By Malvika Sharma
On yet another idle evening, the sudden decision to watch Suffragette, recommended by a dear friend, turned out to be a pleasant experience. Suffragette is a movie about women suffrage movement in United Kingdom in late 19th and early 20th centuries. The protagonist in the movie continuously reads excerpts from Olive Schreiner’s (a South African author and a feminist) classic Dreams, which in turn inspires the protagonist to keep moving until the goal of attaining the right to vote for women is achieved. The climax, that captures the period when smaller day to day protests gradually emerge as a full blown movement, has the beauty of Schreiner’s writings read out with some brilliant cinematography that is visibly satiating to a woman’s mind and soul. The excerpts read out go like this:
The woman wanderer goes forth to seek the land of freedom: ‘How am I to get there?’ Reason answers, ‘There’s one way and one way only, down the banks of labour, through the waters of suffering, There’s no other.’
The woman, having discarded all to which she had formerly clung, cries out, ‘For what do I go to this far land, which no one has ever reached? I am alone, I am utterly alone.’
Reason said to her, ‘Silence. What do you see?’
And she said, ‘I hear the sound of feet, a thousand times, ten thousands and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way.’
Reason whispers, ‘They’re the feet of those that shall follow you…lead on!’
The movie ending on these lines hints largely at different waves of feminism in the western world in the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Schreiner was writing in 1890 with a large part of feminist-waves unfolding at the time. Mary Wollstonecraft, the fierce women’s rights crusader, was writing in the second half of eighteenth century, a century before the West witnessed the first full blown movement for the rights of women. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women hardly took up professions like publishing. Her contemporaries, women of the noble and the elite, viciously attacked her as ‘a hyena in petticoats’, ‘God’s angry woman’.
Wollstonecraft wrote her classic in feminist literature The Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, and in 1795, about three years after such an uninhibited and vociferous treatise, she attempted suicide by jumping off the bridge into the Thames. A champion of women’s rights, Mary had lived an independent but desolate life of penury. Her only source of earning was her writings through which she supported herself and her family but, as Miriam Kramnick writes, “She was painfully aware of the loneliness and vulnerability of her own independence.” Having eventually found her consort in Gilbert Imaly, an American author, Mary was in love finally. She met him in Paris, the city of love; the year was 1792, and she was writing The Vindication.
I often enter Mary’s thoughts through her writings. Trying to connect to her idiosyncrasies I look for her scars, and wonder what could a man possibly do that Mary had not already imagined? How did she let a man get to her, only two years after her strongest crusade? Then I read The Vindication of the Rights of Women along with Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imaly. I can see how much Imaly’s insincerity and betrayal tortured her, so much so that while he was associating himself openly with another woman, Mary was trying to introspect her affliction by writing him letters. After the attempt to take her own life, she finally gave up on him and moved on with their daughter Fanny. Mary never married Imlay. A year later in 1796, she found love again in William Goodwin. Despite being non-conformist and critical of marriage as an institution, she married Goodwin, but in 1797 she died while delivering her second child due to complications in pregnancy. Awaiting the birth of her second child, Mary was busy compiling The Wrongs of Woman, published posthumously.
Schreiner’s Dreams and Mary’s hope of an honest man in an equal world resonate a lot with Kaifi Azmi’s “Aurat”. Azmi’s nazm “Aurat” belongs to yester-years as well as to contemporary times, something that comes out clearly in Manto’s “Khol Do” and “Thanda Ghost”. It is this relatability in these writings that compels one to add, “Ki zamana aaj bhi nahin badla, waisa hi hai.” In all these unchanging times of oppression and subjugation of the weak, what have not actually changed are the narratives of domination that continue to exploit and harass the weak.
However, Azmi’s narrative in “Aurat” is more inclusive, progressive and more contemporary in a way that it has rare precedents, which are difficult to find in the times that Mary and Schreiner had been writing of. Such a harmonious narrative organised particularly on nonhierarchical lines is indeed a rare find. This narrative has the potential to dream of a world devoid of hierarchies and inequalities. These writings meet at intersections where Realism and Idealism blend into each other, giving rise to a new category that is yet to be found and is otherworldly. A category that perhaps Kahlil Gibran had been writing of.
Azmi disagrees with the lone woman cringing over the hard journey to freedom and liberation in Schreiner’s dreams and in Mary’s tormented letters, and writes of a woman who has to rise above her suffering, not alone but along with her companions who shall not be at ease seeing her suffer.
The opening lines of “Aurat”, “Uth meri jaan, mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe”, are so powerful that potentially they can change the perspective of how we very often than not have this tendency of dividing the world into obvious binaries. Of all such binaries, ‘Man and Woman’ becomes so generic a binary that for someone reading Kaifi it would take a while to see the fading lines of distinction that divides gender and their causes irrevocably.
Tu falatunon arastu hai, tu zahra parveen
Tere qabze main hai gardoon, tere thokar main zameen
Haan uthaa, jald uthaa, pae muqqadar se jabeen
Main bhi rukne ka nahin, waqt bhi rukne ka nahin
Ladhkhadhayegi kahaan tak ki sambhalna hai tujhe
Uth meri jaan mere sath hi chalna hai tujhe
“You’re Aristotle’s philosophy, burning like Venus and Pleiades
the vast open sky is in your possession and so is the earth below your feet
rise above your destined fate and march forwards
for neither I shall wait too long for you to rise up nor will time
how far will you falter upon these stumbling blocks, now is the time to catch a firm foot rise my loved one, we shall have to march together hereon.” (Translation source here.)
Schreiner’s woman marches forward upon hearing the clarion call that destines her to accept her suffering and pain for the sake of thousands that shall follow her exemplary lead. As much as there’s a sense of sacrifice and affliction in her marching forward alone, there’s also an end that is to be achieved which overpowers the tormented journey for the larger good. Azmi however narrates how the same journey can be taken through a different path, an unfound path of Gibran’s hope as he writes in “My Friend”: “My friend, thou art not my friend, but how shall I make thee understand? My path is not thy path, yet together we walk, hand in hand.”
On this path Kaifi’s Aurat is not a lone victim and a survivor. In fact, her survival is assured because of the companionship that she has on this journey. Kaifi’s woman is with a hope, a hope that so many feet, and not hers’ alone, marching forward shall stifle the echelons of might and the day would finally arrive where she will not be victimised by her virtue of being a woman: a second sex. Alas! Lost in the battle with the mighty is the hope and bravery of Wollstonecraft. But what is found is her lesson to keep fighting.
Nevertheless the political in Schreiner’s, Wollstonecraft and Kaifi’s woman is so powerful that with or without a companion, they see the oppression defeated and uprooted out of its mighty domains through struggle, protest and rebellion. The larger similarity thus is, the voice that is raised in all of these, or the call that is put out to the human world, the aspiration of a woman, and the goal she has in mind. Freedom!
And one might not add unnecessary objectives to it as to freedom from this and that. Freedom, in itself is a complete expression and no equality can come without recognising this independent nature of freedom in the first place. Gibran writes in The Prophet, “…and when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light…and thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.”
The Aurat in Schreiner, Wollstonecraft and Azmi are marching towards this freedom to become a part of a larger freedom for the mankind. They dream and aspire to be free so that there can be equality.
Malvika Sharma is a Research Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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