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Ismat Chughtai, Progressive Literature and Formations of the Indo-Muslim Secular, 1911-1991

By Sadaf Jaffer


This dissertation examines the life, work, and contexts of noted Urdu writer and Indian cultural critic Ismat Chughtai (1911-1991). By engaging in readings of Chughtai’s texts and contexts, this dissertation presents the first study of its kind, examining Indian secular thought through the lens of an Urdu literary figure. As such, this dissertation offers new perspectives on intersections between popular culture and political and religious thought in modern India through the lens of a celebrated literary figure whose legacy continues to be invoked. I argue that, at its core, Chughtai’s critique of society hinged upon the equality (barābarī) of all Indians. The primacy of “humanity” (insāniyat) over other identities was the keystone of her formation of the secular, and has roots in a tradition that can be termed Islamicate humanism. In the first chapter, “Sacred Duty: Ismat Chughtai’s Cosmopolitan Justice between Islam and the Secular,” I argue that, by rejecting the inferior status of women within Muslim legal codes, Chughtai pursued what she saw as moral equality to a more radical degree than the postcolonial Indian state, which enshrined separate codes of personal law based on religious community. Ultimately, the secular ideals of equality, autonomy and human dignity were the mainstays of her thought, without regard to whether these were pursued through “Islamic” means. In the next chapter, “The Personal is Political: Economic and Sexual Progress in Modern India,” I argue that Chughtai, unlike other members of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, emphasized the link between hierarchical economic injustice and limitations on autonomous sexual choice. In the third chapter, “Reform, Education, and Woman as Subject,” I argue that in her writing, particularly the novel Ṭeṛhī Lakīr, Chughtai deployed narratives of education as foundational to the formation of an emancipated girl, one who liberates herself by rejecting the “old rules” (purānī qānūn). The fourth chapter, “The Many Lives of Urdu: Language, Progressive Literature and Nostalgia,” explores the fate of the Urdu language and Chughtai’s legacy in independent India. Ultimately, this project calls into question assumptions regarding what types of textual and human subjects are considered representatives of “Indo-Muslim Culture” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.Near Eastern Languages and Civilization

Topics: History, Asia, Australia and Oceania, Women's Studies, Gender Studies
Publisher: 'Harvard University Botany Libraries'
Year: 2017
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