Poetry against purdah
By Ahmad Salim
30 March 2012
Pioneers of women’s liberation, Southasia’s women Sufi poets deserve to be remembered and celebrated.
Women Sufi poets were part of a widespread emancipation movement in the Indian Subcontinent and West Asia that started more than a thousand years ago and lasted till the nineteenth century. Interestingly, these poets fought for women’s rights at a time when that concept was still unformulated. This movement saw the emergence of women saints on an unprecedented scale, and was one of the most significant characteristics of the medieval age in West Asia and Southasia. Mystic women poets subverted conventional notions of gendered behaviour, helping women to defy stereotypes and break the chains of tradition and orthodoxy, which sought to control their sexuality. In the spiritual sphere of Sufism, physical distinction between male and female was often completely overlooked and the two were fused and identified. Many of the saints believed that all creation, being the product of the supreme creative power, was feminine.
Wedlock – and specifically the husband – often appears in the works of Sufi women poets as an impediment to the quest for truth, and is perceived not as a temptation but as an obstruction. It is not the husband’s beauty or other allurements that must be resisted, but his interference, even tyranny. Both Lalla Arifa, also known as Lal Ded, and Mirabai walked out on their marriages. Lalla, who was a saint and mystic from Kashmir who lived in the 14th century, was married at the age of twelve to a Brahman and was badly treated by her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law used to place a stone in her plate covered with a thin layer of food, starving the young Lalla. On the festive occasion ofgrihashanti (literally ‘peace at home’), Lalla’s friends teased her about the excellent food she would get to eat, to which she replied with the now famous verse: ‘They may kill a big sheep or a tender lamb, Lalla will have her lump of stone all right.’
This cruel upbringing encouraged her to enter the life of an ascetic. Lalla’s mother-in-law is said to have agitated her son with tales of Lalla’s infidelity. In anger her husband allegedly stoned the pot that Lalla carried on her head. Though the pot broke, the water purportedly remained frozen on her head. This terrified her husband to such an extent that he could not think of retaining her as his wife. Lalla composed many songs, most of which speak of her great longing and love for Shiva. Her poems formed an important part of Kashmiri language and culture and are still revered. Indeed, there are many similarities between her life and her near contemporary Mirabai who was married to Prince Bhoj Raj of Mewar.
Some interpret Mira’s marriage as part of a political alliance between the Ranas of Mewar and the Rathors of Jodhpur against the royal family of Mewar. Mira was born, according to some accounts, in 1493 and died in 1546 in a village called Kudki near Merta City in modern day Rajasthan. She is believed to have been the daughter of Ratna Singh of the Medtiya Rathor clan. Her paternal great-grandfather, Jodhaji, founded Jodhpur. Mira’s bhakti, her devotional practice, first became conflicted when her husband’s family attempted to remould her, as their new daughter-in-law. Many of Mira’s verses refer to her ill treatment:
The mother-in-law fights
The sister-in-law teases
The Rana is angry
They guard me
They spy on me
Imprison me with heavy locks.
Modern scholars have taken great pains to argue that Mira ‘lived happily with her husband’ until his death, and then turned to intense Krishna bhakti as a sort of compensation. However, the accepted tradition is at variance with this view. Nagaridas, a bhakta of the Vallabh Sampradaya, who also happened to belong to the same Rathor clan as Mira, in his verses composed in 1743 says that Mira was offered poison because she preferred the company of other devotees to physical contact with her husband. Legend has it that Mira remained a virgin. Considering herself wedded to Krishna, she refused to consummate the marriage. She posited god as husband and lover, even an adulterous one. In her songs, she adopts a demanding tone and reproaches god for neglecting her. Joy resides in presence, pain in absence. But while she experiences the pain of separation and longs for union with god, she also repeatedly says that god is within her: ‘The doctor dwells within the sick one, the doctor alone knows the cure.’ In two of her songs she describes herself as ‘virgin through life after life’.
The conflict with her in-laws escalated after Mira became a widow. Vikramjit Singh, her brother-in-law, did not like Mira’s attitude. He thought that Mira should not socialise freely, as it was below the dignity of the royal family. The idea that a woman be allowed to step out of the house was inconceivable; Vikramjit made every effort to stop her from joining the congregational meetings. Many of the Sufi poets are perceived as rebels against injustice of various kinds perpetrated by the established order, but Mira is perhaps the only one in the Subcontinent whose rebellion was against injustice within the family and kinship group.Married to godQurat-al-ain Tahira, born in the 19th century and a follower of Ali Muhammad Bab, the founder of the Baha’i faith, was a famous Iranian Sufi poetess who refused to live with her husband as he did not accept her religion. Her paternal uncle, Haji Mullah Taqi, who was also her father-in-law, cursed Bab for her actions and punched her. At this she said: ‘Uncle, I see your mouth filled with blood.’ Her father tried his best to restore relations between husband and wife but Tahira would not yield, saying that her husband, not having accepted the truth, was khabith (impure). She further held that this amounted to divorce and therefore no formal divorce was needed. Her father-in-law was murdered by the Babis on account of his hostility, and it was suspected that Tahira had incited the murder. She fled to Khurasan and was later divorced formally by her husband.
