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Asia, Texts, and Textiles at the Library of Congress, Part I: An Urdu Women’s Magazine from during Partition

(The following post is by Charlotte Giles, South Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division.)

This is the first of a two-part series on textile resources from Asia at the Library of Congress.  It examines an Urdu women’s magazine published during the Partition of South Asia in 1947. Part two will look at story cloths in the context of the Hmong exodus from Laos at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Like traditional texts recorded on paper, materials about textiles can also be “read.” This intersection between text and textiles points to different sources where the researcher can draw upon a unique treasure trove of primary source material. The Urdu women’s magazine from mid-20th century pre- and post-Partition South Asia, “Jauhar-i nisvān̲” (“The essence of women”) mainly includes patterns for embroidery and stitching, with as some articles about the state of women in society (such as their political contributions and access to education), recipes for cooking, and general homemaking. Against the backdrop of difficulties caused by Partition, particularly the increase of refugees and camps, issues of the magazine bring together current events and stitching in interesting ways. As part of an effort to help refugees, women in refugee camps are often taught how to sew and embroider as a source of income. Many of these women were already skilled in handicrafts, and embroidery became a way to survive, as well as to describe their experiences. This source serves as an example of how the craft of embroidery provides researchers with another “text” to read the experiences of refugees at different points in history.

This is a map from 1903 of the South Asian region prior to the Partition in 1947. It is available freely available online through the Geography & Map Division at the Library of Congress.

This is a map from 1993 of the South Asian region following the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, as well as the 1971 Partition of East and West Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is freely available online through the Geography & Map Division.

The mid- to late-20th century witnessed the end of colonial rule in much of the world. The Partition of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan occurred on August 14th (Pakistan) and 15th (India) 1947, with the further division of East and West Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971. The year 1947 was traumatic for the region, with somewhere between 10 and 18 million people crossing the borders of the two freshly minted nations, beginning in 1947 and extending into the early 1950s. Members of all religious communities had to make the difficult decision of whether to leave the land of their ancestors for an unknown place, surrounded by strangers. Everyone was affected, regardless of class and caste; however, people with more money often had the ability to travel more securely, ensuring a safe arrival. They were also able to set up new lives in new cities more easily, moving into recently vacated homes instead of relying on services in refugee camps.

But how can we understand the effect that these events had on real people? Academic research must rely on primary resources, such as magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets. Many of these items are found in the vast collections of the Library of Congress.

One example of this would be to track the population movement in South Asia at the time of Partition through the shift of publishing houses, serials, and newspapers to the other side of the border. This includes women’s magazines like “Jauhar-i nisvān̲.” The audience of these publications were women from literate, politically-minded middle- and upper-class families. There is a lack of source material about women’s lives during this period due to low rates of female literacy. These magazines lend interested readers a peek into some of the concerns and activities of this particular audience of Urdu-reading Muslim women. More of these materials may be found digitized through the South Asia Open Archives and the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, two freely available electronic resources with large digital collections.

Various images from post-Partition issues of the Urdu women’s magazine, “Jauhar-i nisvān̲.” South Asian Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

“Jauhar-i nisvān̲” emerged from a literary movement in the mid-19th to mid-20th century to provide women in India with appropriate and interesting content to read in multiple languages. The publication of women’s magazines reflected an interest in women’s education in South Asian society as well as concern for what that education would look like while being subject to British colonial power. One of the first women’s magazines was the Bengali serial “Bāmābodhinī patrikā” (“Women’s enlightenment”). Urdu authors saw it as their responsibility to support the education of women by writing novels and publishing magazines, such as Nazir Ahmed Dehlvi’s novel “Mirāt ul-urūs” (“The bride’s mirror”), Rashid ul-Khairi’s magazine “Ismat” (“Honor”), and Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s novel “Bihishtī Zewar” (“Heavenly ornaments”). These sources show different understandings of how women should model themselves as ideal cultural vessels.  Such publications were given as dowry gifts to new brides. Today, one can find several of these novels translated into other languages, such as English and Burmese versions of Thanvi’s work.

Cover image of an English translation of “Bihishtī Zewar,” a manual for young women about how to become the ideal Muslim woman by Maulana Ashraf ‘Alī Thanvī. Library of Congress, General Collections.

Cover image of an English translation of “Bahishtī Zewar,” a manual for young women about how to become the ideal Muslim woman by Maulana Ashraf Alī Thanvī. Library of Congress, General Collections. This is only one of many languages the original Urdu text was translated into. Southeast Asian collection, Asian Division.

Magazines, however, did not just archive the concerns and words of men molding younger generations. Women were encouraged to actively participate in the magazine’s community by sending in articles, letters, or other submissions (recipes, patterns, etc.) to the editor, which were published. The contents of these publications included articles about homemaking such as cooking, organization of the household, current events related to politics, opening of schools for girls, speeches by well-known female figureheads and patterns for stitching.

Embroidery sections show a knowledge of a variety of embroidery styles and techniques throughout India, including stitches taught to them by British women in India. For example, in one issue, a short article describes an embroidery style known as cikankārī from the city of Lucknow, along with a pattern. While many of the patterns were intended to embellish garments, basic patterns for everyday frocks and other household goods filled its pages for those who needed to produce certain items for their families. Patterns encourage the use of items and fabrics already available around the house. The practice of reusing was common already in Indian households, and “Jauhar-i nisvān̲” allowed women to share patterns and learn from their peers. Scholars typically refer to the subscribers as peers because there was a definite exchange of ideas through the publications. This is apparent when looking at issues of women’s serials such as the Urdu magazine, “K̲h̲ātūn.”

