The silent woman: A tale of half-wife

One should not beg for things

That should be freely given, like

Love & affection!

Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf challenged the traditional female features of obedience, abstinence and modesty in a patriarchal society and empathized womanhood with feelings and dreams. It was one of the few tales that revolve round complicated lady characters with goals and sexual desires, who maintain organization over their movements and unabashedly practice their sexuality. Yet, I feel that we forgot to understand a crucial detail on this story. Marrying a homosexual and being a trophy spouse was torturous however it no longer gave her the right to abuse the little girl. Begum Jaan, being a victim of oppression, engages in pedophilia.

Arranged marriage is a funny concept.

All your life you are taught not to speak to strangers and

Suddenly you are asked to sleep with one!

It was pretty evident that Begum Jaan was deprived of her husband’s affection and attention. Nawab, being a homosexual still married Begum Jaan, tucked her away in the house with his other possessions and promptly forgot about her. She was not allowed to go out of the house. Just like a convict in a prison waits for his release day. Similarly, Begum Jaan woke up every day wanting to get some attention and love from her husband that she deserves. She was on the verge of a break down when she felt like ‘throwing all her clothes in to the oven’ (Chughtai). She was disheartened when she gets an idea about her husband’s misdeeds under the garb of benevolence. Nawab directed all his attention at funding the education of ‘young, fair and slim-waisted boys’ (Chughtai), implying paedophilia.

I feel what Begum Jaan experienced throughout her marriage was very common during those days among the female population of South Asia. The male-dominant ideology thus legalizes the victimization and marginalization of women by men on biological grounds, which deprives women of their selfhood and make them an object rather than the subject. (Thakur 579) It was mentally torturous, suffocating and repressive. However, she did not have the right to fulfil her sexual desires by molesting a young girl. Begum Jaan lured the girl in by talking about gifts like the male doll and some new frocks. ‘She also took her hand and placed it where it itched while the girl was lost in her own thoughts, oblivious of where her hands travelled’ (Chughtai). “She was pressing me as though I were a clay doll.” (Chughtai). The clear breach of the personal boundary, the promise of presents, the confusion and disgrace experienced through the kid, all of those meet the symptoms of infant sexual abuse. The infant’s withdrawal from her presence, self-doubt and reprimanding herself for looking to tell her mom about her stories all symbolize the doubts that a child faces after the improbable abuse via a trusted character, “What could I have said to anyone? That I was afraid of Begum Jaan? Begum Jaan, who loved me so dearly?”  After reading what she feels about the mis-happening, readers’ hearts reach out to her. Begum Jaan immediately turns into an antagonist after this point in my eyes. It was really sad to imagine the young girl feel that she could neither scream nor cry. On the other hand, the story hints us towards Nawab also engaging in such activities. It was one of the atrocities Begum Jaan had to face metaphorically and watch through the drawing room door literally. There was an ‘increasing number of firm-calved, supple-waisted boys and delicacies began to come for them from the kitchen. Begum Jaan would have glimpses of them in their perfumed, flimsy shirts and feel as though she was being raked over burning embers’ (Chughtai). All this fumed her and she decided to give up because someone correctly said, “One cannot draw blood from a stone”.

David Finkelhor, an American researcher, has tried to explain hoe sexual abuse affects a child and leads to long term problems. He suggests four ways in which childhood sexual abuse causes problems:

  1. Traumatic sexualisation
  2. Stigmatization
  3. Betrayal
  4. Powerlessness

Some, inquisitively, may feel that Begum Jaan was not oppressed. She was tucked away in the house but she still empowered herself. Within the four walls of her room she practiced her sexuality and even probably found love in Rabbu’s company. Rabbu was her household servant but every other maid knew about her and Begum Jaan’s closed door adventures. In the forefront Begum Jaan worked inside patriarchal norms and adhered to the requirements of a dutiful wife, however as in the quilt, she acknowledged her sexual dreams and did everything in her power to fulfil them and sought solace in a non-committing sexual relationship with Rabbu. Rabbu’s company filled the void in her life and ‘rescued her from the fall’ (Chughtai). She began to find pleasure in her massages, in her recipes and in her touch. ‘Soon her thin body began to fill out. Her cheeks began to glow, and she blossomed’ (Chughtai).  Her relationship with Rabbu and Nawab Saab’s relationships with those young boys, bridged the gap between their heteronormative marriage. Even though the sexual desires and relationships are not spoken of or are only talked about in terms of metaphor, they are unapologetically practiced. Begum Jaan refused to succumb to patriarchal norms and lived her life to the fullest. People may also say she even felt bad about abusing the girl and regretted it. ‘After some time she stopped and lay back exhausted. She was breathing heavily and her face looked pale and dull’ (Chughtai).

However I feel that Begum Jaan never felt guilty about what she did with the young girl because she didn’t acknowledge it in the entire story and that she began behaving normally with the girl as if nothing had happened. Also I would say it was such hypocrisy on the part of Begum Jaan and Nawab, that they married each other for the sake of the society and were in a relationship with other people. Undoubtedly, it was the Nawab who had homosexual tendencies as the Begum Jaan, in her sexual desperation, turned to Rabbu.

Chughtai was least interested in endorsing lesbianism. The story is rather an honest attempt at exposing the pseudo-decent pretensions of Muslim households. ‘Lihaaf’, a short story deals with two diverse issues of patriarchy and lesbianism. However, both are inter-connected by a strong exploration of feminine sensibility depicted through the interior world of female Muslim psyche. Chugtai hints at alternatives available to women in a sexually repressive world. (Pande 18) Begum Jaan’s sexual liberation can be seen as a means of self-actualization.

Chughtai, Ismat. “Lihaaf : The Quilt”, Lahore, 1942

Thakur, Shikha. “Re-defining Sexuality: From Object to Subject in Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf”, 2018

Batra, Kanika. “The Home, the Veil and the World: Reading Ismat Chughtai towards a ‘Progressive’ History of the Indian Women’s Movement.” Feminist Review, no. 95, 2010, pp. 27–44. JSTOR, Accessed 9 May 2020

“Subversion, Seduction and Shame: India.” The Woman in the Muslin Mask: Veiling and Identity in Postcolonial Literature, by Daphne Grace, Pluto Press, LONDON; STERLING, VIRGINIA, 2004, pp. 160–201. JSTOR, Accessed 9 May 2020



LAMBERT-HURLEY, SIOBHAN. “To Write of the Conjugal Act: Intimacy and Sexuality in Muslim Women’s Autobiographical Writing in South Asia.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 23, no. 2, 2014, pp. 155–181. JSTOR, Accessed 9 May 2020

Wikipedia contributors. “David Finkelhor.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Feb. 2020. Web. 10 May. 2020

Image Source: Times of India

Aishwarya Says:

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