Muslim Women’s Writing from across South and Southeast Asia

Voice of the Veiled

By Sara Danial | February 2023

Edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Doaa Omran, the book ‘Muslim Women’s Writing from across South and Southeast Asia’ is a stellar collection of stories by about 22 South and Southeast Asian Muslim women. With a global and modern-day approach to essays, the book covers memoirs, oral narrations, poetry as well as social media and navigates the social, cultural, political, and contentious circles.

The book includes both known and unfamiliar authors and is primarily divided into several themes to highlight the geographical and transnational perspectives, with a major focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The book ‘Muslim Women’s Writing from Across South and Southeast Asia’ offers a critical erudition for readers looking to delve into the diverse convictions and comparisons of Southern Asian writing to familiarize themselves with the fledgling circuit of Muslim women’s writing. This timely and thought-provoking luminary intends to give voice to visionary women who often go unnoticed and unheard.

This palimpsest has a canon of Muslim women’s writing, particularly of those who negotiated their identities of being Indian and Muslim while being behind purdah and yet westernized. Writing in the language of the colonizer, while bringing up nationalistic topics in their writings is how they spoke against both patriarchy and colonial forces. This enabled many Indian women writers at an intellectual crossroads, to negotiate their identities and question how their Muslim identities formed in new “contact zones,” to put it in Mary Louise Pratt’s words. Amany Elsawy’s chapter (22) reads indigenous women characters in Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) in comparison with the Indonesian Siti Rukiah’s The Fall and the Heart (1950) during revolutionary periods, showing the similarities in concerns of both the southern Asian and Southeast Asian women writers.

Muslim women have been stereotyped by Western academia as oppressed and voiceless. As new literature developed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, Muslim women continued to write of their particular concerns. Sobia Kahan’s chapter (8) discusses spiritual women writers. Hindu–Muslim conflicts pervade and permeate writings from Kashmir, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, for instance, direct their violence specifically against Muslims, while also targeting the Sinhalese. In an essay on Hashmi’s The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, a gender-bending novel, in Chapter 6, Umme Al-Wazedi handles the gutsy outward movement of Muslim young women from Afghanistan.

In bringing together the writings of Muslim women from southern and Southeast Asia, the book also attempts to explore the movements and migrations of people, their cultures, and their ideas, over the “thousand plateaus” of migrations and colonialisms as Deleuze and Guattari (1987) would say.

The authors have endeavoured to keep the essays straightforward in describing the issues that concerned Muslim women and permeated their experiences like those of the mothers of the war dead, that Debali Mookerjea Leonard, writes about in Chapter 10.

Debali Mookherjee’s essay documents the role and plight of women and mothers in the 1986 border war between India and Bangladesh. In Chapter 11, Hafiza Nilofer Khan similarly documents the horrors perpetrated on women’s bodies, particularly those who are birangonas or Bangladeshi war heroines by the continuing religious and communal strife as do some of the essays on Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan surveys the turmoil in Kashmir from a personal, familial perspective. Nor Faridah and Ruzy Suliza Hashim’s essay (Chapter 15) similarly recounts family history in Malaysia, and is in some ways similar to the concerns expressed in Nyla Ali Khan’s chapter (3) regarding her family’s experience in Kashmir though not quite so oppressive.

Such vivid descriptions of the horrors perpetrated on women’s bodies as a result of communal strife, as in Hafiza Nilofer Khan’s chapter (11), did not intend to create a problematic image of Islam in India or South Asia. However, they are simply aimed at showing the significance and scope of work produced by women writers and scholars. Most chapters speak realistically and positively about Muslim women, their writings, and their concerns.