The Queer Motif in Lihaaf

by Dolly Sharma

“Lihaaf”, the short story by Ismat Chughtai was published in 1942 in the Urdu magazine, Adab-e-Lateef. Its plot is centred upon the plight of a young Muslim woman who is married to an old man who neglects her both physically and emotionally as soon as they are married due to his own homosexual tendencies. This young woman, Begum Jaan who “wasted away in anguished loneliness” (322) fulfils her pleasure when she falls in love with Rabbu, her female masseur.

The story is narrated from the perspective of a girl child of nine years of age in retrospection. The memories of the adult narrator can be seen as representative of Chughtai’s own childhood memories as she was familiar with the gossip around a begum and her female servant (Naqvi xii). Chughtai utilises this childhood memory to breathe life into the sexual and emotional relationship between Begum Jaan and Rabbu in the story. The theme of lesbianism which occasions hammers so loudly that Chughtai receives a summons to appear at the Lahore Court on the charge of obscenity, which she eventually wins (Kishwar 5).

Nevertheless, the theme of lesbianism has become a topic of contestation among scholars. Some scholars accept the lesbian tag accorded to “Lihaaf” while others neglect it outrightly. Among those who openly accept it are Ashley Tellis who reads the short story as espousing a radical same-sex politics, which valorises sexual feelings between women and praises homosexuality (136). Tellis validates her claim by locating the motif of lesbianism in the language of the text. On the other hand, Subhash Chandra contests “Lihaaf” being a lesbian text by offering evidences from the author’s biography and by delineating the arguments of lesbian theorists who deny having a sexual relationship between women as a mere reason for calling a text as lesbian.

Considering both these positions, the present reading of “Lihaaf” ascribes a lesbian interpretation to it and suggests how it envisions the empowerment of women through the portrayal of the relationship of its lesbian pair. To pursue this stand-point, this paper would be utilising the ideas of French feminist Luce Irigaray.

Luce Irigaray, the Belgian born French feminist, brings ideas from her training as a psychoanalyst into her theories which would be useful in marking how the text minutely gives glances of the patriarchal world and in interpreting many lesbian gestures of both the text and the characters that go unnoticed and which make the story empowering.

With the very opening of the story, Chughtai establishes how the subjects sensitised in a patriarchal realm comprising of both male and female treat silent female as non-existent and the “hysterical” female as monstrous who needs to be removed from a masculine company. In the short story, the narrator’s mother becomes such kind of patriarchal subject as she metaphorically imprisons the bold and untypically feminine narrator within the four walls of her aunt so that she is unable to accompany her brothers in her absence. This kind of imprisonment is suggestive of another betrayal against the daughter by the mother as a functionary of the patriarchal world: it is not clear why the mother sends the narrator to the aunt’s house when she could have taken her along with herself to Agra. The impairment of the daughter from the mother signifies how “our culture operate(s) on the basis of an original matricide” (Irigaray Sexes 11) as children are always given over to patriarchal genealogy.

The text reveals the patriarchal intention to avoid the female gender. Begum Jaan’s husband begins avoiding her from the beginning of their marriage which reflects the agenda of the patriarchal culture which wishes to do away with the very gender female. The only gender that is given space in the open areas of the house is male. The husband and his young pupils are concentrated in those areas which establishes their dominance while the women- Begum Jaan, Rabbu and the narrator primarily- are cloistered in a narrow and confined space in the interior of the house. The sex segregation also takes place along the spatial terrain. The confined space allotted to the women conveys the trivial consideration given to the female gender. Irigaray builds upon this thread to argue that gender as a category is always equated to male which becomes the only agent of defining sexual and other relations (Sexes 3).

Still, within this patriarchal set-up, the text shows the possibility of female empowerment. It records the sensuous voice of Begum Jaan and Rabbu while making love. The otherwise silent Begum develops an economy of words while conversing with both the female narrator and Rabbu. This revelation can be juxtaposed with how the Begum performs only silent actions to entice her husband- she tries “amulets, talismans, black magic” to entice her husband (322). There is nothing she has to speak to the husband. Irigaray cautions that the reason for supposed madness among women is that their “words are not heard” (Sexes 10). However, the text does not submit to this tenet of the patriarchal society by allowing the Begum to articulate her emotions.

