Elusive Lives
Gender, Autobiography, and the Self in Muslim South Asia
Siobhan Lambert-Hurley




“I was born in the time of British rule,” began Jobeda Khanam. “Then, King George V was ruling.” Her home was the small town of Kushtia, then in the Nadia district of central Bengal in eastern India. Her grandfather, a respected pir, stopped evening prayers at the neighborhood mosque to announce the birth—but did the child’s piercing cry come from a boy or a girl? Dark clouds and pouring rain proved an ill omen: “when people came to know it was a girl, there was no trace of happiness left on their faces.” Some women commented, “Oh God, this girl has brought such a storm, God only knows what is in store for her.”1 As Jobeda grew, she loved to eat the sweet jackfruit that grew in her family’s compound. And when the annual fair came to town, she would beg her mother for money “to buy glass bangles, colored ribbons, clay toys, sweets made of sugar, puffed rice.” But in those days, long before east Bengal transmuted into East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, girls were prohibited from even making sound with their shoes when they walked through the town enveloped in their black burqas. “We were in strict purdah,” Jobeda explained. “Daughters or daughters-in-law were not even allowed to stand near the windows.” As Jobeda grew older, her cultured father recognized an interest in music and offered to teach his daughter to sing—“Oh Bulbul of the garden, do not shake the flowering branch today”—but only with the doors and windows shut firmly so that no passerby could hear her sweet voice. As she sat behind a curtain at the local mosque, Jobeda learned why she could not be seen or heard from an aged imam known for beating his child-wives: “Women are the gateway to hell. It is the responsibility of all Muslim men to keep them under strict control in purdah.”2

Jobeda Khanam’s childhood experiences, captured in the early pages of her autobiography, point to specific cultural conventions in South Asia, often encapsulated by the catch-all “purdah,” by which men may exert their authority to constrain women’s mobility and expression. Muslim women in particular are understood to be bound by elaborate codes of modesty defined by sharam and ‘izzat, shame and modesty, that inhibit any form of public articulation.3 No wonder the renowned postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak was moved to assert that the South Asian woman has no real “voice” in any meaningful sense. Even if she could be heard to speak, her words were proscribed by a patriarchal discourse that defined what was appropriate for women to do and think and even feel.4 And yet feminist scholars—myself included—have made it their life’s work to find ways of recovering South Asian women’s voices, however muted or enigmatic or coded they may be. To do so offers a means of restoring agency and subjectivity—even if the historical conditions under which that agency and subjectivity were constituted need to be identified, understood, and problematized.5 Anthropologists have led the way by eliciting women’s stories in oral form or interrogating their folktales, songs, and poetry for what can be read between the lines: the often subversive expressions of women less at ease with their social world than may have been assumed.6 Historians have followed suit by employing disparate and sometimes fragmented sources—from diaries, autobiographies, and interviews to poetry, novels, architecture, and religious treatises—to consider how, despite limitations, South Asian women in the past still found ways to express a sense of self.7

And thus we are brought to this book. To continue the feminist project of decoding a gendered self, it focuses on autobiographical writings by South Asian Muslim women—women, like Jobeda Khanam, who refused to respect the taboo against women speaking out and instead told their life stories in the form of written autobiography. Chapter 1 explores in depth how autobiography is defined in this work, but perhaps it is sufficient to say here that contrary to some expectations, the sources are many and varied. In temporal terms, they date from the sixteenth century through the present, to give a sense of how autobiography as a literary genre has evolved over time. What soon becomes evident, however, is that beyond a few isolated texts from the Mughal period, Muslim women (and men) really began producing autobiographical writings in South Asia in greater numbers only from the late nineteenth century. This date is roughly comparable, if perhaps slightly earlier, than that proposed for women writing autobiography in other Islamicate societies. Taking the case of Egypt, Marilyn Booth notes that a few women projected the “auto” into their biographies of “friends and intellectual companions” from the 1880s, but it was only in the 1920s that “first-person book-length personal narratives” began to appear.8 In other parts of the Arab world, and in Turkey and Iran too, Muslim women began writing travelogues and memoirs from the first decades of the twentieth century—at a point when South Asian Muslim women also became more prolific as authors.9