When Bab was persecuted for an assassination attempt on Nasiruddin Shah, the king of Iran, Tahira was persecuted for plotting the murder of her father-in-law and for following Baha’ism. To a minister of Persia, in whose house she was imprisoned, she said: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.’ When she was presented to Nasiruddin Shah, he said, ‘Let this beautiful woman go.’ While she was imprisoned, the king wrote her a letter in which he said that if she left Baha’ism and became a Muslim, he would marry her. Tahira wrote back that kingship, respect and government were for him, and wandering like a faqir was for Tahira. If he thought that his status was good, he should keep it for himself. The king was not in favour of persecuting Tahira. However, without his knowledge she was carried to a garden and strangled. For her execution she put on her best attire, as if she were going to a bridal party.
Zeb-un-nisa, Aurangzeb’s daughter, remained unmarried. She was a poet, a scholar of Arabic and Persian, a hafiza of the Quran and an excellent calligraphist. Born on 15 February 1638, she was the eldest child of Aurangzeb and his chief queen, Dilras Bano Begum. Zeb-un-nisa had two sisters and two brothers, of the latter, Azam Alijah was born in 1653 and the young prince Akbar was born in 1657. Since Dilras Bano Begum died while giving birth to the child, the responsibility of caring for Akbar fell upon the nineteen-year-old Zeb-un-nisa. Her love and affection for her brother remained unaffected by the vicissitudes of fortune he suffered.
Zeb-un-nisa was an active patron of learning and her court was a literary academy of sorts, crowded with renowned scholars and poets of the time. She spent most of her annual allowance of four hundred thousand rupees on patronising them. Unlike her father she was not of an orthodox disposition; instead, she shared the liberal, mystic bent of mind of her equally distinguished aunt, Jahan Ara. The stories of her flourishing love affair with Aqil Khan circulated among a few people. However, this is controversial as history books written in Persian do not endorse their love affair. Many people go as far as declaring that this love affair was the main reason for her conflict with Aurangzeb, and also for her remaining unmarried all her life. Some believe that Zeb-un-nisa’s literary activities and the subsequent praise accorded to her rendered her so high-headed that she denied living as a wife. A few believe that she lost interest in the world because of her father’s cruel treatment of her brothers and cousins. Others are of the opinion that she did not marry because her father had engaged her to Dara Shukoh but later killed him. This political action by her father left her strongly disappointed, and she refused to marry anyone.Purdah, nudity and public dancingMysticism helped these women transcend normally revered feminine virtues of beauty, modesty and gentleness. Several women mystics showed complete freedom from inhibition and defied all attempts to control their sexuality. Lalla is said to have discarded her clothes and danced naked. In her Vaakh, Lalla sang:
Lalla, think not of things that are without
Fix upon thy inner self thy thought
So shall thou be freed from doubt.
Dance then, Lalla, clad but in the sky
Air and sky, what garment is more fair?
Cloth, says custom, (but) does that satisfy?
When Lalla was asked why she wandered around naked, the answer would be: ‘Because there are no men in Kashmir.’ One day, near Srinagar, she saw Shah Hamadan, considered to be one of the greatest patron saints of Kashmir, approaching and realised that here was a real man and ran to hide herself in a grocer’s shop. However, she was turned away because of her scandalous state, whereupon she jumped into the nearby baker’s oven. The poor baker was stunned, even more so when he saw Lalla emerge from the burning oven fully clothed in green coloured garments of Paradise. It remains the most renowned tale associated with her, indelibly enshrined in the current Kashmiri proverb ayeyi wa ‘nis gay iandras (she [Lai Ded] had gone to the grocer but [instead] arrived at the bakers).
