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Women in Concert

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Women in Concert
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2915
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Subtitle: An Anthology of Bengali Muslim Women's Writings, 1904-1938
Author/Editor: Shaheen Akhtar,Moushumi Bhowmik
New Hb 395 pp.
Subject: South Asia,Gender & Sexuality,Arts & Culture
Condition: Fair
Published: 2008

Translated into English from the original Bengali anthology, Zenana Mehfil (Stree 1998), this collection of the early writings of Bengali Muslim women helps make visible women writers of undivided Bengal, before the partition of Bengal, between East Pakistan (today's Bangladesh), and West Bengal, India, in 1947. Why was so little known about these writers? Do dominating interests 'marginalize, sometimes even obliterate other histories'? Or, equally intriguing, is it the case that 'who was more silent and invisible where and who was less so, depended on the location and orientation of the listener/viewer'? These are some of the questions that propelled the editors, Shaheen Akhtar and Moushumi Bhowmik, to undertake this task.

Divided into two parts, Part I, Women's Writings, offers the contributions of eleven women, one known widely because of her brilliance as a writer and her pioneering role as a courageous social reformer: Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Choosing the date of 1904, when Begum Rokeya's first piece was published, the editors embarked on a voyage of discovery. The anthology includes Begum Rokeya's contemporaries like Khairunnesa Khatun, Mrs M. Rahman, M. Fatema Khanam and Nurunnesa Khatun Vidyavinodini. About twenty years later came Akhtar Mahal Syeda Khatun, Fazilatunnesa, the first woman student of the MA class in the University of Dhaka who then went to the UK for further studies, Mahmuda Khatun Siddiqua, and Razia Khatun Chowdhurani. The two women writers associated with Begum Rokeya were Shamsunnahar Mahmud, a writer and later a policy maker in Bangladesh, and Sufia Kamal, the famous poet and activist.

Part II, Conversations, presents discussions with Sufia Kamal, family members and relatives of the writers and eminent people who shared the political and literary concerns of those times. They include Mohammad Nasiruddin, whose journal Sangat was the launching pad of many women writers. His daughter, Nurjahan Begum, who inherited his role, reminisces about the authors she met as a child. Noted writer Syed Mustafa Siraj recollects fond memories of his mother, Anwara Begum, a poet who died very young.

This translated edition has perhaps assumed greater significance in a post-9/11 world where the images of Muslims and Muslim women have become even more one-dimensional. While reflecting on the complexity and diversity of Muslim women's lives prior to the Partition of Bengal in 1947, Women in Concert may now be read in a new light altogether, reflecting personal struggles and crises faced by Muslim women of the present times. Fridous Azmi has provided an incisive Foreword that places the book in its past and present contexts.
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