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Various images of the title covers of the Urdu serial “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn.” Library of Congress Asian Division.

What Were Pakistani Women Reading in the Sixties? A Glance at “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn”

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(The following post is by Amina Malik, Junior Fellow, Asian Division, Summer 2023)

The Asian Division at the Library of Congress holds South Asian-language serials from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Fiji, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Nepali, Punjabi, Telugu, Urdu, and additional regional languages. The South Asian serials collection is continuously growing with acquisitional support from the Library’s overseas offices in Islamabad, Pakistan and New Delhi, India.

Serials encompass a wide range of printed and electronic publications issued in successive parts. Examples include newspapers, newsletters, academic journals, sports and lifestyle magazines, periodicals on religious matters, and trade publications. Serials at the Asian Division are broken up into three large collections by format – microfilm, microfiche, and print.

As a Junior Fellow with the Asian Division during the summer of 2023, I was tasked with performing an inventory of the print collection of serials in South Asian languages. The inventory of a single serial title comprised the creation of a detailed item record of each volume within a bound serial and either creating or updating the holding record for each serial in the Library’s cataloging software. This information then appeared in the Library’s online catalog, which enables researchers to learn exactly what issues are available in the Asian Reading Room, which is the main access point for Asian language serials at the Library. By the end of the ten-week internship, I had inventoried 64 serials across more than 1,400 volumes in 13 languages. Please see my presentation for the Junior Fellows Program Display Day 2023 for more on this inventory project.

During my internship, I processed serials in languages that use the Devanagari script (e.g., Hindi, Marathi, Nepali) as well as those that use the Perso-Arabic script (e.g., Punjabi, Sindhi, Urdu). I came into this project with only speaking knowledge of Hindi and reading knowledge of Urdu and Punjabi. Throughout the ten weeks of exposure to serials containing Devanagari script, I was able to sustain a baseline understanding of numbering systems and visual characteristics of Hindi, Gujarati, and Marathi, which supported the assessment of publication frequencies among serials in these languages. Additional support in working with unfamiliar languages came from South Asian subject specialists in the Asian Division, as well as Library colleagues from the New Delhi and Islamabad offices.

Volumes of the Urdu serial “Dastah-yi gul” and barcodes for inventory. Library of Congress Asian Division. Photo credit: Amina Malik.

Halfway through the project, I shifted my focus to the inventory of serials in the Perso-Arabic script, and a majority of them came from the Urdu-speaking regions of Pakistan and India. I became fascinated by the colorful layout and design of Urdu women’s serials (for more about South Asian Women’s Serials, see this guide and blog). The diversity in these serials ranged from topics of domesticity, upbringing of children, and maintaining a marriage to the promotion of continued education and political mobilization. I grew more interested in the history of these serials and how they help us understand what women in Pakistan were reading in the latter half of the 20th century.

The inception of Pakistan in August of 1947 led to a boom in urban centers in the country. As migration toward cities grew, so did the literacy rate of the newly established state, leading to an increased demand for formats of communication beyond radio broadcasting. The 1950s and 1960s in Pakistan witnessed the establishment of privately owned and operated print newspapers and magazines, with major publishing houses in Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar. Rising urbanization across Pakistani cities made it possible for the mass distribution of newspapers and other types of serials to a larger reading public.

One such publication from this time period was “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” — meaning “women’s newspaper” — a Pakistani serial that began in the mid-1960s. Its target audience was women who were past adolescence and found themselves entering college, a career, marriage, or motherhood. “Kh̲avātīn” is a word that holds significant weight in Urdu speaking societies. Traditionally, kh̲avātīn is not a label that is applied to a younger woman, but rather a woman who holds many responsibilities for her and her community’s well-being and mobility. A kh̲avātīn is not born, but rather socialized into an active member of her commune. Thus, the contents of “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” provide insights into becoming a multifaceted, all-encompassing, well-rounded woman. Unlike serials printed for the sole purpose of attaining spiritual education, culinary skills, or learning home economics, “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” combined a multitude of topics into each weekly edition of its publication.

Excerpt of an article on women’s education in Iran from the August 17, 1968 issue of “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn.” Library of Congress Asian Division.

