Masculinist delusions in literary culture

Despite women playing a significant role in the literary arena, it has mostly been a man’s business

Rajinder Singh Bedi’s women characters are pitiably docile whereas those in Manto’s stories are the opposite.

Pakistan, or for that matter entire South Asia, is far from a gender-neutral social set-up. Effective feminist movements – aiming at dismantling, or at least destabilising, patriarchal frameworks, that could eventually result in a gender-egalitarian society – have yet to build an effective momentum. Women have been participating in the literary field for more than a century, but most of them have yet to take a real part in it. A large majority of them seems to have internalised patriarchal normativity – a tendency that has quite visibly rendered them both conformist and fatalist.

Our literature has throughout been a man’s business. Admittedly, women are playing a significant role in various literary genres; some of them also in ghazal – the mode of the dominant discourse in our literary culture and a genre originally designed to express male subjectivity: to converse with women (Gaftagoo Kardan ba ZanaaN) or to talk about women (Gaftagoo Kardan Dar Barah e ZanaaN) – as ghazal was originally to define. Of course, the genre is no more confined to its original romantic domain; it still today has certain maleness about it, if not a rigid masculinist character. Furthermore, our language itself has an overt pro-man/male bias that is arguably misogynist at its core. Not only a large number of sayings and proverbs show it, even our idiomatic expressions: Mardana waar Muqaabla Karna (To face a situation in a manly way), Paa Mardi (resistance, determination) etc., point to this bias. Lakshmi Bai, queen of the princely state of Jhansi, a cult figure in the Indian War of Independence in 1857 and a symbol of resistance to the British Raj for Indian nationalists, is paid tribute in the following manner:

Khoob Lari Mardaani/ Jhansi waali Rani.

(How manly/bravely she fought/That queen of Jhansi!)

Significantly, the praise comes from the pen of a woman poet: Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. This fact demonstrates how masculinist idiom dominates our collective psyche.

Needless not to say, there is no scarcity of the portrayal of women, but the question is: are they presented or represented? More importantly, from whose perspective is this portrayal done? Leaving aside the traditional poetry that tends to present a female figure only as a romantic object; early fiction too did not depart much from this perception. Women in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s writings are pitiably docile and have an equally suppressed sexuality. In Manto’s stories they frequently have a hyper-sexual behaviour. In both cases, one finds these women victim to or imprisoned in their own bodies.

The representation of men too has not changed much. One reason for this could be that while men writers see breaking the dominant man stereotype as a destabilising act for themselves both as individuals and collectively, women writers view such a move as too radical, almost out of their literary jurisdiction.

Whereas maleness has multifarious contours, masculinity is mostly connected to, sometimes even coterminous with, the male sexuality – a domineering, hegemonising and subjugating sexuality. Thus we see that the twin notion of masculinity and male sexuality that lies at the root of each social power structure manifests itself as a leitmotif throughout our literary tradition, both classical and modern. However, these mental constructs have lately been put to scrutiny, interestingly, by some male writers. Two short stories: Qahar E Darveesh by Shafi Mashhadi and Paaro by Muhammad Hameed Shahid, take up the issue of sexual dysfunction in their male protagonists. Mashhadi, who hails from Bihar, India, is a senior short story writer, playwright and poet. He is a former bureaucrat and retired as a member of Bihar Public Service Commission. M Hameed Shaid, from a generation younger to Mashhadi, is based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Shaid is a prolific writer both of fiction and literary criticism. While Shafi Mashhadi puts forward the case of Kallu, a married tongawallah, who following a somewhat long period of abstinence finds himself unable for the sexual act. Muhammad Hameed Shahid introduces us to a farmer-cum-player who suffers from sterility.

Both stories end with their protagonists venting their violent anger on animals: the tongawallah uncontrollably beats a pair of horses standing fondly close to each other, the other character gets his bull – which is occasionally used for stock breeding – castrated. Both short stories portray their central male figures (being) divested of their prized potency and both texts aim at puncturing the bubbles of their masculinist ego. Both are amazingly charged with emotion and important in the way that they address the psychosexual delusions of a man’s world.

In the feminist counter-narrative we have, meanwhile, a good amount of literary scholarships both in the academia and outside it. But concerted efforts to locate the masculinist mind set that abounds in our literary writings appear to be lacking.

This is the domain our literary criticism has yet to tap on – not only to comprehend the contours of the masculinist mind in our literature and (literary) culture but also in order to locate another route to reaching the women question.

The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian Literature & Culture at Vienna University.

Masculinist delusions in literary culture