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‘No one heard me!’: sexual self-fashioning and the child in ‘Lihāf’

Published in Taylor & Francis
Volume: 14
Issue: 4
Pages: 467 - 484

‘Lihāf’ by Ismat Chughtai is widely read as a tale of feminist and queer rebellion but it also narrates a complex account of a young girl’s initiation into sexuality as a result of her molestation by a much older woman. In this narratological study that also draws upon the historical context of the Urdu world of letters which framed Chughtai’s own self-fashioning as a writer and intellectual, I argue that the case for a feminist and queer-positive reading of ‘Lihāf’ often misses or downplays the sexual molestation of the narrator as a child and remains inattentive to the ways in which Chughtai constructs conflict and tension between the two voices that narrate the story: that of the adult narrator, a Muslim woman, who opens the tale and then, deploying the voice and perspective of a child, recalls and reconstructs the memory of the fateful events of her childhood. Central to my reading is the point of view of the child whose movement in and through the female-dominated zenānā re-presents the case for viewing ‘a women’s utopia’ in dystopic ways. By splitting the female perspective into two overlapping realms – those of the adult and the child – Chughtai rewrites desire as experienced by the ‘New Woman,’ a historical figure of feminist emancipation often identified in established literary and critical readings with Begum Jān. Such an identification, I argue, is, in fact, unidimensional and is trenchantly undermined in the story by the brutal and intersecting logic of patriarchal domination and class exploitation, a logic at whose fulcrum is the figure of the child as the dark Other of the New Woman.

About the journal
JournalSouth Asian History and Culture
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Open AccessNo