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Iqbalunnisa Hussain’s “Purdah and Polygamy": Free From Whatever Can Offend the Most Delicate Sensibility

A review by Faria Fatima

Purdah and Polygamy

Originally published in 1944, Iqbalunnisa Hussain’s novel “Purdah and Polygamy: Life in an Indian Muslim Household” is a realist tale circumscribing a middle-class mercantile Muslim family in colonial India. Through her work, Hussain traces three generations of a family and centers the novel around internalization and the effect of deep-rooted oppressive systems like patriarchy and the institution of marriage. Islam and the values that the family supposedly claims to be following, form the foundation of the text. Besides being an example of social realism, the novel is a critical comment on patriarchy, hypocrisies in marriage, colonial India, and significantly, Islamic laws and its various distorted interpretations. 

The novel begins with a vivid description of “Dilkusha, an unguarded jail for its women.” Hussain writes how the house continues to remain the same for three generations after as well. Beginning with Umar, the oldest patriarch of the house to his son Kabeer and finally, his grandson Akram, the book goes on to throw light on how patriarchy functions in an orthodox Muslim family. It also highlights how the social order is passed on from one generation to the other with persisting similarities and drastic differences at the same time. For instance, Umar is wealthy while his successor Kabeer does not pay heed to responsibilities like Umar does all his life. Umar gives utmost importance to mercenary gains in his life and he says that it is the reason why he married only once, to Zuhra. On the other hand, his son Kabeer goes on to marry four times. Nazni is his first wife, a rich and beautiful girl from a “good family.” His mother Zuhra lures him to marry Munira, a poor woman from the slums after they come to know about Nazni having a heart disease. Munira is described as ugly-looking and she is merely a slave in that household. To “wipe away the disgrace caused by this pariah woman,” Kabeer marries Maghbool, who is described in the novel as a model for an artist. She is beautiful. She writes and plays harmonium. Later on, in his middle age, he marries his old, destitute tenant’s granddaughter. This is at the same time when his son Akram, a relic of the past is having an affair with a widow, Asmath.

Women, even though confined to the four walls of the house, form an extremely significant part of the novel. The book is about the experiences and struggles of the Zenana. The instances mentioned in the book also coincide with women's experiences even today. Even though the start of the book mentions that all characters in the novel have no existence outside the author’s imagination, one cannot deny that these instances are not just mere imaginations on the part of the author, also when Hussain was an educated woman, traveled to the United Kingdom to obtain a Masters degree, represented India at the Twelfth International Women’s Conference in Istanbul and was socially active in encouraging women’s education. The narration seems like the author is advocating for a positive change in addition to putting the reality out there. The narrator’s voice in the novel is of a keenly observant figure who is articulating his/her observations weaving together every intricate detail. The author gives us a nuanced description of characters, traditions, and events. For instance, Kabeer's four wives are victims of purdah and polygamy but all of them are barely alike. Their experiences are different from each other. Even though all of them have internalized the orthodoxy, their response to it is not the same. While Munira and Nazni are puppets at the hands of  their mother-in-law Zuhra, Maghbool wants to “revolt against the established dogmas.” 

As far as purdah and polygamy are concerned, it is important to look at Islam, as for most parts of the book, the characters allude to the “values” of the religion. The Quran says- “And enjoin believing women to cast down their looks and guard their private parts and not reveal their adornment except that which is revealed of itself, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their husbands, or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or of their own sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or the women with whom they associate, or those that are in their bondage, or the male attendants in their service free of sexual interest, or boys that are yet unaware of illicit matters pertaining to women''(Chapter 24, Verse 31). The impact of this verse, however extremist, is very much apparent in the book. Before entering the house, men used to signal the women and called out loud- “Gosha.”  None of the Muslim women in the novel are allowed to step out of the house. Barring  Maghbool, none of them question their responsibilities inside the house. Women are seen observing purdah, even at weddings and funerals. Umar does not allow the presence of vendors and hawkers around the house. Moreover, Zuhra loathes and expresses anger when Azeem, Maghbool’s cousin, visits her and she is seen laughing and having a good time with him.

