and sexuality. Nearly a decade earlier, another anthology to which she contributed, Angarey, was banned in 1933, and all but five copies destroyed.

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Tags: #islam, #literature, #women
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