The Zenana or Women's Quarters: Three Discourses


The Zenana or women's quarters have been a subject of curiosity in a number of narratives and discourses. When the British colonized India, the space, no doubt, invited intrigue. Emma Roberts, a woman traveler who allegedly came to India in 1828, describes the Zenana halls in her poem "The Rajah's Obsequies":

And there from the Zenana's halls,
Stealing when eve reveals its stars,
The dark-eyed maid holds festivals,
And listens to the soft sitars,
Hymning those sweet and gentle tunes,
Which young hearts picture in their dreams.
The exoticizing gaze and the romanticizing impulse of the Western poet is apparent. The poet's gaze is empowered in that it is exhaustive and can survey the inner quarters.
In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said describes the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as periods of unparalleled European expansion, which coincided with an advancement in the discursive creation of the 'Orient' as the 'Other' of the 'Occident'. This meant a proliferation of a vast body of works that described the 'Orient' as "a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences" (Said, Introduction to Orientalism). "The Rajah's Obsequies" can be read as an example of such narratives. 
In the anti-colonial nationalist discourse in India, on the other hand, the space of the 'home' (which included the space of the Zenana) was constructed in opposition to the space of the 'world'. In "The Nationalist Resolution to the Women's Question", Partha Chatterjee writes that the dichotomy of the 'home' (the inner and the spiritual domain) and the 'world' (the outer and the material domain) was constructed by Indian nationalists to promote the idea that while the West had superiority in the outside 'world', it had failed to colonize the 'home' which was the essential cultural marker of the East. Chatterjee writes,
The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world- and the woman its representative.
In this discourse, once more, we see the romanticizing impulse through which the 'home' becomes almost sacred. 
Rashid Jahan, an Urdu writer associated with the Progressive Writer's Association, overturns both these discourses in her short story "Behind the Veil". Jahan unveils some harrowing truths about life in the Zenana. Her story presents the plight of two women, Mahmudi Begum and Aftab Begum. The women discuss the many drudgeries of domestic life: giving birth to many children, taking care of them, being treated as sex-objects by their husbands, living under the threat of the husband's infidelity and of divorce, and sickness of both the body and the mind.
The story challenges both the romanticized vision of the Western poet and the rhetoric of the nationalist discourse. Mahmudi Begum remarks,
[I] look like an old woman of seventy, sick every day, hakeems and doctors every day, and giving birth to a child every year. Right, who can be as lucky as me?
Painting/Illustration: Bride's Toilet, Amrita Sher-Gil, National Gallery of Modern Art 

No comments

Powered by Blogger.