During my research on the ghazal, I discovered that the work done by several women poets in the eighteenth and nineteenth century had been removed from written history. Women had systematically been excluded from several anthologies. In Urdu, as oral poetry started being complied and printed, the biographies penned by poet and historian Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914) were revered. Hali was a conservative with strong views on the position of women. He felt, “their presence tarnished the image […] especially the ghazal – in premodern times” (Kugle CSOSSATE 66). Gradually, many of these female ghazal poets drifted into folklore with their lives and works represented only through undocumented oral tales. Today, there is scholarship and research done to establish the works of such poets, for instance, the case of Mah Laqa Bai (1768-1824). Once called, “hasinan-i-bazari”, today, she is rightfully acknowledged for her tremendous poetic legacy.
To unpack this further, I began reading up on how knowledge works; who controls what we read and how we read, the so-called “gatekeepers” of literature. It led me to Michel Foucault’s work and what he calls: “subjugated knowledges”. He points out how “historical contents have been buried and disguised in a functionalist coherence or formal systemization” (81). Therefore, it is very much about power, and the assertion of certain established formats.
I recently discovered an article on “How lapis lazuli helped uncover the role of women in the creation of medieval manuscripts” – once again: “Prior to this discovery, it was thought that mainly men were allowed to write such manuscripts, whose graphics were drawn using luxurious paints, including gold leaf and ultramarine, a rare and expensive blue pigment made from lapis lazuli.” It seems as though we run around the same proverbial bush, not willing to see the enormous artistry and workmanship produced by women.
These layers of patriarchal sedimentation will take centuries to remove, and they will continue to question the balance of power. It will not be easy claiming the rightful space for intellectual labor produced by women. The road is clearly uphill.
Yet, climb we must, for the sake of women, as well as men.