The home, the veil and the world: Reading Ismat Chughtai towards a 'progressive' history of the Indian women's movement

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This paper discusses the work of Ismat Chughtai (1911-1991), a controversial writer whose long literary career extending over four decades roughly corresponds to the formative stages of the Indian women's movement. It interprets Chughtai's novella The Heart Breaks Free (1966) to forward an anti-teleological enquiry of the women's movement in India. This progressive teleology often suggested by a discussion of the 'waves', 'stages' or 'phases' of the Euro-American women's movement and adopted to postcolonial women's movements, such as those in India, Jamaica and South Africa, is belied by the piecemeal legislative gains won by activist efforts. Some of the questions governing my enquiry are: What lessons can a questioning of teleology teach us about the gains and losses of postcolonial women's movements? If the alternative to teleology is, as I suggest, a genealogy, then what constitutes a genealogical enquiry into the women's movement in India? In face of apparent and selfacknowledged losses and ineffectiveness in recent times, would the movement's apparent unity across religious differences be a way of initiating such an inquiry or is another mode of analysis required? The paper directs attention to the Indian women's movement's attempts at bringing together women of different religious persuasions, legislative, and religious edicts related to Muslim women's right to co-habitation and divorce, and 'cases' that serve as testing points of the movement's struggle against religious and state authority. It also points to the neglected factor of economic security for women as a way in which a genealogical inquiry can proceed so as to strengthen the legislation and the movement itself.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-44
Number of pages18
JournalFeminist Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2010


  • Indian
  • Muslim
  • divorce
  • legislation
  • women's movement


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