Rediscovering colonial Bengal’s Muslim women writers

Muslim women writers in Bengali were reasonably prolific in colonial Bengal. However, contemporary readers of Bengali literature are unaware of their work in both fiction and non-fiction. How is it that the writing of an entire demographic has failed to become institutionalised in the widely-researched field of Bangla sahityer itihas or Bengali literary history?

This is the primary question that drives my PhD programme at the IITB-Monash Research Academy. As a corollary, I also ask how we may disinherit the priorities that created these exclusions, and suggest productive paradigms through which colonial Bengal’s Muslim women writers can be read in the twenty-first century.

To begin with, we will need to go back in time a little.

The Bengali literary canon revolves largely around the work of Hindu male writers. Yes, Muslim male writers find mention in certain titles of Bengali literary history by male Muslim historians, but the only Bengali Muslim woman writer whose work has been recognised to some extent is Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.

This is not to say that Hindu and Brahmo women writers are institutionalised to any recognizable extent within the field of Bangla sahityer itihas either. However, the work of such women writers has been brought to the forefront by a dedicated group of feminist literary scholars working within a field that can be described as early Bengali women’s writing. These scholars have mined the writing of Hindu and Brahmo women writers from colonial Bengal to examine the ways in which Bengali women’s subject hood was produced within the anti-colonial nationalist narrative.

The work of the Muslim women writers that I work on do not fit into these existing paradigms of scholarship. I, therefore, work at the intersection of Bangla sahityer itihas and early Bengali women’s writing to examine how canons are formed and how canonical exclusion operates.

Some of the questions that have dogged me for long are:

– Who is to say what is ‘good’ literature?
– Who is heard when they speak along these lines?
– Who are the gatekeepers of the Bengali literary sphere and how do they operate?

My work focuses on the specific case of colonial Bengal’s Muslim women writers to answer questions that are fundamental to the field of literary study in any language.

Shamsunnahar Mahmud

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain


My research relies on two key methodical aspects among others—archival research and translation. During the summer of 2017, I discovered the work of the Muslim women writers I have chosen to focus on in five libraries in and around Kolkata. More work by such women writers exist in libraries in Dhaka. However, these works are not yet catalogued under a label such as ‘colonial Bengali Muslim women’s writing.’ So my work in the archives will help to carve out such a category and will create a repository of works fitting such a description. The work of future researchers can further enrich this inaugural repository.

All my primary material is in Bengali. This consists of eight texts ranging between the length of 60 and 400 pages. I have translated all this material into English and will be publishing some of them soon. As a result, this material will be made available to a much larger reading public than such work has commanded ever before. Hopefully, English-language translations of these works will also generate more research interest in the field of Bengali Muslim women’s writing.

Literary canons are built through deliberate exclusion of the writing of people on the periphery. Canon-making is neither unconscious, nor neutral. The onus is on readers to recognize this, learn about the systems of representation and circulation that its biases and omissions indicate, and remedy it as best they can.
Feminists and representatives of religious, caste-based, racial and sexual minorities have, in the last few decades, called for revision of literary canons to include previously undiscovered, but prolific and insightful, writers. However, as a prerequisite to this task, it is necessary to map the exclusionary gestures through which such canons operate and to question whether it would be better to expand canons, revise them, or abjure the idea of canons altogether. My work will hopefully go some way in answering such questions.
As graduate research scholars of the IITB-Monash Research Academy, we study for a dually-badged PhD from IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich our research experience. The Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen academic relationships between the two countries.

Research scholar: Sreejata Paul, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Gender and public sphere

Supervisors: Dr Paulomi Chakraborty and Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty

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The above story was written by Sreejata Paul. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.