As a timeline for autobiographical production, my evidence compares favorably with that observed for South Asia as a whole and the Muslim community more specifically. The “elaboration” of life-history forms from the Middle East and Central Asia (sira, tazkira, hayat) is recognized in the autobiographies produced by Mughal emperors and Islamic scholars—I think of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur’s Vaqa’i‘ (Events) and Mir Muhammad Taqi’s Zikr (Remembrance), for example—from the sixteenth century on. No doubt these early works provided autobiographical models for later South Asian authors, though as I explore in chapter 5, inspiration was more often closer at hand—from male and female exemplars within extended families in the high colonial era. Fittingly, David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn identify autobiographical writing “in the sense of a sustained narrative account of one’s own life” as emerging in South Asia in the late nineteenth century and becoming more “common” only in the early twentieth century—in other words, after the establishment of colonialism proper in 1858 and the spread of a key technology for book and journal distribution in the form of the printing press.10 As Ulrike Stark has traced in meticulous detail, print technology was well established in India by the late eighteenth century, but it remained largely in the hands of missionaries and British colonists in their coastal headquarters at Calcutta and Madras. It was another century before the print “boom” really took off, as technological innovations and the growth of an Indian paper industry reduced the cost of printing sufficiently to make it accessible to the Indian middle classes—who could then read, write, and circulate published autobiographies alongside other genres.11 The spread of autobiography mirrored the trajectory of print in the high noon of colonialism.

Many scholars thus characterize autobiography—like the novel and other forms of “modern” literature—as a colonial legacy. As S. P. Saksena opined in his seminal Indian Autobiographies as early as 1949, “self-portrayal” is of “recent origin in this country” and “essentially the result of English education.”12 What is most surprising about such Eurocentric perspectives is that they continue to be reproduced in much European and even South Asian scholarship. Writing nearly sixty years after Saksena, Udaya Kumar roots Keralan autobiography’s “inhabitation of modernity” in a colonial project of education. In government schools, he explains, Malayali boys started writing diaries that, as explored in chapter 1, cultivated the “literary competence” and “disciplined survey of everyday activities” necessary for later autobiographical reflection.13 The significance of education in providing the intellectual tools necessary to prepare autobiography will be underlined in this study also in chapter 2, but not necessarily as it was tied to colonial or “English” education. While some Muslim female authors were taught in English-language or British colonial institutions, they were hardly passive recipients of colonial knowledge or mere sitting ducks for foreign models and ideas.14 Furthermore, just as many—and more among the early authors in this study—received a traditional education at home or attended private Muslim girls’ schools intended to uphold “Islamic values” of one sort or another.

Scholarly emphasis on the autobiographies of male nationalist leaders—Gandhi, Nehru, and others—would seem to suggest that if not colonialism, it was nationalism that was responsible for autobiography becoming embedded in South Asia.15 At that important historical juncture, “narration of self” became intertwined with “narration of the oppressed or emergent nation” to solidify the relationship between “nationalism and interiority.”16 More useful to my own context, I would argue, is to connect the growth of Muslim women’s autobiographical writing from the late nineteenth century to a key development within South Asia’s Muslim community: socioreligious reform. We will see in chapter 2 how sharif redefinition—by which I mean the reworking of elite status among Muslims after 1857—could have motivated the middle-class, aristocratic, and princely women who, in the main, wrote autobiography to assert and counter-assert their claims on nobility. But what is worth underlining here at the outset is the centrality of reformism to that process. According to Faisal Devji, Muslim reformism was little more than a sharif exercise in “self-creation”—and central to reformism were women.17 Also pertinent is Francis Robinson’s observation that it was under this reformist impulse from the nineteenth century that South Asian Muslims experienced the emergence of a more “this-worldly Islam” exemplified by a focus on the individual, or self. That emphasis on self-instrumentality, self-affirmation, and self-consciousness, in turn, facilitated more and different autobiographical production—including, as I show, by women.18 This study is significant in making explicit that link between women, reformism, and autobiography in Muslim South Asia.

