Celebrating women humorists of Urdu
UNLIKE our railways, there are no separate compartments for women in literature. All writers are equal and must share the same carriage, though male passengers commuting on the Literary Express are more equal and usually show patronising behaviour to female fellow travellers.
But the world has generally been biased against women writers. Women writers have to carve out an echelon for themselves in our male-dominated literary world, often paying a heavy price. Even in the western world, women writers were looked down upon and Mary Ann Evans had to use George Eliot as a pen name.
Though such attitude was common during the Victorian age, it is not uncommon even today and an accomplished journalist and writer like Gay Talese who used to write for the New York Times and some other coveted periodicals, kicked up controversy when he remarked at a Boston University conference that he had not been inspired by any female writers as they “tended not” to excel in journalism, though women are great fiction writers.
It was common among the female writers of Urdu till the early 20th century, for different reasons though, to use a male pen name or use mysterious tags, such as mother of or daughter of Mr So and So, to hide their real identity. But it is a fact that the women writers have enriched Urdu literature all the more and without their contribution Urdu literature would have been left less magnificent.
Urdu’s women writers have left a mark on all literary genres. Especially Urdu fiction will always remain indebted to their writings for they introduced to Urdu a different perspective and a new sensibility. But the bias against women has always been at work and male chauvinists have almost always made fun of women’s sense of humour. Women are, they believe, a dim-witted and humourless lot. Though nothing can be farther from the truth as some of the wittiest writers are women, such as Dorothy Parker, Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron and some others.
These attitudes, however, are being challenged, as new biological and psychological studies sift the truth from myths. Last year Atlantic published an article titled ‘Plight of the funny female’ (http://www.theatlantic. com/) on the issue. Written by Olga Khazan, the article asked that though women are capable of being as funny as men, why their humour is not appreciated. It is, perhaps, the wrong perception about women’s sense of humour that creates such misconceptions, as one study suggests.
But after the publication of the book Khavateen Mizah Nigaron Ka Encyclopaedia one can claim that at least in Urdu, humour written by women is appreciated. Just published by Karachi’s Rang-e-Adab Publications and compiled by Anwer Ahmed Alvi — a male humorist — the book is a collection of 65 humorous pieces, all written by women writers.
But there is something funny that might have inspired Alvi Sahib to compile the book: last year when a book of humorous articles by a woman writer appeared it carried a foreword by a professor Sahib (he cannot be named for certain reasons). Because he is a Prof, he can say or write anything without bothering to verify the facts. He claimed that the book was the first humour book ever written in Urdu by a female writer. To make it funnier, he misquoted a PhD dissertation on humour, published by Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu (the dissertation cannot be named for certain reasons). Had he bothered to read the dissertation carefully, he would have found many female humorists mentioned there. But if one really wants to prove something, one can easily ignore the facts. When Anwer Ahmed Alvi read this he was upset. To prove the Prof wrong he compiled this book, collecting some writings of women humorists written as early as in the 1940s and some written as late as a few years ago (it proves that some funny mistakes can result in good works).
Alvi Sahib is a humorist and had been editing Mizah Plus, an Urdu humour magazine. He is a keen reader, critic and researcher of humour, too, and has compiled humour anthologies before. So it was very easy for him to prove, and he has proved, that any book published a couple of years ago could not be termed as Urdu’s first humour work by a female. But he has narrated the story without naming anyone in the foreword to the present work, too, and has not forgotten to take to task the researchers and PhD scholars, saying that “the scholars writing dissertations on Urdu humour simply could not know that there have been many female writers who wrote humour in Urdu”.
He is of the view that after Pitras Bukhari and Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, Urdu has produced many good humorists but no dissertation or research paper on Urdu humour has ever mentioned it. He laments that Mahmood Sarhadi is often ignored in literary surveys though he was as great a poet as Syed Muhammad Jafri, Syed Zameer Jafri, Dilawar Figar and Anwer Mas’ood etc.
Generally speaking, Alvi Sahib’s views can be ratified. But he has relied too much on our beloved Prof and has given some sweeping statements. Firstly, the dissertation on humour published by Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu does have references to works of many female humorists of Urdu (the first edition of the book has an index also and it does show the names of female humorists with page numbers where their names and works have been mentioned).
Secondly, many dissertations published recently and some research works published earlier do refer to Mahmood Sarhadi, female humorists and new humorists, too. For example, Farman Fatehpuri had written on Sarhadi and the article is included in his book Urdu ki Zareefana Shaeri. Also, Sarfaraz Shahid in his compilation Urdu Mizahiyya Shaeri has included not only Sarhadi but also some new humorists as well as a good number of female humour poets. Zafar Alam Zafri in his dissertation ‘Urdu sahafat mein tanz-o-mizah’ has mentioned some female humorists.
Though the title is a bit misleading and the book does not give the sources and the date of publication of the works included, it is a refreshing work. Finally, we are celebrating women humorists, something we must have done much earlier.