How Ismat Chughtai Became A Feminist Icon Before It Was Cool To Be One

By Momina Mindeel | 24 Oct, 2016

Ismat Chughtai’s life and her body of work is, as millenials like to say, pure GOALS. While she had to face intense grilling at court hearings for her fierce writing that portrayed female sexuality, and constant grueling criticisms regarding what she wrote, she always stood her ground instead of giving in to log kya kahenge. Not many of us can say the same for ourselves. Today is Chughtai’s 19th death anniversary and the least we can do is reminisce the works of this fierce soul and hopefully get inspired.


My first acquaintance with Ismat Chughtai was her story Lihaaf. 

Lihaaf (The Quilt) talked about a lesbian encounter in an all-woman setting. This was in 1942 when people couldn’t even fathom the existence of homosexuality. 

Since Chughtai does not make an explicit reference to the word lesbian, when reading the story, I just could not figure out what was actually happening until I read the last line of the story.Aware of how the story must’ve ‘hurt the honor’ of desi men, I curiously began reading up more on the consequences Chughtai had to do face in the aftermath of this story.


Turns out, she was labeled as an obnoxious woman who had no boundaries whatsoever when it came to the apparently “unnatural” sexual encounters and was consequently, dragged into numerous court hearings.


Like her fellow “vulgar” writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. And just like Manto, stood her ground. The fact that both of them survived the test of time and are now regarded among some of the greatest writers of South Asia, if not the world, is a testament to their victory, at the end.


While Lihaaf does indeed depict a lesbian encounter, it also touches upon homosexuality among men, but most of the criticism over Chughtai centers around her “lewd” depiction of women.

The main character, Begum Jan’s, husband was a homosexual too and therefore, did not seem to show any interest in establishing any sort of sexual relationship with his wife. The wife, deprived of love, was ultimately saved by her masseuse Rabbo.

None of her critics, then, ever talked about her depiciton of Begum Jan’s husband as a homosexual man, as they were busy pointing fingers at Ismat’s female character Begum Jan. Interestingly, Ismat Chughtai was also the only female writer in the subcontinent at that time who dared to explore the dynamics of various sexual power plays.

Source: dailymotion
Source: dailymotion

Despite all the controversies, she kept doing her thing. Some of her other stories including Kachay Dhaghay, Sorry Mummy, Muqaddas Faraz and Kunwari revolve around the ideas of high life in undivided India, including the excruciatingly real details of what actually went down in the film studios and how women are generally treated under such circumstances.


Chughtai wasn’t afraid to delve into controversial stuff, she thrived on it.

She wrote unreservedly and lived unreservedly. Ismat Chughtai passed away in 1991 and was cremated (when a body is disposed of by burning it to ashes) on account of her wish. Even in her death, people could not stop criticizing her for her wish to be cremated and called her a non-Muslim, as if that’s derogatory. But as has been the norm, we realized Chughtai’s worth after she was gone. Most importantly, she endorsed feminism before it was ‘cool’.

Rest in power, Ismat ma’am.


Cover Image Via: The Wire 

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