I thus argue that the proliferation of Muslim women writing lives was, as Barbara Metcalf observes of hajj narratives, a “modern phenomenon”: one no doubt influenced by the colonial environment, but without being a European imitation.19 Within that broad temporal frame, the timeline can be given more precision. Examples of Muslim women’s autobiographical writing, I note, remain fairly evenly scattered throughout most of the twentieth century, really mushrooming only since the early 1980s. In Dhaka alone, more than forty women published life stories of various types in the 1980s and 1990s.20 Usually born sometime between 1900 and the early 1940s, they were mature or aged women by the final decades of the twentieth century and thus—in keeping with the common practice of writing autobiography toward the end of life—ready to reflect on the many momentous changes that they had experienced, not least the growth of female education and employment outside the home, the changing nature of purdah observance, the nationalist movement against British rule, Partition, the dissolution of princely states, and, depending on regional context, Indian, Pakistani, and/or Bangladeshi independence. As Khatemanara Begam (born ca. 1923–24) summarized her life’s historical periodization, writing from Dhaka in 1988:

We—I mean, people of my age group—have seen all three ages (past, present and future). The first 23/24 years of our lives were under the mighty British colonizers; our youth was spent in a lot of confusion and struggle under Pakistan; and our mature years passed in difficulty as independent citizens of Bangladesh. Today, at the end of my life when I see the past, I see we have crossed many strong waves over many years. We have seen epoch-making political changes. We have gathered many different and strange experiences. With great excitement, I have seen the great changes that have taken place in the field of women’s education and her social environment.21

I would suggest that a new wave of women’s activism from the 1970s accompanied by a growing recognition of women’s history in the academy gave value to these women’s stories. From that point on, as I highlight in chapter 4, publishers wanted to publish them in ever greater numbers—because there was now a market.

Shifting from time to place, I have drawn materials for this study from all parts of the Indian subcontinent, or at least those that have sported a fairly substantial Muslim population—what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Rampur, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Mysore, and many other places besides. Chapter 3 grants greater precision to this autobiographical map, but in linguistic terms it means recovering women’s voices and stories in a wide range of South Asian languages, including Urdu, English, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, and Malayalam.22 Very often, these languages were employed with the intention of accessing specific audiences with specific interests: sometimes family and friends, but in many cases, a broader readership of elite, literate, perhaps segregated women. Like the authors themselves, they maintained links with the world outside while remaining consumed by their more immediate domestic environments. Thus, the historical world into which autobiographies by Muslim women provide a window can be one of prestigious public events and sweeping political change. But it is also one that is far more routine, sometimes even mundane: a history of the everyday. Functioning as informal ethnographies, these writings provide insight into what people ate, how they cooked, what they wore, how their homes were decorated, what they did in their gardens, how the weather changed, what made them ill, how they worshipped, what they studied, how they filled their leisure time, who it was that they loved and befriended, how they traveled and why. Of course, autobiography’s association with the written word in a region of low literacy makes it a genre dominated by, though not exclusive to, the more elite.23 But if social variation among authors is limited, the cast of characters that they depict is not. We are offered a rare view into the lives of many projected as “subaltern”—among them servants, ayahs, subjects, students, clients, viewers, and voters.

So, with these many and various sources at hand, what does it mean to write autobiography in a cultural context that idealizes women’s anonymity? Reflecting on the Egyptian nationalist and feminist Huda Shaarawi (1879–1947), historian Margot Badran identifies the very feat of writing a memoir in a society in which “private life, family life, inner feelings and thoughts” were “sacrosanct” as a “feminist act.” For Shaarawi to write about her “harem life” was, according to Badran, the “final unveiling.”24 In Words, Not Swords, literary scholar Farzaneh Milani makes a similar point that, in a “veiled society,” women are not alone in being veiled: “The concrete, the specific, and the personal are also veiled. Communication is veiled. Words and feelings are veiled.” To transgress the “contrived form of silence” means unveiling one’s voice, even if not one’s body. She thus interprets the “literary misfit” of women’s autobiography in Iran as the “ultimate form of unveiling.”25 My subtitle for this introduction aims to pay tribute to Badran’s and Milani’s sentiments, while also pointing to the key questions asked of autobiography in this book: to what extent, and in what ways, have South Asian Muslim women revealed a sense of self in their autobiographical writings at different moments in time? Does the degree or form of self-representation reflect on how autobiography is defined as a genre? In what ways do contexts of production—historical, geographical, literary—shape the written construction of lives? And how far is it even possible to discern a gendered self in autobiographical writings from Muslim South Asia? Perhaps the first question that needs addressing, however, is why I choose to take South Asian Muslim women as a category at all.


