Break the Glass Ceiling

The intimate memoir narrates the experiences of a woman who strove to break out of the stereotypical roles imposed by society

Sebati Iyengar Delhi 

Autobiographies and biographies give us hope. A story of a person going through the trials and tribulations of life like the rest of us makes us believe that if he or she could do it, so can we! In this realm, the story of ordinary heroes, rather than publicity-studded, larger than life icons, is far more powerful. The story of Zarina Bhatty falls into this realm of personal story-telling.

At the outset, this is not a book for the literary minded. What makes the book work, and coaxes the reader to keep turning its pages, is its sheer earnestness – it is like a confidential heart-spilling conversation with another human being, the ones we remember for a long time after they’re done.

Zarina was born in Amethi, near present day-Lucknow, almost 80 years ago. Her childhood descriptions of her home, the social milieu, the interactions between men and women, Muslims and Hindus, the shahris (city dwellers) and qasbatis (landowners) are authentic and illuminating. For instance, the qasbatis were considered more cultured than their city cousins. Her own prejudices are also shared with a refreshing honesty – when her son, studying in Delhi, was told by his principal that “… Lucknow tahzeeb is reflected in the manner you walk and talk”, it simply made her day!

The presence and preponderance of a caste system amongst Muslims is reflective of how religious practices influenced each other through the ages. This same influence also found its way into the inheritance law of the Muslims – as per the scriptures, the daughter is supposed to inherit half of the son’s portion, but under the influence of Hindu practices, the Muslims too had stopped giving their daughters any inheritance. This was also found in the treatment of widows – while Islam recommended that widows be married immediately after 40 days of iddat or mourning, the Hindu norm prevailed, and widows were kept away from social occasions, and forced to wear white. 

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No matter what the time or the cause of one’s rebellion, it is likely that one finds others who have travelled down the same path. A young Zarina, in her quest for women’s empowerment, knew of her aunt, Wakeelan – who tried her best to protest against an unfair marriage and finally escaped her husband’s home. Marriage at 18, and a baby within a couple of years seems an oft repeated tale, but plucky Zarina pursued her graduation from the London School of Economics in anthropology as well as her Master’s from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). This part of her life reads like it is right out of a novel – working as a typist, making sandwiches, picking fruit, modelling for Fine Arts students, battling tuberculosis, while being integrated into the political movements of those times, including visiting Romania. The next chapter of her life is about divorce, remarriage, dealing with difficult in-laws, her three daughters, and balancing all of this with a career as a lecturer. Her direct attack on MN Srinivas and his biases is surprising; almost unprecedented.

Finally, she received employment in Jesus and Mary College, but by then her divorce was underway, followed by remarriage to a Christian.

It is only with her association with the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) that the opportunities for professional contribution opened up, and she gained access to platforms to express and influence national policy for women in various spheres. It was a chance introduction when she and her husband, Idrak, had gone to the guest house and happened to meet Ms. Ivy, the then General Secretary of the YWCA. Relationships play a vital role in her narrative.

The immediate comparison is with books like My Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani, or Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hossain, whom Zarina knew personally.This book is lighter and, its tone being that of an academic text, offers less space to explore characters and their machinations through its pages. Readers will find the book lacking in one critical aspect – details of her work and her experiences. Apart from political tussles of opportunity and a litany of her key research topics and projects, there is little mention of the professional Zarina.

Every working woman would agree that work shapes one’s personality to a significant degree – offering difficult situations and challenges to overcome. It is possible that the book was meant to focus on her sociological journey, where work is assumed to have played a less significant part.

Overall, it is a humane book, and pays homage to the everyday courage of Zarina and millions of women like her. Her involved and yet stoic approach to the dark and bright bits of her life is an inspiration for us.

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This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2016