The text further reveals how women also assist the vicious patriarchal enterprise. The other maids of the Begum exhibit their jealousy of Rabbu and even make fun of them behind their backs (324). This rivalry among women is also shown in Chughtai’s other short stories as well. In “The Scent of Body”, an upper-class Muslim woman of a rich household justifies the misbehaviour reaped upon the maids in the house. Rajakumar suggests that this kind of behaviour reflects the upper-class woman’s anxiety that if she were to contest the ill-treatment against the maid then her own position would be jeopardised (168). Irigaray throws light upon the feminine rivalry and how they are indoctrinated within the folds of patriarchy by giving the example of Athena who emerges from the brain of Zeus to restore sanity to Orestes. She argues that the perfect female under the patriarchal hegemony assists men in their bid for power and neglects women (Sexes 12). Therefore, Electra is left alone with her madness left uncured. This idea counters Chandra’s argument that the Begum is simply interested in deriving sexual pleasure and so the partner can be either male or female (357) Begum Jaan not only provides employment to Rabbu but also protects her from the malicious intentions of the other maids. Further, one may probably accept that Rabbu certainly enjoys intimacy with the Begum which compels her return to the Begum from her son and it is their combined efforts that make their relationship strong. If the Begum were only interested in emotionless and indifferent pleasure then she would have gotten it from anyone but she wants pleasure filled with emotion as demonstrated by her blooming once Rabbu arrives in her life. This testifies to their strong emotional bond. At another level, Chandra’s contestation that Chughtai portrays lesbianism as repulsive as she draws upon the tremors of the child narrator at her contact with Begum Jaan (357) fails when one deliberates over the fact that a child is unable to discern even heterosexual relationship so the terror of the child narrator cannot be utilised to push forward the narrative that Chughtai is scathing of the freedom afforded in lesbianism.

The text also breaks the stereotype that only men can fulfil women’s sexual wants and urges. Begum Jaan only longs for union with her husband until she has not achieved union with Rabbu. Once Begum Jaan and Rabbu embark upon their relationship, the Begum realises that she could be happy with a woman as well. In fact, in the absence of Rabbu, the Begum becomes dull and she takes only the child narrator to socialise with. Irigaray posits that the phallus is secondary to the umbilical cord and the breasts which are the primary life-giving forces. Thus, she clarifies that women have no need of envying the penis. Irigaray argues that it is only men who have transformed “this male organ into an instrument of power” (Sexes 17).

The text puts forward the message that women need to love each other in order to fight the constructed patriarchal supremacy. The narrative of the Begum’s husband and his pupils does not enter again once the Begum enjoys her newfound relationship with Rabbu. Irigary calls this comradeship as “secondary homosexuality” (Sexes 20) as it prospers not between a mother and her daughter but between women unrelated by blood and thus is more empowering. She notes that this love is essential if women were to protest their subordination within the phallic cult (Sexes 20).

The text also embraces beauty products that are denigrated as products entrapping men by the conventional society. Begum Jaan exhorts Rabbu to apply varied oils upon her skin which as a consequence emanates pleasant smell. The narrator recalls how the Begum would keep herself well maintained by regularly oiling her hair, plucking her eye-brows with precision and applying red colour to her lips. Irigaray suggests that women should progress further into womanhood to enjoy the divinity that is natural to them (Sexes 60).

The text also alerts the readers of the vicious exercise of entrenching patriarchal values in children from a young age. After witnessing the sexual act between Begum Jaan and Rabbu, the narrator cries Allah and dives into her bed (329). Although a female, the narrator has internalised the notion that only men are free to act upon their desires. When this facade breaks, the child confronts women’s agency which she has no words to describe, the lack of which leaves her to utter the name of the revered masculine entity Allah and not Ammi. In her interview, Ismat Chughtai had confessed that she was not aware of lesbianism when she was crafting her short story. (Kishwar 5). The child finds the Begum and Rabbu’s relationship unpalatable because she has been brought up upon a patriarchal diet that does not give expression and agency to women. Irigaray maintains that male gender is equated to being God itself. In this scenario, as God and thus the male gender wields power to do everything the narrator is bound to utter the name of Allah.

