Dear Women, It’s About Time We ‘Returned’ the Male Gaze

If more women were to turn a steady gaze back at the beholder, there is no knowing what the seeing eye will see.

8 min read

(This story was first published on 7 March, 2020. It has been republished from The Quint's archives on the occasion of International Women's Day.)

The woman has been both subject and predicate in a great deal of writing by male writers. In poetry she has, of course, been the subject of vast amounts of romantic, even sensuous imagery. Be it muse or mother, vamp or victim, fulsome or flawed, there has been a tendency among male writers to view a woman through a binary of 'this' or 'that', and to present women as black and white characters, often either impossibly white or improbably black.

Since men are not expected to be one or the other but generally taken to be a combination of contraries, such a monochromatic view inevitably results in women being reduced to objects, of being taken to be 'things' rather than 'people'.


Objectification of Women

That this objectification of women and the consequent dehumanisation effectively 'others' half the human population seems to escape many writers, even those ostensibly desirous of breaking stereotypes or those who see themselves as ‘liberal’, even ‘emancipated’ men.

Films, television and media have traditionally aided and abetted the idea that women are objects to be pursued and eventually won over like trophies or prizes.

Literature has fed into the trope that women are bona fide objects of sexual fantasy, or blank canvases on which men can paint their ideals, or even empty vessels into which they can pour their pent-up feelings and emotions.

The Male Gaze

Feminist theoreticians would have us believe that there is, and has always been, a traditional heterosexual way of men looking at women, a way that presents women as essentially sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. The feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975) termed this way of seeing as the 'male gaze'. Mulvey's theory was based on the premise that ‘an asymmetry of power between the genders is a controlling force in cinema; and that the male gaze is constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer which is deeply rooted in the ideologies and discourses of patriarchy’. Within a short span of time, the expression slipped into accepted usage and moved seamlessly across medium: from film to literature to popular culture.

Today, we use the term loosely to describe ways of men seeing women and consequently presenting or representing them.

In the context of Urdu, it might be useful to understand the literary world contemporary writers have inherited, and how women have been represented in Urdu fiction in the hands of the masters.


Realistic Women Characters in Urdu Short Fiction

The four pillars of the Urdu short story — Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar — are not merely the finest exponents of the genre but can also be credited with introducing a realistic portrayal of women in Urdu fiction. Their women are a far cry from the cosmetic, unnatural, almost fictionalised depictions of women that Urdu readers had hitherto encountered.

Saadat Hasan Manto was among the earliest Urdu writer to have written about women with any degree of naturalness.

He wrote about women in a way that no other writer from the Indian sub-continent had or has till today. Sadak ke Kinare (By the Roadside) was a beautiful elegy to a mother forced to abandon her baby. Here Manto, quite literally, got under the skin of a woman, and described the very physical changes that take place in a woman’s body as it prepared to nurture life deep inside it — and the equally ‘real’ physical trauma when the baby was snatched from her and tossed on a rubbish heap by the roadside, possibly because it was illegitimate and therefore not likely to be accepted by respectable society.

And again in Shahdole ka Chooha (The Rat of Shahdole) Manto talked of a mother’s despair in giving up her son as mannat at a saint’s shrine where a perfectly healthy baby was ‘miraculously’ disfigured and mutilated into a rat-boy before being sold to an itinerant tamashawala. A scathing attack on the shrines that thrive on poor, desperate and superstitious people, the story derived its punch from a mother’s steadfast desire to keep her son’s memory alive inside her heart.


Unexpected Tales About Women

Similarly, Khuda ki Qasam was a mother’s refusal to accept that her daughter may have been killed in the communal riots that heralded the partition of the sub-continent. Old, blind and nearly half-crazed with grief, she cannot believe anyone can kill a girl as beautiful as her daughter. In the end, she finds peace in death when she spots her daughter unexpectedly on the street one day, married though she is to the man who had abducted her.

A most unexpected story was Dhandas (Comfort).

A young widow is raped at a family wedding. Initially angry and inconsolable, she finds comfort in the arms of another man, one who offers comfort immediately thereafter.

In Bismillah, a woman by the strange, eponymous name, was the object of a man’s lust, though she appeared to be the legally wedded wife of another man. Saeed is attracted, in equal measure, by Bismillah’s large, sad-looking eyes as well as the lush fullness of her breasts, and torn between voyeuristic delight in a woman’s body and the prick of his own conscience. In the end, it turns out that the sullen, sphinx-like young woman is not his friend Zaheer’s wife; she is a Hindu girl who got left behind during the riots and is being forced into prostitution by Zaheer who had been, all along, posing as a loving husband and budding film-maker.


Challenging Morality & Notions of a Woman’s ‘Place’

Women occupied a central position in a great deal of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s writings too and he has etched some memorable female characters: the eponymous Kalyani and Lajwanti, Indu in Apne Dukh Mujhe De Do (Give Me Your Sorrows), Rano in Ek Chaadar Maili Si (A Slightly Soiled Sheet) and Ma in Banj (Barren Woman). Details of everyday life, no matter how small, found a place in his stories and became reflections of a larger social reality. Bedi’s stories survive the test of time because they hinge on the common and the commonplace that transcends time and circumstance. Human desires and aspiration just as much as human foibles and frailties neither change nor date; they are ageless and eternal — in men and women.

