DAWN The Review, May 13-19, 1999
Portrayal of Women in the Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto
There seems to be no rest for the poor soul of Saadat Hasan Manto. While he was alive the conservatives held him in abuse for advocating women's freedom. Now, in the so-called post-feminist age of literary criticism he seems to have become a popular target for energetic novices of criticism who see him as one who objectified women and portrayed them as sex toys. Let's try to place him in perspective.
What we call feminism is a new philosophy. It didn't come in vogue until the 1960's and there is no unanimously agreed definition except that a feminist view point emerges out of (a) one's awareness that patriarchal systems exploit women through numerous institutions, and (b) one's willingness to do something to improve the entire system. A true feminist activism would not seek solutions for individual women but would rather focus on changing the system that is the source of problems. Hence the feminist slogan, the personal is the political. This awareness and activism is feminism, whether it is left wing (based on socialist analysis of exploitation) or mainstream right wing (seeking redress through liberal democratic measures.)
It doesn’t mean that there was no feminist awareness before the 1960's. Mary Wollstonecraft lived in the heyday of eighteenth century romanticism, J.S. Mill and Fredrick Engel, the two fathers of feminism both lived in the nineteenth century and Simon de Beauvoir's Second Sex was first published in 1949. Also, there was the suffragist activism of the first wave feminism. These and a few others serve as examples of a feminist vision in the pre-feminist times, and it is safe to assume that some of those people had a very different concept about their own philosophies than we have about them today. What makes them a feminist in retrospect is their stand for the unconditional freedom of women.
There were others, less radical advocates of women's freedom. They proposed conditional freedom for women within the existing patriarchies. Today we see their point of view as a sort of utilitarian feminism (technically called "eugenic feminism" by some scholars). This was awareness that women are not allowed to participate in the overall welfare of the society and therefore they should be educated and given better opportunity. In our own recent history we can quote the works of such authors like Deputy Nazir Ahmed, Hali, Syed Imtiaz Ali and Rashid ul Khairi to illustrate this view point. However, this sort of utilitarian feminism did not question the larger patriarchal system and therefore advised women to accept it with a few improvements in their role. In other words, the eugenic feminists wanted women to get better educated so that they could better serve the patriarchy.
When we come to Manto, we find him half-way between this eugenic feminism and left wing socialist feminism. As a student of socialism he recognizes the exploitative institutions of the society and raises fundamental questions about the moral and ethical values regulating the lives of women. But just when we expect him to come out as an advocate of unconditional freedom he takes an about turn and betrays his own utilitarian longings for women as men's favorite sex toys. This in my view is a fair assessment of his position in respect of women, and I would now like to elaborate on this.
The complete works of Manto remain uncollected to date but even the easily available canon extends to no less than a few hundred short stories and plays. This is a huge mass of work to analyze and the easiest way to begin is by categorizing his female characters into three broad prototypes. The girl, the homemaker (house wife in sexist language) and the commercial sex worker (prostitute in sexist language).
Manto was among the first story writers in Urdu to address the anxieties of pre-teen boys and girls. Incidentally, "Dhuan", the first of his stories to be charged with obscenity dealt with the very same theme. De Beauvoir's The Second Sex was published after Manto had written his major stories on the issue (and we can't be sure that he ever got to hear about that book at all), but even then his portrayal of pre-adolescent and adolescent girls seems to be in line with what has now become the classic de Beauvoirian stand on this issue: "…the little girl is as strong as her brothers, and she shows the same mental powers." The little girls in Manto stories are human beings complete with a robust sexuality and we see them in the process of being transformed into "women." Sometimes they are caught in conflict between their natural emotions and social values. There are several stories about teen love and the girls in those stories are decidedly different from the grown up women portrayed in other stories. Because as an artist Manto was primarily interested in the unusual behavior of his characters we only see the tips of the icebergs but they are enough to remind us that "One is not born, but becomes a woman."
The second prototype is the homemaker. Frankly, Manto seems to be afraid of her. He sees her as a product of the oppressive values of a decadent system but also as the most ardent guardian of the same values. Since his mission as an artist is to celebrate the non-conformist behavior of his characters, the traditional homemaker becomes the obvious butt of all his jokes. To Manto, sex is a serious thing and anyone who takes it lightly, whether out of lechery or on the grounds of piety, is seen by Manto as an enemy of beauty. One of his primordial grudges against married women is their eagerness to cover up their sexuality out of superficial concepts about social propriety. Partially frustrated by the restrictions his own marriage had placed on his personal liberties, Manto often overdoes his criticism of the traditional homemaker -- for instance in that awful series of husband-wife dialogue that spreads over several pages of his later anthologies. In some of these stories he seems to be perpetuating misogynic stereotypes, depending on how one reads them.
However, in order to do him justice we should also point to other cases, such as "Mahir-e-Nafsiayat," where he is equally critical of men's superficial approach to understanding women. A feminist critic could point out that even in that story he comes too harsh upon the female writer who used to play with the men's sexual emotions in order to understand their minds. But we must remember that Manto's ridicule is perpetually directed towards pretentious saints, whether male or female, who preserve their chastity just in order to brag about it.
The third prototype, the commercial sex worker, is Manto's favorite subject. He is the first storywriter in Urdu to portray her at a human level. His basic pretext on this issue is essentially socialist. The prostitute is just a worker who earns her livelihood in a free economy. It is wrong to assume that the prostitute is a promoter of immorality. She only provides an outlet, just as the sweeper doesn’t create the filth but only takes it away. However, the sex worker is often underpaid and perhaps the only kind who doesn’t get any respect for her contribution to the society. Having said that, Manto embraces the clear implication of his own logic: he accepts the services of the commercial sex worker.
Manto's critics might accuse of emphasizing the feminine delicacy in his women. It is also true that he expects the readers to consider the patronizing attitude of male lovers to their mistresses in love. But we must not forget that the traditional nuances of heterosexual love had not been seen as exploitative by those times. Manto was primarily concerned with his own literary agenda, which was to emphasize the creative aspect of the human nature. This agenda in itself wasn’t misogynic and that should be the focus of all debates on his art.
It is extremely difficult to apply a yardstick of our own times to someone who has lived in the past. If we play by too strict rules then we would have to disqualify some of the most renowned voices of women in literary history as well, and not even Ismat Chughtai would stand a chance. After all, her most celebrated short story "Lehaf" presents a perverse view of lesbianism and confirms the charges levied by the opponents against this very feminist type of sexual activity. Someone who denounces Manto for being misogynist while holding up Ismat Chughtai as a feminist is doing an injustice to both, and would be well-advised to read what Manto said to his puritan enemies: "I don’t mind if you hit me with a stone. All I am asking of you is to throw it in style!"