Breaking Through

A travelling exhibition celebrates Muslim women pioneers of the twentieth century

Pathbreakers was first shown in Delhi in 2018. It is scheduled to return to its home city when public events resume. COURTESY MUSLIM WOMEN’S FORUM
31 July, 2020

It all began with a library. Intrigued when she inherited her mother’s collection of Urdu books, including the 1905 feminist novel Anwari Begum, the 76-year-old educationist Syeda Hameed began to find out more about its author, Tyeba Khedive Jung. The first Muslim woman in India to have received a university degree—in 1894—Jung was a beautiful, poised-looking woman from a nawab’s family in Hyderabad. She had also chaired the annual conference of the Hindu reformist sect, the Brahmo Samaj. “All those boundaries became irrelevant for her,” Hameed, who began to research and document the stories of other pioneers to reclaim their place in public memory, told me earlier this year.

These stories—some of them forgotten, some better known—came together as a travelling exhibition, Pathbreakers: The 20th Century Muslim Women of India, first shown in Delhi in 2018 and scheduled to return to its home city when public events resume. Produced by the Muslim Women’s Forum, Pathbreakers showcases 21 achievers from the first 50 years of independent India, who raised the country “from the blood, gore and rubble of Partition.” Hameed, who also chairs the MWF and is a former member of the Planning Commission, remarked that the women “joined Nehru and Gandhi and shed the burqa, but they were all believing, practicing Muslims.”

In March, shortly before the nationwide lockdown instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic prohibited public gatherings, Hameed and the independent practitioner Avni Sethi presented Pathbreakers in Bengaluru. The exhibition uses large, simple yet impactful banners to highlight the remarkable achievements of women such as M Fathima Beevi, the first woman Supreme Court judge; Aziza Fatima Imam, a social worker and cultural ambassador, as well as a member of the Rajya Sabha; Qudsia Zaidi, a playwright, writer and social worker who co-founded Hindustani Theatre, the first professional theatre group in independent India; and Sharifa Hamid Ali, who founded the All India Women’s Conference with peers such as Sarojini Naidu, Rani Rajwade and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. The names of Naidu and Chattopadhyay are familiar, but a lot of these lesser-known Muslim women’s names are not visible, even today.

These were unusual, multi-faceted women, often the first of their kind. Qudsia Aizaz Rasul’s memoir, From Purdah to Parliament: A Muslim Woman in Indian Politics, gives us some insight into what it was like to be breaking new ground at the time. Born into the royal family of Malerkotla—in what is today Punjab—and married to a taluqdar, Rasul had a progressive upbringing and joined politics in 1935. She became the only Muslim woman elected to the Constituent Assembly and was also the president of the Indian Women’s Federation and the Asian Women’s Hockey Federation.