“Jauhar-i nisvān̲” began publishing in 1934 and ceased in 2017. The physical issues held by the Library of Congress include a few months from 1947 (the year of Partition) and 1948, and most of the months from 1949 through 1953. For full holdings, please check the magazine’s bibliographic record. These issues are crucial primary resources due to gaps in the documentation of people’s lives during the years before and after Partition. When we look to the pre-Partition issues, Delhi is the location of publication. This geography of publishing changed drastically in the months and years following Partition. By March 1948, this magazine was no longer publishing from Delhi in India, but shifted to the Pakistani city of Karachi. Because the Library does not have issues produced between September 1947 and February 1948, it is difficult to determine when exactly this shift happened and if (and when) there were months when they were unable to publish.

Example of an embroidery pattern from “Jauhar-i nisvān̲,” July 1947. This particular pattern is of the embroidery style known at “cikankārī” from the city of Lucknow in northern India. The creator of the pattern is listed on the left-hand page: “Akbarī Ẓīyār Nasrīn̲.” South Asian Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The effects of the Partition on this publication can be seen in the years following its relocation to Karachi. Calls for “jauharī behinon̲” (“jauharī sisters,” an affectionate term for the magazine’s readership by the editors) to re-subscribe to help maintain the magazine are located on the first few pages of the monthly issues in 1948. There are letters of economic distress to “Hindustanī behinon̲” (“Indian sisters”) who are unable to send their subscription fees to the magazine due to a total ban on travel and correspondence between India and Pakistan. Later, another issue expresses joy at finding a businessman who will take responsibility for importing and distributing the magazine, and sending their subscription fees to Pakistan. But how did embroidery come into these conversations about the Partition in “Jauhar-i nisvān̲”?

Recall that this monthly magazine provides mostly embroidery and stitching patterns. During this period of instability, the editors and authors of “Jauhar-i nisvān̲” wrote lengthy articles about the need for the “sisters” to step up and contribute to those who need them through what they do best. One article is titled “Kām kā vaqt” (“Time for work”):

Pre-Partition issue of “Jauhar-i nisvān̲” from May 1947. Researchers will note in the image that the pre-Partition place of publication location is Delhi. South Asian Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

“During this difficult time, it is especially necessary that home handicrafts be increased and for every city, every ‘handy-woman’ be available, and if you receive handicrafts from refugee women, to help then by having them make handicrafts, sewing clothes. Establish a workshop for sewing and making clothes so that your handicraft capabilities can benefit those poor, living beings and so that their sorrows may be lessened.” (translated from the original Urdu text from the March 1948 issue).

As the Indian and Pakistani governments responded to the refugee crisis by setting up massive refugee camps, the question arose of how refugees themselves would be able to provide for their families. A number of government-led programs run by middle- and upper-class women taught skills such as tailoring, embroidery and cooking. One promising avenue of research is to see if some of these programs made use of magazines such as “Jauhar-i nisvān̲,” working from the embroidery and clothing patterns within.

Women were in these camps with families, or in varying states of aloneness. For example, families that started out traveling together were often separated when caravans were attacked. Family members were killed in these attacks leaving women alone or with a few family members, left to fend for themselves and at greater risk of being abducted. Pakistani and Indian government exchange programs received these abducted women and then placed them in refugee camps. There, program coordinators would encourage refugees to become self-sufficient as soon as possible through activities such as embroidery. In the example of this magazine, we can see that women from upper class families were encouraging each other to purchase and support the production of goods made by women refugees. This speaks to a larger trend beyond this one magazine of the reliance on stitching and embroidery by refugee women to make ends meet.

Article from May 1948 issue of “Jauhar-i nisvān̲” calling on subscribers to help in refugee efforts: “Ek zananah ṣan’atī anjuman kī iskīm ka ḵẖākah” (“An outline for a woman handicraft association scheme”). South Asian collection, Asian Division.

This story of women, embroidery and refugees through “Jauhar-i nisvān̲” points to the importance of textiles as primary resources available at the Library of Congress, and possible ways of reading them. More examples of such craftsmanship in Asia are available in multiple divisions across the library. For more information about these items, please visit the Asian Reading Room or reach out through the Asian Division’s Ask-A-Librarian.

Further reading:

Borders & boundaries: women in India’s partition / Ritu Menon & Kamla Bhasin. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998.

Secluded scholars: women’s education and Muslim social reform in colonial India / Gail Minault. Delhi ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The changing role of women in Bengal, 1849-1905 / Meredith Borthwick. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1984.

The Indian ladies’ magazine, 1901-1938: from Raj and Swaraj / Deborah Anna Logan. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2017.

The other side of silence: voices from the partition of India / Urvashi Butalia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Urdū men̲ jarāʼid-i nisvān̲ kī tārīk̲h̲ / Ḍākṭar Jamīl Ak̲h̲tar = Urdu mein jaraid-e-niswan ki tareekh / Dr. Jameel Akhtar. Dihlī: Kitābī Duniyā, 2016.

Freely accessible electronic resources:

Among its diverse digital collections, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme includes many rare women’s magazines in multiple South Asian languages, including Urdu.

The South Asia Open Archives has a thematic archive on women and gender with primary and secondary materials (including monographs, pamphlets, and magazines) by, for, and about women, and on important issues related to their lives and roles in society, including on women’s education, health, and religion.

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