Writing as an act of resistance for women living in a patriarchal society

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BM Zuhara is a Sahitya Akademi laureate writer and columnist from Kerala who writes in Malayalam. His book Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoirwhich was recently translated and published in English, traces the childhood years of the writer, who grew up in the village of Tikkodi in rural Kerala as a young Mappila girl from the Muslim community of post-independence India .

In the Preface, the author wonders if his work is a “story, or a novel, or a memoir”. The only conclusion one can perhaps draw from reading on is that it could be any of them, and it could be all of them. It is a universally known but often unrecognized truth that the classification of works – fiction and non-fiction, into various genres, is done primarily for convenience. So while the autobiographical narrative is hard to miss, the memoir also reads like a novel, almost like a bildungsroman – a novel that traces a protagonist’s journey from childhood to adulthood; though in this case, the memoir ends with young Soora leaving her home in Tikkodi for the town of Kozhikode.

Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir
BM Zuhara (translated by Fehmida Zakeer)
Yoda Press, 2022

Life writings

A memoir can be understood as an account written from the perspective of the author, focusing on a certain period of his life. Unlike an autobiography, it does not cover the entire lifetime of the author. In fact, increasingly, the term life writing is preferred to autobiography when the writing revolves around a woman’s life. Whereas autobiographies are seen as concerned with the journey through which one achieves a sense of identity or self-reliance; lifewritings views identity as relational. This is a significant difference because women in a patriarchal society tend to define themselves in terms of their relationships and therefore the impact of relationships on how women see themselves, define themselves, is to a large extent different from journey undertaken by men to arrive at a notion of self.

As the memoir unfolds, we meet Soora, as the writer is referred to by all, surrounded by a large, relatively wealthy family with complex dynamics. From the start, we see Soora as a sensitive child, who tends to burst into tears at the slightest provocation, which she is often teased about. The real and perceived slights that Soora is subjected to are primarily aimed at her physical appearance, particularly her dark complexion and her tendency to cling to her mother.

But paradoxically for a seemingly shy child, Soora’s propensity to constantly question what is established as normative behavior for a girl earns her the nickname “Tarkakozhi”, the argumentative one. What these conflicting impulses perhaps reveal is a girl who is overwhelmed by the battles big and small she constantly has to fight, a life loaded with sexual expectations, but a girl whose deepest desire is to be like Unniarcha, a mythological woman celebrated for her fearlessness. including the ballads Soora grew up listening to.

It’s a woman’s life

Some details, such as the death of Soora’s grandmother at the age of 30, when Soora’s mother was 15; or that two of Soora’s sisters were married before she was even born; reveal the grim reality of women’s lives at that time. The young girl also constantly faces taunts about being an unwanted child, and while the mother reassures her that this is a lie, the feeling of being traumatized by the possibility of this fact continues to linger in Soora’s life. Yet as the memoir unfolds, one senses that Soora’s life is still privileged where, due to her class position, she is surrounded by the simple comforts of a home where, in addition to her needs fundamentals well taken care of, her ability to go to school is aided by the presence of aides accompanying her to school – a luxury that many of Soora’s friends are not entitled to, bringing them drop out of school and get married very young.

But the intersectionality of issues that impinge on gender issues is on full display when it is discovered that class advantages offer no protection against the different types of repression that Soora faces due to her religion. Even after being admitted to a prestigious school in Kozhikode, uncertainty hangs over Soora’s life as her mother remains adamant about not allowing her daughter to wear a skirt as a uniform, as the school requires. . There is also always the constant presence of violence, or the threat of violence that this young girl is brought to face, seemingly innocuous but leaving a lasting impact.

write without room

So is it a good memory? Should you read it? Well, the answer to this question is a bit long but it’s an emphatic yes. When we look at women’s writing, we have to look at it beyond its aesthetic merits as literature. The very act of writing is an act of resistance for women living in a patriarchal society that creates many obstacles that prevent them from obtaining an education, having a room of their own or the time they could demand as his to devote to writing. Also, a memory such as The Dreams of a Mappila Girl goes beyond giving us a glimpse into the life of a young girl and offers us an intimate view of a society, a community and the lives of women who have lived in these suffocating conditions, mostly surrendering in front of their situation but sometimes daring to trace a new way of life.

Finally, a word about Fehmida Zakeer’s translation, which is so well done that the memoirs read very well. It’s no small feat for a memoir that not only evokes a way of life that may be culturally unfamiliar to many, but is also set in a past that is difficult for us to always make sense of.

Shibani Phukan teaches English at a college in Delhi University.

The featured image: Deepak H.Nath / Unsplash

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