Ismat wrote bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman’s ‘place’ in society.

Given her interest in sexual matters, comparisons between her and Manto have always been inevitable. Like Manto’s Boo she faced terrible flak for her story, Lihaaf, published in Adab-e-Latif in 1942. While her interest was primarily in women, it is also true that she saw women in the larger social context. She wrote stories (Jadein) and plays (Dhaani Bankein) on communal tensions, issues that did not concern women alone but issues that can be viewed from a unique perspective because they come from a woman’s pen. She used wit and satire as tools to sharpen her depiction of social realities and give an extra edge to her pithy, flavoursome, idiomatic language, the begumaati zuban that she herself knew so well. In her hands, Urdu acquired a new zest, an added spice that made it not only more readable but also better equipped to reflect new concerns, concerns that had been hitherto considered beyond the pale of literature.


‘Showing the Way’ to Writers Like Ismat Chughtai

While Ismat was the tallest among the women writers of her generation, those who also made their mark were Hajira Masrur, Khadija Mastur, Siddiqa Begum Seoharvi, Shakila Akhtar, and Sarla Devi. None of these women, however, matched the vim and vigour of Rashid Jahan or Ismat Chughtai. Dr Rashid Jahan was Ismat's predecessor and she can be credited with, in a sense, ‘showing the way’ to writers such as Ismat.

Rashid Jahan’s desire to write stories primarily about women can be traced to her father’s decision to start a school for girls in Aligarh (the present-day Women’s College): in both we see an inherent desire for education and uplift.

Other women-centric writing came from writers such as Upendranath Ashk's short stories in Aurat ki Fitrat (‘Woman’s Temperament’), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas's collection of stories entitled Ek Ladki (‘A Girl’), Qazi Abdul Ghaffar's Laila ke Khutoot (‘Letters of Laila’).


The Woman in Urdu Poetry

In Urdu poetry, the beloved has always been a bit of a mystery wrapped in an enigma. While the voice may be that of a lovelorn woman suffering from the pangs of separation, a discontented concubine, or a young woman on the verge of marriage, the object of these passionate outpourings of both requited and unrequited love could just as well be man, woman or child! Since Urdu poetry has largely been a male preserve and there has been only a sprinkling of women poets, that too in recent times, men have produced the bulk of Urdu poetry. And it has been regarded as perfectly acceptable for men to write in women’s voices on so-called women’s issues expressing womanly concerns.

This vocal masquerade has been taking place for centuries and has been taken rather quite for granted.

Vast amounts of Urdu poetry have been written by men but narrated in the feminine voice to express both erotic and spiritual love. Incidentally, love in Urdu poetry can be ishq-e-majazi or ‘symbolic’ love, or ishq-e-haqiqi or ‘real’ love; disconcerting for the uninitiated is the realisation that the former is earthly, carnal or erotic and the latter is spiritual, sublime, mystical.


Given below is a sampling of the different voices and concerns in Urdu poetry regarding women: ranging from idealisation to deification to empathy:

Abhi raushan hua jaata hai rasta
Woh dekho aurat aa rahi hai

— Shakeel Jamali

(The road is about to be illuminated
Look, a woman is coming this way)

Chalti phirti hui aankhon se azaan dekhi hai
Main ne jannat to
nahin dekhi hai maa dekhi hai

— Munawwar Rana

(With my own eyes I have see the call to prayer
I have not seen heaven but I have seen a mother)

Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko mardon ne use bazaar diya
Jab ji chaha masla kuchla jab ji chaha dhutkar diya

— Sahir Ludhianvi

(Woman gave birth to man, men gave her the marketplace
When it suited them they crushed her or scolded her)


‘She is a Woman of the World I Live In’

Occasionally, there would be a voice such as Majaz who showed women another way of seeing their own lot:

Tere mathe pe yeh aanchal to bahut hii ḳhuub hai lekin
Tu iss aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achchha tha

(The veil on your forehead is very pretty indeed
It'd be better still had you fashioned a flag out of it)

And here's an early take on modernity, again from Majaz:

Bataoon kya tujhe ai ham-nashin kis se mohabbat hai
Main jis duniya mein rahta huun woh iss duniya ki aurat hai

(What shall I tell you my friends of her whom I love
She is a woman of the world I live in)


Something to be Said for ‘Returning the Gaze’

To conclude, let me rest my case with these words by Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“The male glance has often been described. It is commonly said to rest coldly on a woman, measuring, weighing, evaluating, selecting her — in other words, turning her into an object... What is less commonly known is that a woman is not completely defenseless against that glance. If it turns her into an object, then she looks back at the man with the eyes of an object. It is though a hammer had suddenly grown eyes and stares up at the worker pounding a nail with it. When the worker sees the evil eye of the hammer, he loses his self-assurance and slams it on his thumb. The worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approximate idea.”

While a woman is certainly no tool, nor should she know how to be ‘handled’, there is something to be said for returning the gaze — of looking back. Perhaps if more women were to turn a steady gaze back at the beholder, there is no knowing what the seeing eye will see.

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More