Women Writing in Early Twentieth Century Bengal: Contesting the Formation of a New National Identity


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  • Speaker: Firdous Azim
  • Host Department: Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS)
  • Date: 03/29/2013
  • Time: 4:00 PM - 5:30 PM

  • Location: Room 1636, International Institute/SSWB, 1080 South University

  • Description:

    Women Writing in Early Twentieth Century Bengal: Contesting the Formation of a New National Identity


    Concentrating on writings by women in the early part of the twentieth century, this presentation will look at the construction of the modern Bengali Muslim woman, and the connections that can be drawn between the formation of this identity and the emergence of a notion of a Bengali nation. A plethora of Muslim-edited journals that made their appearance in early twentieth century Bengal is often seen as a manifestation of the entry of the Bengali Muslim into anti-colonial and nationalist debates. Even as part of that debate, these journals (such as Mohammadi, Nabanoor or  Saugat, to mention a few) point to the very fluid nature of the identities in the making, based as they are on religious, community and linguistic affiliations. Identity – both at the individual, or community/national level was fluid, with various dimensions being foregrounded at different times. The nation was being envisaged as an appendage to modernity, hence the lines that defined modernity at this point can also be seen as shifting, with the grounds that the envisaged modern nation was to occupy being continuously reformed and reconstituted. I will focus on the special address that these journals made to women, and how women writers responded to the call for women to enter into the sphere of writing and debate. The writers include Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, who is seen as the first Bengali Muslim feminist writer, and lesser-known ones writing from provincial towns, such as Khairunnessa Khatun. Women’s writings tend to concentrate on issues such as women’s education, women’s mobility and seclusion and paint the contours of a ‘modern’ Bengali Muslim woman. It is interesting to trace the lines along which this modernity is debated and drawn, and how the very fraught arena of early twentieth century Bengal is traversed by our writers. 


    Firdous Azim is a Professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Humanities at BRAC University, as well as a member of Naripokkho, a woman’s activist group in Bangladesh. She has published both in the fields of post-colonialism and literature and feminist issues. Her books include The Colonial Rise of the Novel (Routledge, 1993) and Infinite Variety: Women in Society and Literature (University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1996). As a contributing editor for Feminist Review, she has edited a special issue entitled South Asian Feminisms: Negotiating New Terrains. (March 2009). She was the editor of a special issue for the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies journal entitled Complex Terrains: Islam, culture and women in Asia (June 2011). Her current work researches the cultural history of women in Bangladesh.


    Co-sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Islamic Studies Program and the Department of English


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