South Asia Institute
South Asia Institute

Gender Symposium

Fri, November 16, 2012 | GAR 1.122

12:00 PM - 2:00 PM

"I am a Ruby Wrapped in a Rag" – The Poetry of a Secluded Woman in early 20th Century India

by Professor Gail Minault

Zay Khay Sheen, or Zahida Khatun Sherwani (1894-1922), in an intriguing figure in early 20th century Indian literature and history.  An accomplished poet, she observed complete purdah, to the point of never leaving her family home in Aligarh district in northern India.  She also kept her identity under wraps, to the extent that admirers of her poetry, which appeared in Urdu literary magazines during her lifetime, were unsure whether she was male or female.  For all her isolation and anonymity, she is nevertheless an important example of early women writers of Urdu, who expressed themselves in prose and poetry in the literary periodicals of the day, giving voice not only to women’s identity and social concerns, but also to involvement in the many political and cultural movements of the early Indian nationalist movement. The question to be addressed here is whether her writings, mostly poetry, can be considered autobiographical, or whether a self-portrait can be gleaned from her poetry. This case study will address the overall question of whether poetry can be deemed a source for individual or social history, or whether its images and emotions capture universals that make poetry a poor source for historical and autobiographical specificity.

Gail Minault is a Professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Texas.  She is the author of Secluded Scholars: Women's Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India (1998), and Gender, Language, and Learning: Essays in Indo-Muslim Cultural History (2009).


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