The Phenomenal Woman
Purdah to Piccadilly, a memoir by Zarina Bhatty is just like its 82 year old author. It is a delightfully simple, straightforward, matter of fact but full of giggles story that is immensely inspiring.
Zarina lays bare her life from the moment of her birth in Lucknow in 1933 into a large traditional family that observed purdah, to another kind of seclusion experienced by her today in the mountains in Mussoorie.
In between Lucknow and Mussoorie she spent about a decade in London in the 1950s, studying, earning and keeping home as mother and wife. After her studies in Sociology and Political Science at the London School of Economics, Zarina returned home to teach at the University of Delhi.
Two marriages, one divorce and a tuberculosis and cancer scare later, this mother of three daughters and four grandchildren says that she is happy with the way she led her life and to be doing 'nothing' now.
Today she looks back fondly on a life that allowed her to lecture extensively in India and abroad on Indian Muslim women's issues, propelling her professionally to emerge as one of the country's leading gender specialists.
In Farsi Zarina means golden and the author admits to having lived a life most dazzling which has been as rich in experience as gold.
Recalling her humble past as the daughter of a middle class family with an illiterate grandmother and a mother who had no schooling except Urdu that she was taught at home, Zarina talks with much pride of a granddaughter who studies to be an architect at America's University of Berkeley.
The purpose of writing her memoirs is not because the author has illusions of being an important person but to record the social changes that she observed and experienced during eight decades of her life in her community, region and country. The hope is that the gender equality initiated by her generation is carried forward in such a way that every one in the country irrespective of gender, caste and class is able to fully utilize their potential for the common good of society.
It was important for her to write Purdah to Piccadilly as she wanted to share with others how she was able to fulfill her dreams and aspirations unmatched both by her personal circumstances and by the socio cultural environment of her time. Zarina concludes her story by wishing that everyone, especially women have the strength to move ahead despite all obstacles.
“I have done it, and so can you,” Zarina writes, recalling experiences both personal and professional in a most engaging and frank way.
This simple sentence inspires much food for thought at a time when most Muslim women continue to struggle to be happy in life and when the continuing practice of the Muslim Personal Law is a serious stumbling block for the improvement of Muslim women's progress especially when the law in now regarded as a symbol of Muslim identity.
Although a lot has changed since Zarina was a little girl, lots more change is required for more women to be as happy as Zarina is. It was mostly her attitude of knowing what she wanted in life, her tremendous will power and hard work that in the end got Zarina where she is today, in a space most satisfying.
For during her growing up years, Zarina recalls that there was much disapproval of any unconventional behaviour and a great deal of emphasis was laid on age and gender specific and socially prescribed conduct. This code of behaviour was more rigidly applied to women and girls than to boys and men as society was more indulgent towards the deviant behaviour of boys and men than toward that of girls and women, and the social sanctions were less harsh for boys and men.
Zarina was forever corrected for what was considered unseemly behviour for girls such as walking fast, jumping and running around, asking questions and talking loudly. For a woman's voice was not supposed to be heard in men's men quarters and she was constantly reminded that she was a girl, and girls could not behave like boys.
Femininity was defined as having a delicate physique, a dependent nature, being quiet docile, obedient, soft spoken, unquestioning, not argumentative and accepting the gender based code of behaviour unconditionally.
Literally an open book, Purdah to Piccadilly is an astonishing journey of an incorrigible girl child from a land owning family in the countryside in Uttar Pradesh where her elders never tired of chiding her that she did nothing right.
How Zarina managed to overturn all the thumbs down into a life changing thumbs up is what Purdah to Piccadilly is about.
Purdah to Piccadilly by Zarina Bhatty is published by Sage Publications; 2016