Ismat Chughtai

I first read Ismat Chughtai’s highly acclaimed and highly controversial “Lihaaf” as a teenager, relatively ignorant of the intricacies of gender and sexuality. I read it again several years later when I was not quite so innocent, or perhaps, ignorant, anymore. Chughtai’s work has a quality most young authors, including myself, would dearly wish their work to possess- each time a reader revisits it, they come away, absorbing something new, a hitherto unknown perspective in their mind.

One of the fiercest feminists of her time, Ismat Chughtai was an Urdu author who did not mince words when it came to writing about relevant social issues. An inspirational figure for women, many of her books were often banned at some point or the other. Her stories were incredibly honest about things usually kept under strict wraps, such as homosexuality, child abuse, and conflict in middle-class society.

How as a young girl, Ismat Chughtai convinced her father to excuse her from learning how to cook, and give her instead the opportunity to go to school and get an education:

“Women cook food, Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him.

“If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.

My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.”
Ismat Chughtai

Facing harsh criticism to the point of having a law-suit filed against her for blasphemy (which she later won), Ismat broke the shackles of orthodoxy that conservative Islamic culture was associated with. She was an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, and a front-runner for politically conscious literature. She lent a unique woman’s perspective to issues like the Partition. “In Ismat’s hands, the woman became a flesh-and-blood creature, with all the flaws and failings of a human being but also thoughts and ideas that did not necessarily limit her to the zenana.”, writes Rakshandha Jalil.

Read the full text of Lihaaf here.

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Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-

Odetta

“You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life … those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life.” -Odetta

Born in 1930, African-American Odetta, also known as Odetta Holmes, was a singer, actress,songwriter, guitarist and much more. Earning the moniker “Queen of American Folk Music” from Martin Luther King Jr., her music has been called “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement”.

With a college degree in music, she initially performed as a chorus singer, with theatre and folk groups and in clubs. She released her first solo album ‘Odetta sings Ballads and Blues’ in 1956. Her folk songs album released in the 1960s went on to be a phenomenal success. She also delivered duets with other famous singers such as Harry Belafonte. Her most stirring performance has been unanimously acknowledged as her rendition of “O, Freedom” at the civil rights movement’s 1963 March on Washington. She was vocal against racism, having first experienced it at the young age of seven on a train to California. Her music influenced many personalities of that period, including Bob Dylan and Rosa Parks (the latter is recognized as the “mother of the modern civil rights movement” in America).

In 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the year 2005 saw her honoured with the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. She performed almost up to the day of her death at 77 years of age. Besides bringing about an inspirational mainstreaming of folk music, Odetta’s compositions transcended the boundaries of an art form to  fulfill a much higher purpose. Listen to one of her songs, originally a prison work song, that made it to the TIMES All time 100-

Deepa Vasudevan

“Those who have come out for the sake of visibility and activism have often faced a lot of harassment and experienced difficulty in finding work and housing afterwards. There is a huge amount of moral policing of women in our sexually hypocritical society. Public spaces are still unsafe for women-loving-women in Kerala. Safety comes in private spaces.”- Deepa Vasudevan

In a ‘democracy’ where a law such as Section 377 exists, criminalising homosexuality as “unnatural” and the fear of societal ostracism compels people of queer orientation to conceal their sexuality, Deepa Vasudevan, a Malayali Canadian immigrant, is trying her best to create a safe space for lesbian/bisexual women and transgender individuals in Kerala, a state relatively more conservative in this respect, despite high levels of literacy.

Her organisation, Sahayathrika, is named for a Malayalam word roughly translating to “Women undertaking a journey together”. The organization mainly works on counselling, community-organizing and survival of women from gender and sexual minorities, as well as raising awareness on LGBT issues. Deepa founded Sahayathrika when she realised that there was practically no support system for LGBT individuals and this perhaps was one of the major reasons behind a high suicide rate for lesbians in Kerala. With its first project inititated in 2002, it became an independent registered organisation in 2008.

“Many LGBT people tend to migrate to other cities. And people living in Kochi tend to be more private”- Deepa Vasudevan

A study by the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum has also highlighted that most development initiatives by the government excluded sexual minorities, including the pioneering Kudumbasree programme. Through its activities, Sahayathrika seeks to bring to the fore the marginalisation and harassment of the queer community in Kerala often leading to migration to other,more tolerant states.

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The kind of dialogue that Deepa Vasudevan’s Sahayathrika, Queerala and other organisations are trying to raise in society is a very important lesson to the sizeable proportion of the country’s population that still judges and attacks people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Read more about the experiences of India’s LGBT community here-

http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/love-search-purple-rainbow/

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/a-prayer-for-understanding/article6243192.ece