The excerpt above from August 1968 shows an interest in international affairs and the promotion of continued education. The headline for this article is “Education – Spreading quickly among the women of Iran,” and it presents interviews with Ms. Farida, as pictured, and Jamila Abrahi, who are visiting Pakistan from Iran to attend a seminar on adult education. In her interview, Abrahi shares recent developments across Irani cities that promote primary education among all demographics of people – children, adult women, and those facing financial insecurity, for whom attaining a primary education prior to growth in educational infrastructure was not an option. Abrahi points to the impact of seminars such as this one, that encourage local communities to foster a love for learning. An appreciation of Pakistani food and clothing among the Irani women is also expressed. Ms. Farida shares the experience of having haleem for the first time and notes that she is learning a recipe for a Pakistani stewed meat dish to take back home with her. In addition, Abrahi talks about the kurta-pajama, a style of attire fashioned by many women in Pakistan, and her plans to get an outfit tailored in Pakistan, as well. The article concludes with Jamila Abrahi sharing a sense of camaraderie with women across the border, noting specifically the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, and the support some women of Iran felt for the women of Pakistan. Interviews such as those of Jamila Abrahi and Ms. Farida were often featured in “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn.” These features signaled a flowering curiosity about the activities of women in neighboring countries.

Excerpt of an article from the April 9, 1966 issue of “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn.” Library of Congress Asian Division.

Alys Faiz, an activist, writer, and wife of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, is featured in an interview in the above excerpt from “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” in April 1966. She, too, fit the image of the upper-middle class, literate women who presented themselves as role models during the 1960s. The title of the article roughly translates: “He always recites his verses to his wife first.” The article’s sub-headings reflect the responsibilities allotted to mothers to foster an appreciation of cultural heritage among their children. For example, the text on the bottom right translates: “Alys Faiz taught her daughters Urdu grammar books on her own.” Readers also learn in this profile about her birth and early years in London and how she became a Pakistani naturalized citizen later in life. What we see is Alys Faiz depicted in three roles: a companion to her husband who offers a listening ear before his work is put out into the world, a mother who teaches her daughters Urdu in anticipation of preserving the language, and a woman who is capable of transitioning from life in London to Lahore.

Collage of some cosmetic and textile advertisements from issues of “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” from the mid-1960s. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Advertisements for the latest textile trends, new and shiny appliances, weekly horoscopes, and routine stories of the whereabouts of Karachi’s socialites were also found in weekly issues of “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn.” The collage above highlights several advertisements found throughout “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” in the 1960s, including one for a Pakistani textile company with the address of a local distributor and the price of unstitched fabric. Cosmetic advertisements were featured in every edition of the serial as well, and they certainly played a part in establishing oftentimes unattainable beauty standards among its readership. Skin-lightening creams, as pictured above, claimed not only to physically lighten and enhance a customer’s appearance, but suggested the improvement in overall quality of life when added in the customer’s beauty routine. “Mona,” the fashionable woman pictured in the left panel of the collage, models her new sari to attract customers to the fashion house being advertised.

From highlighting exemplary women to amplifying rigid, Eurocentric beauty standards, “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” contained a variety of reporting alongside new product advertisements to maintain its readership among the growing literate population of women in Pakistan during the 1960s.

It is important to note the frequent engagement with these newspapers from their audience members. Weekly editions included columns and think-pieces from readers such as home remedies for illnesses, beauty tips, marital advice, and snapshots of a day-in-the-life of women working as professors, doctors, politicians, and homemakers. Not only does “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn” provide its readers with rich, fruitful content, but it is an eye-pleasing publication with its neon-colored columns, retro typefaces, intimate interiors, and photographs of colorful attire decorating the text.

A main goal of my Junior Fellowship was to provide researchers with better information about the Asian Division’s bound serials like “Ak̲h̲bār-i k̲h̲avātīn.” Representing the holding information of serials in bibliographic records presented many challenges, as serials come in multiple parts and have varying publication frequencies. But this information will help researchers learn what issues are available at the Library of Congress and will hopefully inspire more study of the rich history they contain.

Further Reading:

Changing Images.” [Islamabad]: Uks, A Research, Resource and Publication Centre on Women and Media, [2005?].

Nāhīd, Kishvar. “K̲h̲avātīn ke liʼe rozgār manṣūbe.” Lāhaur: Biznis ainḍ Profaishnal Vīman Klab, [1992?].

Pakistani Women: A Socioeconomic & Demographic Profile,” edited by Nasra M. Shah. Islamabad: Pakistan Institute of Development Economics; Honolulu, Hawaii: East-West Population Institute, East West Center, 1986.

Report of the Seminar on ‘Women and Media,’ Karachi, from 18-20 October, 1984,” sponsored by Women’s Division, Government of Pakistan. Islamabad: Print. Corp. of Pakistan Press, [1985].

Saʻīd, Shāʼistah. “Pākistānī k̲h̲āndān aur ʻaurat : parvarish, pābandī, k̲h̲vudmuk̲h̲tārī.” Karācī: Pākistān Isṭaḍī Sainṭar, Jāmiʻah Karācī, 2018.

Sult̤ānah, Kishvar. “ʻAurat paidā nahīn̲ hotī! banāʼī jātī hai!” Lahore: Society for the Advancement of Education, 2000.

This blog has been edited to include the link to the video of the author’s Display Day 2023 presentation.

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