So, why South Asian Muslim women in particular? Why not just South Asian women or, if that was too broad for one project, Indian women or Punjabi women or middle-class women or women writing in Urdu? Why women at all? In response to the final question first, perhaps an important clarification to make is that this book is not about women’s autobiographies exclusively; rather, as I specify in my subtitle, it is about gender, autobiography, and the self in Muslim South Asia. In order to gender understandings of autobiography and the self, I examine women’s autobiographies in parallel with those of men, particularly in chapter 5, where I draw many direct comparisons. Nevertheless, this study does focus primarily on autobiographical writings by South Asian Muslim women. Mahua Sarkar may critique this approach for producing a “separate, typically additive” history that runs the risk of simply reproducing, or “naturalizing,” a discourse of difference.26 But like Sarkar in her excellent Visible Histories, Disappearing Women, I do not intend to take these categories of “Muslim” and its apparent counter, “Hindu,” for granted, but instead to be attentive to how they are produced and reproduced in autobiographical writings especially. “Muslim” and “woman” should also not be considered universal categories apart from the simultaneous workings of other identities—“nation,” “region,” “language,” and “class”—to which I have alluded already. At the same time, I would argue that South Asian Muslim women have, in the modern period especially, shared certain experiences and concerns—as recorded in their life writings and analyzed within this book—that make it appropriate to consider them as a distinct group.

How, then, is this group constituted for the purpose of this study? Another point worth elucidating is that I use “Muslim” not so much as a strict religious denomination, as a fairly fluid cultural category. Certainly, some of the authors discussed here were devout in their religious practice, making at least passing mention in their autobiographical writings to daily prayers (namaz), fasting during Ramadan (roza), and ritual charity (zakat).27 As Bangladeshi educator Meher Kabir wrote about her childhood in Dinajpur in the north of colonial Bengal in the 1930s: “Roza and namaz were a must.”28 Others recorded their participation in religious rituals associated with key dates in the Islamic calendar, including ‘Id ul-Fitr, ‘Id ul-Adha (or Baqr ‘Id), and Muharram. Particularly detailed in her description of holy festivals was Jahanara Habibullah in Remembrance of Days Past (2001). Recalling her early life in princely Rampur, she dedicated whole sections to “Eid Festivities in Rampur” and “The Observance of Muharram at the Court of Nawab Raza Ali Khan.”29 Still others displayed a different type of Muslim religiosity by describing outings to the dargah, or shrines, of Sufi saints. To take one example, actress Begum Khurshid Mirza recorded multiple visits to the shrine of Makhdoom Allauddin Ali Ahmed Sabir Sahib at Kalyar Sharif near Saharanpur at a time when piri-mureedi, pledging allegiance to a Sufi shaikh for the purpose of spiritual guidance, was shunned openly by her reformist family and her “Westernized” husband.30

A few authors demonstrated their religiosity by writing whole travelogues narrating their spiritual journeys to the Hijaz for the hajj pilgrimage or, if Shia, to holy sites in Iraq, Iran, and Syria associated with the Prophet’s family and later imams.31 Many of the former are infused with a sense of religious ecstasy upon being unified with the divine at the Ka‘ba at Mecca. The following entry, dated Friday, 9 Muharram [1328/1910], stands out in the hajj narrative of Ummat ul-Ghani Nurunnisa, a pilgrim from Hyderabad, for the contrast it provides to her usual matter-of-fact style:

There was a wondrous atmosphere in the Haram tonight. There was not a single cloud to darken the deep-blue sky. The moon glittered and shone over the azure horizon. Its pure white light sacrificed itself above the Haram and the Ka‘ba. Small, beautiful stars twinkled festively while the silverwork on the black curtains covering the Ka‘ba glistened. The repeated calls of Allahu Akbar added to the wondrous mood. Against the light of the moon the flickering lamps were especially pleasing to the eye. White buildings, tall minarets . . . Some people performed prayers, some circled the Ka‘ba, some read the Qur’an. Others recited prayers in praise of the Prophet, while still others kissed the Black Stone. The atmosphere inside the Haram tonight filled my heart with a wonderful sense of bliss that is beyond all description, incapable of being written. Ink itself is not sufficient to record it. I pray to God that all our near and dear be given the opportunity to visit the Ka‘ba. Amen.32

In the late 1930s, Nishatunnisa, better known as Begam Hasrat Mohani, expressed a similar depth of religious feeling—even if, reflecting her Shia piety, the emotion was different—upon being shown the exact spot where Imam Hussain was shot in a Karbala shrine: “There is a wooden board laid over the pit. I felt sick to my stomach when they lifted up that board to show me the spot . . . a strange sense of melancholy descended upon me.”33

A couple of authors included in this study—notably educator Ghulam Fatima Shaikh and sex worker Nalini Jameela—were not born Muslim, but used their autobiographies to reflect consciously on their conversion from Hinduism to Islam. The first converted in the early twentieth century under the influence of her father after he was visited by an apparition of a local pir, now deceased. As she explained:

After converting to Islam, my father increased his efforts to bring his wife and daughters into the fold. He was worried that they might be influenced by their Hindu family in whose custody they had remained. Although the offer of a job in Jacobabad made him happy, it did not offset his anxiety for his wife and daughters’ spiritual well-being. In his sleep he dreamt it might be better to poison his two daughters than to let them live as Hindus. When he was overpowered by this intense emotion he saw an apparition. The late Abdur Rehman Sirhindi, who was a spiritual scholar and the grandfather of the present Hasmin Jan, appeared and advised him not to worry as by the next year his entire family would convert and would remain with him even in the life hereafter. This prophecy gave him much relief and he looked forward to that day.

In due course, Ghulam Fatima Shaikh, her mother, and her sister did become Muslim—though only after a great “tumult” in their native town of Hyderabad in Sindh resulting in “battle lines” being drawn between local Hindu and Muslim communities at odds over claiming the family as their own.34 Nalini Jameela’s conversion in the 1980s, in contrast, was, in her own telling, more practical than spiritual, and hardly contested. After moving in with one of her Muslim clients, she took the name Jameela to preserve the appearance of being his Muslim wife—despite not being convinced that she actually believed in God.35

Conversely, a handful of other authors discussed in this study were born into Muslim families, but chose to embrace religious practices associated with other faiths later in life. A key example here is the prostitute Piro, who, in the context of mid-nineteenth-century Punjab, was labeled a kafir, or unbeliever, for joining the Sikh sect led by Guru Gulabdas. The following stanza from her poetic autobiography, Ik Sau Sath Kafian (One Hundred and Sixty Kafis), gives a sense of her nebulous religious identity in a context of growing contention and conflict between Hindu and Muslim:

Piro says, calling out, listen qazi to this

I’m neither a Hindu nor a Musalman, how will you know?

Why are you asleep in the sleep of attachment, go to the guru’s feet

We will be fulfilled when you awake from your slumber [?]

You call out Allah but do not recognize a murshid

Say and affirm anal haq, the true kalma.36

The qazi, or judge, responsible for interpreting Muslim jurisprudence, is taunted for not recognizing Piro’s guru as a spiritual guide (murshid), nor his expression of absolute truth (anal haq) as the “true” articulation of faith (kalma). A link may be made with the Gandhian Raihana Tyabji, who, though nominally Muslim, became a devotee of Krishna. Of particular relevance here is her use of bhakti devotionalism as a form of self-representation in The Heart of a Gopi.37 Many other authors recorded their participation in various “Hindu” or, in a Bengali context, “Brahmo” festivals, including Diwali, Dussehra, and Holi.38