Mira did not observe the purdah and publicly danced with anklets on her feet, singing ‘Pag ghunghroo bandh Mira nachi re’ (Mira dances with anklets on the feet). Since anklets and dancing were associated with courtesans or devadasis in contemporary society, Mira’s dancing in public like a nautch-girl showed the extent of her defiance. She declared, ‘I have given up the norm of family honour, what can anyone do to me?’ The Rana’s hostility appears to have taken the form of an attempt to kill Mira. The incident of his sending her a cup of poison, which according to legend turned into nectar when she drank it, is repeatedly referred to in her songs.Caste and religionThe rigours of caste did not weigh heavily on most women saints. Mira, belonging to a princely Rajput family, found in untouchable Raidas her ideal guru. But none of the women mystics made a conscious effort to critically examine or overturn the existing caste system, and in many cases the overtones of protest are to be found not so much in the perceptions of women saints, as in the very fact of their emergence.
One of the current controversies about women Sufi poets is about their religion. Were they Hindu or Muslim? Were they yoginis, or as the Sufis refer to women who attain gnosis, arifa? In a study, the scholar Jayalal Kaul claims that Lalla was an adherent of the Trika School of Kashmiri Saivism, a branch of Hindu mysticism that arose in Kashmir during the 13th and 14th centuries. However, as Kaul himself points out, the earliest recorded mention of Lalla is in a chronicle by a Muslim, Dawud Mishkati, and his Asrar-ul-Abrar (Secrets of the Pious), written in 1654 AD. Kaul also states that while there were Hindu chronicles in Sanskrit written earlier than 1654, none of these mention Lalla. As stated by Dawud Mishkati, Lalla ‘was one of those who wander in the wilderness of love, wailing and lamenting for the Beloved’, and he refers to her as Lalla Arifa. Mishkati uses such Islamic spiritual idioms to describe Lalla as, ‘a knower of the path of the Valley of Truth (haqq)’. The author cites the spiritual master Nasir-ud-din as having written about Lalla:
Passion for God set fire to all she had
And from her heart rose clouds of smoke
Having a draught of ahd-e-alast
Intoxicated and drunk with joy was she
One cup of this God-intoxicating drink
Shatters reasons into bits…
Muslim writers also do not consider Lalla’s Brahmin ancestry something to fuss over, comparing her to the great Muslim woman saint, Rabiya of Basra. Tarikh-i-Hasan, a generally well-accepted history of Kashmir written by a Muslim in 1885 says:
The saintly lady Lalla Arifa, a mystic of the highest order, was a second Rabiya … this chaste lady was born in a Brahmin family in the village of Sempor. During the early days of her life she was under the influence of an extraordinary spell of ecstasy – she was married at Pampor.
The works of Zeb-un-nisa also celebrate interfaith harmony between Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Her brothers, Aurangzeb’s sons Azam and Akbar, were both dissatisfied with her, and neither wished to see her Diwan because it did not accord with accepted modes. In a few verses she refers to the fire, which consumes and purifies; in one of her poems she describes a Brahmin ascetic: ‘The knotted veins his wasted body bears, Are like unto the sacred thread he wears.’ In one poem, Zeb-un-nisa speaks of her own sacred thread, which is a Hindu concept. There also are several references to biblical themes in her work: she compares her suffering with that of Ayub (Job); there is the idealisation of the psalms of David, King of Israel, in one of her poems; Yaqub (Jacob) is mentioned several times, as is Noah. Zeb-un-nisa hopes, above all, to see her prayers answered as Solomon’s were, and further on she regrets that she will never be able to follow Abraham, Friend of God, to contemplate the Holy Kaaba. She writes: ‘Alas, the torch of Moses has not guided her’.
Sufi women poets’ revolt against male hegemony was based not just on social but also on intellectual grounds. They excelled in debate and discussion, continuing the tradition initiated by Rabiya Basri, the most famous eighth century woman Sufi, from Basra in present day Iraq. She ran down the streets, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other, saying that she wanted to set heaven on fire and extinguish the flames of hell so that the seekers of god could rip down the veils of distraction and focus on the true goal – the Divine Beloved. She was born into poverty, and after her father’s death, when there was a famine in Basra, she was parted from her family. It is not clear how, but she came to be travelling in a caravan that was set upon by robbers. She was taken by the robbers and sold into slavery. Her master worked her very hard, but at night, after finishing her chores, Rabiya would turn to meditation and prayers. One day the master of the house espied her at her devotions. There was a divine light enveloping her as she prayed. Shocked that he kept such a pious soul as a slave, he set her free. Rabiya went into the desert to pray and became an ascetic. Unlike many Sufi saints, she did not learn from a teacher or a master, but turned to god himself. Rabiya introduced the concept of Divine Love and the idea that god should be loved for his own sake, and not out of fear.