Purdah, in the novel, is used as an excuse to curtail the basic rights of women. If one looks at the religious aspect of it, purdah, unlike its representation in the novel, must not be oppressive. For instance, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija who is also regarded as one of the ideal Muslim women, was a successful businesswoman too. She employed Muhammad to manage a caravan to Syria and later on, proposed to marry him. Likewise, Shameemunnisa Begum, in a study of the novel says that the author believes that in the name of the Quran, Muslim fundamentalists exploit women. In the same manner, Kabeer, by the Quran (Chapter 4, Verse 3), married four times. Even though they claim to abide by the verses as a form of obedience to the religion, their stance is rather hypocritical and opportunist. For instance, except for the youngest Ayesha, all of Muhammad’s wives were either widows or were divorced previously. However, in the novel, the plurality of wives is a matter of pride for Kabeer, Akram’s affair with a widow is rather loathsome, and Zuhra, being a widow, is not allowed to participate in events of delight. 

Hussain shows that several instances in the book, in the pretext of being backed by religion, are rather cultural impacts. In the foreword to the book, Ramalinga Reddy talks about the psychological affinity between Muslim and Hindu women. Moreover, he says that Hussain is like a French novelist vested with the “gift of sober objectivity and artistic realism.” She throws light on facets of colonial India and its traditional and superstitious practices, some of which are relevant even today. Kabir’s education and upbringing are described in detail in the novel. In contrast, there is no reference to his sister Jamila’s education. This points out the lack of education among girls in most Indian households during the early twentieth century. Likewise, the pathetic attitude towards widows was not limited to the followers of a certain religion. Once husbands die, their wives are left with no purpose in life. At the death of Umar, Zuhra breaks her bangles forever. This practice is not religious but cultural. Almost all women, either Hindu or Muslim had to bear the repercussions of these evil practices. With these instances, Hussain elucidates grave truths of time and its effect on women and society at large. While women remain uneducated,  a man like Nazni’s brother, who is also different from all other men in the novel, is perhaps a product of the “civilizing mission.” He possesses modern ideas on marriage and the agency of women. When the cook breaks the truth about Kabeer’s marriage to Munira, Nazni’s brother is infuriated. He remarks- “He did it without her (Nazni’s) permission, when she was in bed.” Similarly, one could see the influence of Western culture towards the end of the book. Under the influence of Rose and Alexander, Akram once adorns a Western outfit, of course to his grandmother Zuhra’s disgust. He also indulges in drinking wine. 

Consequently, through the lens of the author, one sees the impact of colonialism and intermixing of cultures. Hussain always had an affinity towards the English language. Her novel is not just limited to the affairs of a Muslim family but it is also an example of the impression of English education in pre-independent India. Reddy also comments about the language of the novel. He remarks- “the structure and the idiom may strike the English ear as strange, outlandish.” Hussain translates Urdu and Kannada idioms and incorporates them into the novel. One can see the use of numerous Urdu and Arabic words like aab-e-zamzam, tabligh-e-islam, manhoos etcetera in the novel, making it quite Indian. The novel is simple yet covers major drawbacks of religion and society. What makes it unique, which is also problematic is that it is, as Reddy points out, “free from whatever can offend the most delicate sensibility.”

The novel is in many ways poignant and tragic but Hussain refrains from representing it as a moralizing one. In context to this, the claim at the beginning of the novel that the incidents in the book are pure invention is also unsettling. Nonetheless, since the events also resonate with today, the book, screaming in silence, advocates for a change and upliftment of the zenana to a certain position where women are bold, unafraid, and decisive. 


Begum, Shameemunnisa. “Iqbalunnisa Hussain’s Purdah and Polygamy: Life in an Indian Muslim Household: A study.” EPRA International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research (IJMR)- Peer Reviewed Journal, vol. 7, issue 5, May 2021.


About the writer:

Faria Fatima

Faria Fatima, born and raised in Giridih, Jharkhand, currently resides in Delhi. She completed her graduation from Miranda House, University of Delhi, and is presently pursuing an MA in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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