Neonationalist Culture Engulfs South Asia: Sabiha Huq

Sabiha Huq

Sabiha Huq

Sabiha Huq is an English professor at Khulna University. She started her teaching career as a faculty member in the senior branch of Dhaka Oxford International School when she was a graduate student. After a brief period of teaching at BAF Shaheen English Medium School, she completed her postgraduate studies at Dhaka University in 2001 and joined Khulna University.

Her initial research focused on gender inequality and awareness in Bangladesh, particularly during the 1990s at the national level. Later, she earned a Ph.D. with a scholarship from the Norwegian Research Council, focusing on two adaptations of Henrik Ibsen's play "Peer Gynt" in South Asia and an adaptation in a regional language in Norway.

During her research, she developed a keen interest in women's characters and their lives, leading her to work primarily on plays and writings by female authors. Her book 'The Mughal Aviary: Women's Writing in Pre-Modern India', published in 2022, explores the lives and works of Muslim women literary figures during the Mughal era. She received the 'Literary Encyclopaedia Award' in 2023 for this work.

Apart from research, she has also written short stories and poetry. Under the title "Dead Metaphor," she has provided an opportunity for many new writers as an editor and publisher of a small magazine.

In a recent interview, Sabiha Huq shared insights on the representation of women in the Mughal Empire, contemporary women's rights, and women's literature with Ahasan Hyder, the literary editor of the weekly 'Shampratik Deshkal'.

Why are you interested in writing the book 'The Mughal Empire: Women's Writing in Pre-Modern India'?

Sabiha Huq: I suddenly came across a book written by Kathryn Lasky. The title of the book is "Jahanara: Princess of Princesses." The book is a fictional diary written in the words of Mughal Princess Jahanara Begum. In this book, Lasky portrays the child Jahanara insulting her elderly grandmother, Empress Nur Jahan, calling her a serpent or snake. I was taken aback by such audacity. Reading the book may confuse the reader because the diary is written in a very realistic manner as if it were written by Jahanara herself. Who does not know that Jahanara did not write any diary during his lifetime, it is really difficult for them to judge the authenticity of this book.

Curious, I did a bit of research and found that at least three fictional diary entries have been created in English about Jahanara. In recent times, several historical novels have been written, most of which distorted the characters of Mughal princesses. In patriarchal societies, especially by male novelists, incidents of character distortion in women-centric novels are not uncommon. Moreover, the attempt to forget the Mughal period from the history of present-day neo-nationalist India, along with the attempt to tarnish the character of these princesses, indicates a different dimension. Yet, these women were intellectuals, religious, and virtuous. They have contributed significantly to literature. Some literary trends in Indian literature have originated from them.

As a conscious reader and a student of literature, I felt it necessary, albeit in a small way, to write something in protest. This book is the result of that endeavor.

The names Gulbadan Begum, Jahanara, Zeb-un-Nisa, and Habba Khatoon have been chosen for this book. Can you tell me the reason behind selecting these four women?

Sabiha Huq: I wrote the book as part of a series on pre-modern literature by Vernon Press, USA. These four women were representative figures in the literature of that time in the Indian subcontinent, and I have chosen them considering the significance of Muslim women and Mughal history from my perspective of criticism. Three of them were Mughal princesses, and one was a Kashmiri queen who found herself in the Mughal entanglement as a unique captive. They are not discussed much, and they do not find a place in literary anthologies, but their writings are captivating and sophisticated.

If you would have shed light on the issue of feminism in the writings of these Muslim women...

Sabiha Huq: While they may not be recognized as the forefront feminists in India, their writings reflect women's mentality, women's rights, the power of women in historical analysis, women's spirituality, resistance against women's oppression in society and state structures, and above all, the discovery of women's individual consciousness. What is feminism really? Feminism is not a battle against men, but rather a rebellion against patriarchy and a proclamation of one's rights. This sentiment is echoed in their writings. In Western literature, there is a perception that Indian women are submerged in the darkness of pre-modernity, but the truth emerges from the illumination of knowledge, revealing the lives of all these women brightly through their writings.

Surely there was a specific reason for using the ‘aviary’ image?

Sabiha Huq: Yes, I have consciously used the term "aviary" or "birdcage" here. Mughal women could enjoy rights up to a certain limit; however, if they crossed that limit, a dangerous punishment awaited them like death. Their wings had been clipped. Therefore, I have used this metaphor.

Why do you think the writings of these women are important in the current South Asian geopolitical context?

Sabiha Huq: In the book I wrote, contemporary neo-nationalist culture has engulfed South Asia. India's position here is very clear. An attempt is being made to erase the Mughal era from history books there, starting from history books. Can history be erased in this way? In Bangladesh, we have seen similar efforts at one time. Not allowing a generation to know history is not a trivial matter. Rather, if various aspects of history that are not known can be brought to light, it may become a solution to all the problems of a comprehensive history. In the writings of these women, we can learn many things that we do not know. From these writings, we can know the history of tears behind events like murders, and palace conspiracies. The Mughal emperor is not just a bloodthirsty animal - he is also a man to a fault, a father, a brother, a husband, and a son. This re-reading of history can be a link to reconciliation. And so their writing seems to be a very necessary adjunct to my history studies.

You have been awarded prestigious awards like the ‘Literary Encyclopedia Book Award’ for the book, this achievement has given you more responsibilities in your future work – what would you say about this?

Sabiha Huq: See, no one writes for an award, but any recognition or achievement surely inspires you to be more dedicated toward work.

Apart from research, you are also good at creative writing. What are your plans for it?

Sabiha Huq: I can't say anything about it at the moment. The writings are piling up. If ever desired, they can be published.

Your research was about Henrik Ibsen, outside of which interests are particularly modern drama, and women in literature - you are also a member of the International Ibsen Committee. Tell me about these in detail.

Sabiha Huq: I read Ibsen's Doll's House in my post-graduation at Dhaka University. As a woman from a middle-class Muslim home, I can match the life of Nora, the main character of that play, with the much-seen life. After reading more of Ibsen's writings, I became interested and researched translations and adaptations of Ibsen's plays. There I discussed the socio-political issues of modern and post-modern times like feminism, imperialism, radical fanaticism, and nationalism in Bangladesh and South Asia. Recently a book titled Ibsen in the Decolonized South Asian Theater (Routledge, 2024) has come out in which I have worked with several researchers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

I was elected as a member of the International Ibsen Committee in 2018 and have worked and continue to work for two consecutive terms. I am very happy to be the first South Asian woman member, I can say that I have tried to work with dedication in this role.

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