Once it happened that Hassan Basri, her contemporary male mystic, laid his prayer mat on the surface of a body of water and invited her to say prayers on it. Instead of being impressed, Rabiya said that showing off this sacred ritual was not apt in this bizarre world. Rabiya laid her prayer mat in the air and said, ‘Let’s say our prayers at a height so that everyone comes to know the significance of prayers.’ Another time, Hassan Basri and some others visited Rabiya. Her house was dark. When the visitors asked for light, Rabiya lifted her principal finger and light emanated from it. In that light they kept talking till morning. Rabiya Basri said, ‘Live your life like a candle so that people draw light from you and you can enlighten the world.’Memory and forgettingOur knowledge of most women mystic poets is inadequate. This is partly because, unlike male saints, only a few of them established a steady following with disciples to preserve accounts of their lives and compositions. Several male mystic poets gained recognition in their lifetimes and are well known even today because they established a steady following of disciples. They also attained a symbolic significance. For instance, mystic poets from lower caste groups, who referred to the injustice they encountered, or who were constructed through legend as having encountered such injustice (Kabir and Ravidas, for example), became symbolic heroes in movements promoting self-respect among the lower castes. Although they may not have tried to set up sects, groups of people chose to name themselves after these mystics, explicitly identifying with the egalitarian implications of their teachings. Even today, Kabirpanthis and Raidasis are organised bodies of opinion whose faith has a political and social dimension.
None of the women mystics were adopted as symbols in any such modern-day movement for self-respect amongst women, even though their lives and works would seem to lend themselves very well to such a role. Rabiya Khuzdari’s revolt against stern social restrictions and her consequent death excited general sympathy and invested her with a halo of romantic idealism, but she is not remembered for her revolt against social injustice or for being a martyr for the cause of women’s emancipation. Her love story is one of the main cultural myths of Khuzdar, Balochistan. Considered the first poetess of the Persian language, she was the daughter of Amir Ka’ab, general of the Sassanid Dynasty whose rule started in 272 AD. Rabiya was in love with Baktash, a soldier and faithful slave of her brother Harris. When the love affair of Rabiya and Baktash was at its peak, a neighbouring king attacked Harris’s country. At one stage during the battle, Baktash was surrounded by enemies and was about to fall down. Suddenly a veil-wearing horse rider speedily appeared on the battlefield, quickly picked up wounded Baktash and rode away. It was later disclosed that the horse rider was none other than Rabiya. News of Rabiya and Baktash’s love reached Harris, who decided to punish them both. He arrested Baktash and put him in a dry well. To punish his sister, he ordered the veins of her hands to be cut and then put her in a cell. Before her death, Rabiya wrote many verses of her poetry on the walls with her own blood. Soon afterwards, Baktash escaped from confinement and killed Harris. Then he went to the grave of Rabiya and committed suicide.
Rabiya is well known and remembered in Afghanistan, Iran and Balochistan, and more specifically in Khuzdar, where various organisations and monuments exist in her memory. Two organisations in Khuzdar are named after her, as is a main road and a public library. But only a few of Rabiya’s own verses are available; the rest of her poetry has disappeared in the course of the centuries.
Similarly, there are neither monuments nor relics to commemorate Lalla Arifa, nor has she a steady following of disciples or organisations going by her name. The accounts of her life are also surrounded by myths and legends. Like her birth, her death is also legendary. In one version, her end came behind the wall of Juma Masjid at Vejibror, nearly thirty miles southeast of Srinagar, where she is said to have disappeared in a flash of light. Another version says that one day Lalla sat in a large earthenware vessel and placed another on top. Nothing happened as such, but when finally the upper vessel was removed, there was nothing inside. She was gone without a trace. As one scholar says that it is ‘a matter of surprise that there should not have been a samadhi (temple) or maqbara (tomb) to mark the place where her body was cremated or laid to rest’ in a region renowned for widespread sacred memorabilia. The only thing close to such a commemoration is now a dry pond. Given the internecine strife in Kashmir, one does not know its current state, and chances are it too has disappeared from sight. In other words, there is really nothing concrete to ‘show’ that Lalla ever existed.
Yet that Lalla was an actual person is corroborated by some of the greatest saints of Kashmir, both Hindu and Muslim, and subsequently also by numerous hagiographers and historians. But the greatest witness is the Lalla Vaakh, a collection of profound spiritual poetry that has been studied by numerous scholars. It is important to note that these verses live on in the oral tradition of Kashmir, and enjoy a stature similar to the poetry of Mira, Kabir, Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Guru Nanak and other great mystic poets and saints of the subcontinent.
[eds: This is an edited version of a previously published work.]
~ Ahmad Salim is a Pakistani poet, journalist, translator, historian, and archivist.