March issue 2009
A Voice for Society
Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah holds a prominent spot among the Pakistani literati and writers. Having the distinction of being the first female editor in Pakistan, along with numerous other achievements to her credit, Hamidullah was a feminist in the truest sense. Quietly but firmly, she made inroads into political and social commentary through her publication, Mirror, which was hugely popular because of its coverage of social events and gatherings. However, one of the regular columns that featured in the magazine titled, “Seriously Speaking,” openly criticised the government’s policies and the economic and social imbalance in the country. This sparked trouble with every government in the years it was published. In fact, when Hamidullah openly wrote against president Iskander Mirza for forcing the resignation of H.S. Suhrawardy’s government, a ban was imposed on the publication for six months. “It was such an unexpected blow that for a while I reeled mentally,” said Hamidullah in an interview with Newsline (August 1997). “But not for long. Downcast as I was, I suffered no regrets. I had written strongly because a grave injustice had been perpetuated … All I could do was pray that my magazine would survive the ban.” And so Hamidullah filed a case against the ban in the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favour. This court case was the first one fought by a female journalist in Pakistan, and added to Hamidullah’s many achievements through the years.
Hamidullah’s collection of short stories titled The Young Wife and Other Stories, deals with women in their varied roles as daughter, mother, sister, wife and daughter-in-law. Although simplistic in its narrative, the stories deal with societal issues such as arranged marriages and domestic abuse, as well as the estranged relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. The stories are about the female perspective but in some instances, such as in “The Bull and the She-Devil,” Hamidullah also writes from the male point of view.
Whimsical, poetic and peppered with romanticism, most of the short stories in this collection are about the lives of the peasants and the illiterate masses living in the rural areas. Even so, Hamidullah doesn’t reveal the cruel realities of the lives of the common man. Morbid endings to some of the stories still end on a hopeful note. In “No Music Before Mosques,” a flutist struggles between his love for music and his overly religious father, a struggle that ends on a violent note. But here, Hamidullah has introduced the character of Little Farah, the flutist’s niece, who adds that ray of hope in the story: “The pain in her heart was still unbearable … pushing back the damp curls that had fallen on her little forehead, she looked lovingly at Ali’s flute, wiping it carefully … And, as she did so, the tears tumbled out at last. Not in torrents, but gently, slowly. And one dropped down right upon the flute. And, with the tears came a little easing of her pain.”
Similarly, “The Young Wife,” “Maa,” “The Bull and the She-Devil,” “The First Born,” “Motia Flowers” — all have that spark of hope, that yearning for a better life, striving to overcome differences, of overlooking family imperfections and, of long-lost love. Written decades ago, Hamidullah’s concerns and apprehensions about the lives of the common man, unfortunately, still exist to this day. One of the strengths of this collection is that it is not period-specific. The Young Wife and Other Stories is a valuable addition to everyone’s bookshelf for its relevance to our world today, much the same way it had decades ago.