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Review of the Essay Lihaaf by Ismat Chughtai

In this story, the author probes questionable societal norms that most people blindly followed, and still do. She dared to address taboo topics at a time when the role of women in society was extremely suppressed and inhibited and in days when women were not granted any degree of freedom. One of the issues discussed is of the problems posed by arranged marriages. Here Begum Jan is married of to an aging Nawab.

Both the husband and wife are poles apart as there is a difference in their ages as well as disparity in their social status, the Nawab belonging to the feudal class while Begum Jan belonging to a comparatively lower class. Eventually, after the marriage the Nawab discards his new wife and she merely remains a piece of furniture in his large house. Thus, the relationship is only kept ritualistically alive. The author also dwells into the issue of the lack of independence given to women at that time.

The begum is not allowed by her husband to step out of the house and is forced to lead a life of segregation, not even receiving the attention of her husband. On the other hand, the Nawab is free to act as he desires and indulge in his hobby of recruiting young boys as long as he fulfils his social obligations – namely that of acquiring a wife – a Begum – albeit as a piece of furniture. Thus, the issue of gender discrimination is also highlighted.

The consequences to these problems are also explored. Even though they could not have been more contrasting, there existed a more intimate relationship between Begum Jaan and Rabbu, the masseuse, than the typical master-servant relationship. Thus, rejection by her husband and a feeling of isolation in Begum Jaan, was the primary reason behind this relationship. A consequence of this story was that it was termed obscene and a court case was filed against her.

This draws attention to the conservative nature of society at that time and the fact that the society was not willing to accept its problems. Concluding, this story deals with a number of social and cultural problems, prevalent at that time, tactfully and also explores their implications. The story’s relevancy to society and the fact that no other urdu author of the time dealt with such questions, makes it an audacious effort.