The text offers an alternative to the masculine trinity of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost. It foregrounds the feminine trinity of Begum Jaan, Rabbu and the child narrator. Begum Jaan is defined in terms of a Maharani and enjoys power akin to God by sitting on her bed (323). Rabbu severs herself from her son and by extension from a part of herself. This metaphorical crucifixion alludes to the crucifixion of Christ and Rabbu’s returning to Begum Jaan can be an allusion to the resurrection of Christ. As for the narrator, she, much like the Holy Ghost, communicates the story of this lesbian pair through the short story. Feuerbach insists that women need to emphasise their trinity to affirm their gender as female gender is not counted as worth considering (Sexes 81). Further, Irigaray expostulates that establishing a female trinity is essential for assisting women in their existence (“becoming”) (Sexes 64).

The text contests the traditional understanding of how women become whole. Conventionally, child-bearing is perceived as the ultimate self-fulfilment for women and it is expected of them to carry the male genealogy- the name of the father- forward. On the contrary, Begum Jaan does not showcase any desire to bear children and for her wholeness resides in deriving pleasure both sexually and emotionally from Rabbu. Everything else is secondary to this fulfilment. Irigaray supports this kind of fulfilment by foregrounding the futility of suffering caused in motherhood and revealing how it is established as fulfilling to cater to patriarchal interests. In fact, Christ himself says that he would return once people cease to bear children thus emphasizing the value of love among people (Sexes 151).

Feuerbach attributes developing a goal as essentially a religious move (Sexes 67). Women are instructed to locate this goal outside of themselves- man, children or husband. However, Begum Jaan has learnt to place this goal within herself. Her goal is to love and be loved in return. The Begum’s will to love enables her to tolerate the gossip that surrounds her.

Lips are said to be the primary virginal part of the female body. Thus, stealing a kiss from a woman’s lips is almost seen as a form of violation. The Begum and Rabbu give themselves to each other through lips in the first instance. The narrator recalls the vivid noise the Begum and Rabbu would make while making love. She equates this with “the slurping sound of a cat licking a plate” (325). Thus, the text shows that the freedom to make the sensuous voices and utilise lips in love-making is afforded in a lesbian relationship.

Irigaray suggests that women need to achieve economic independence and cooperation (“The Goods”) to enjoy independence and gain self-esteem in a patriarchal community. Ismat Chughtai also stresses economic empowerment for women to become self-dependent as patriarchy crushes women only because they are seen as economically dependent products (Kishwar 6). Begum Jaan is able to bring empowerment to Rabbu by providing her employment as well. And Rabbu, on her part, is only motivated to leave her ignorant son and return to her lover, the Begum because she earns money from Begum Jaan. So both cooperation, love and economic independence among women are necessary for women to gain empowerment in a patriarchal society.



Works Cited-

Chandra, Subhash. “Ismat Chughtai’s ‘The Quilt’: Is it a Lesbian Text?”. Modern Indian Writing in English Translation: A Multilingual Anthology. Edited by Dhananjay Kapse. Delhi: Worldview Editions, 2016. pp. 353- 361. Print.
Chughtai, Ismat. “Lihaaf”. Translated by M. Asaduddin. Modern Indian Writing in English Translation: A Multilingual Anthology. Edited by Dhananjay Kapse. Delhi: Worldview Editions, 2016. Print.
Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. Print.
—, “When the Goods Get Together”. New French Feminisms, Edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1980. pp. 107-110. Print.
Kishwar, Madhu and Ruth Vanita. “An Irrepressible Spirit: An Interview with Ismat Chughtai”. Manushi: A Journal About Women and Society. Vol 19, 1983. pp. 2-7. Interview. Web.
Naqvi, Tahira. “Introduction”. The Quilt and Other Short Stories. Edited by Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed. Delhi: Kali for Women. xii- xxi. Print.
Rajakumar, Mohanalakshmi. Dismantling Patriarchal Marriage in The Quilt and Other Stories. pp. 166- 180. Student Paper. Web. HWTuC-0QFjAAegQIAxAB&usg=AOvVaw3TTq5Ea3Z7ypYgc5xf_V3d.
Tellis, Ashley. “The Corporeal Aesthetic in Ismat Chughtai’s ‘Lihaf'”. Modern Indian Writing in English Translation: A Multilingual Anthology. Edited by Dhananjay Kapse. Delhi: Worldview Editions, 2016. pp. 362- 367. Print.