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Expanding the Scope of Women's Work: Narratives of Economic Precarity and Medical Practice in Muhammadi Begham's Urdu Novels


· Mohammed Afzal Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi (Delhi, India)


07/27 | 11:00-11:20 UTC+2/CEST


This paper seeks to investigate how the fictional works of Muhammadi Begham (1878-1908), the first women editor of the Urdu magazine Tehzib-un Niswan, dealt with the question of women’s paid work in the age of feminism. Her editing and publication of the autobiographical account of a Muslim widow Ashrafunnisa, who accepted a teaching job at Victoria Girls’ School in Lahore to sustain herself, contributed to the destigmatisation of women’s employment in twentieth-century north India. Muhammadi’s novel Sharif Beti (1908) represents the female protagonist’s negotiations with the contending demands of respectability and economic adversity. The stories of respectable women’s struggle with financial difficulties in her works brought out the unsuitability of the gendered division of labour in the lower strata of society, exposing the elitism of the male reformist agenda that confined women to the interior of the house. This justification of women’s contribution to household income sought to revise the idea of respectability in the changing economic conditions of ashraf families in twentieth-century north India. Safiya Begham (1902) articulates the tensions created by a Muslim woman’s practice of medicine in a north Indian family that insists on the observance of purdah, highlighting the dilemmas women confronted in an age which subordinated the women’s question to the interests and solidarity of the larger community.