A few authors married outside the Muslim community. An early example was Atiya Fyzee, who in 1912 wed Samuel Rahamin from the Jewish community in Pune known as the Bene Israel. Their unorthodox union was marked by the celebrated poet (and Atiya’s former admirer) Maulana Shibli Nomani, with the following lines of poetry: “butan-i-Hindi kafir kar liya karte the Muslim ko / Atiya ki ba-daulat aj ek kafir Musalman hai” (The idols of India used to make infidels out of Muslims / Today due to Atiya an infidel has become Muslim).39 When, three decades later, Zohra Mumtaz wanted to wed Kameshwar Segal, a young artist also connected to Uday Shankar’s dance company, they struggled to find a way that “a marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim need not involve a change of faith”—ultimately employing a registrar to complete the “legalities” at her sister’s house in Allahabad. As she described the process by which they came to this compromise:

My father was very upset [about our engagement]. When we went to see him in Dehra Dun, he said he understood my having made such a decision but was unable to accept the idea of his daughter marrying a Hindu. He could not help himself. At this Kameshwar said he was prepared to become a Muslim. “No!” said my father emphatically. “What would be my feelings if Zohra became a Hindu? Think of your parents.” Eventually he gave his consent to the match but requested us not to have the wedding in Dehra Dun, feeling he would not be able to face his Muslim friends afterward. My elder sister Hajrah had written insisting that we have the wedding at her place in Allahabad . . . 40

Post-Independence, these intercommunal marriages were perhaps less rare among women authors, particularly if they left the Indian subcontinent for lives and careers abroad.41

This final observation also raises the question of how “South Asia” is demarcated in this study—whether in geographical or ethnic terms. I have indicated already that autobiographies are drawn from all parts of the Indian subcontinent where there are significant Muslim populations, including contemporary India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. References are also made where appropriate to materials from the peripheral territory Afghanistan, but the nature of the populations in Sri Lanka and Nepal means that they rarely, if at all, are represented in the mix. Some texts analyzed were not written in or about South Asia exclusively. Indeed, reflecting the style of other Islamic biographical forms, many authors made it a feature of their life stories to write about journeys abroad, whether for the purpose of travel, pilgrimage, education, work, or family.42 These accounts are sometimes embedded in longer autobiographies and, at other times, stand alone in what are ostensibly travel narratives by Muslims from South Asia.43 The association of autobiography with end-of-life and, more recently, diasporic reflection means that some authors included here wrote after they had left South Asia for lives elsewhere—usually Europe or North America. But in most cases their primary focus is on earlier phases of their lives: Ishvani’s privileged childhood among the Khojas of Bombay, Mehrunissa Khan’s youth as a “princess” of Rampur, or Sara Suleri’s “meatless days” in Pakistan.44 I have otherwise excluded those narratives belonging to the burgeoning but distinct subgenre of diasporic memoirs, particularly where authors are second-generation immigrants or more.45 Only in those cases in which authors returned to live much of their lives in South Asia after being born elsewhere—like the Fyzee sisters, born in Istanbul but raised in Bombay—are they included in my sample.46


1. This paragraph draws on the opening paragraphs of Jobeda Khanam’s Jiban Khatar Pataguli (Dhaka: Kathamala Prakashani, 1991). Nadia district was partitioned in 1947, with the name being applied to a smaller administrative territory in West Bengal and Kushtia being formed into its own district in East Pakistan. On Nadia’s “demographic contours” as a “border district,” see Subhasri Ghosh, “Population Movement in West Bengal: A Case Study of Nadia District, 1947–1951,” South Asia Research 34, no. 2 (2014): 113–32.

2. This paragraph summarizes Jobeda Khanam’s own reflections on her childhood in Jiban Khatar Pataguli, 15–28. It also draws on Saiyida Lutfunnessa’s “Bangali Muslim Narir Cromobikash,” in Kaler Samukh Bhela, ed. Nurunnahar Faizunnessa (Dhaka: Muktodhara, 1988), 80–87.

3. A classic study is Hannah Papanek’s “Purdah: Separate Worlds and Symbolic Shelter,” Comparatives Studies in Society and History 15, no. 3 (June 1973): 289–325.

4. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), 66–111, esp. 90.

5. On this, see Anindita Ghosh, ed., Behind the Veil: Resistance, Women, and the Everyday in Colonial South Asia (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2006), esp. 3.

6. See, for example, Gloria Goodwin Raheja and Ann Grodzins Gold, Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

7. For further explication of this idea and many examples, see Anshu Malhotra and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, eds., Speaking of the Self: Gender, Performance, and Autobiography in South Asia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015). Also see Malavika Karlekar, Voices from Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali Women (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993); Tanika Sarkar, Words to Win: The Making of Amar Jiban—A Modern Autobiography (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999); Myththily Sivaraman, Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006); and Aparna Basu and Malavika Karlekar, In So Many Words: Women’s Life Experiences from Western and Eastern India (Delhi: Routledge, 2008).

8. Marilyn Booth, “Locating Women’s Autobiographical Writing in Colonial Egypt,” Journal of Women’s History 25, no. 2 (2013): 39, 49.

9. Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies: Shahrazad Tells Her Story (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 79; Roberta Micallef, “Identities in Motion: Reading Two Ottoman Travel Narratives as Life Writing,” Journal of Women’s History 25, no. 2 (2013), 85; Farzaneh Milani, “Iranian Women’s Life Narratives,” Journal of Women’s History 23, no. 2 (Summer 2013), 131.

10. David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn, introduction to Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography, and Life History, ed. David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), 7–9.

11. Ulrike Stark, An Empire of Books: The Naval Kishore Press and the Diffusion of the Printed Word in Colonial India (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2007). Also see Francesca Orsini, Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2009).

12. S. P. Saksena, ed., Indian Autobiographies (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1949), v, vii.

13. Udaya Kumar, “Autobiography as a Way of Writing History: Personal Narratives from Kerala and the Inhabitation of Modernity,” in History in the Vernacular, ed. Partha Chatterjee and Raziuddin Aquil (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2008), 418–19. For another example, see A. R. Venkatachalapathy, “Making a Modern Self in Colonial Tamil Nadu,” in Biography as History: Indian Perspectives, ed. Vijaya Ramaswamy and Yogesh Sharma (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2009), 30–52.

14. On Indian agency in colonial knowledge production, see Indra Sengupta and Daud Ali, Knowledge Production, Pedagogy, and Institutions in Colonial India (Abingdon: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

15. See, for example, David Arnold, “The Self and the Cell: Indian Prison Narratives as Life Histories,” in Arnold and Blackburn’s edited volume, Telling Lives in India; and Javed Majeed, Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity: Gandhi, Nehru, and Iqbal (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

16. Arnold and Blackburn, Telling Lives in India, 9; Majeed, Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity, 2–3.

17. Faisal Devji, “Gender and the Politics of Space: The Movement for Women’s Reform in Muslim India, 1857–1900,” South Asia 14, no. 1 (1991): 141–53.

18. Francis Robinson, “Religious Change and the Self in Muslim South Asia,” in his Islam and Muslim History in South Asia (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 105–21.

19. Barbara Metcalf, “The Pilgrimage Remembered: South Asian Accounts of the Hajj,” in Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration and the Religious Imagination, ed. Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori (London: Routledge, 1990), 87, 101.

20. See the bibliography for details.

21. Khatemanara Begam, “Nari Shiksha: Ami Ja Dekhechhi,” in Nurunnahar Faizunnessa, Kaler Samukh Bhela, 70.

22. My own linguistic training in Hindi-Urdu alongside my native language, English, allowed me to consult many sources in their original languages, but in other cases I worked closely with regional specialists—sometimes even translating line by line to appreciate nuance and inflection—to include other materials. I am particularly grateful to Sarmistha Gupta, who displayed untold patience in working through many Bengali sources with me.

23. For more detailed reflection on “the literacy conundrum,” see chapter 2.

24. Margot Badran, preface to Huda Shaarawi, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, translated and with an introduction by Margot Badran (London: Virago, 1986), 1.

25. Farzaneh Milani, Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011), xix.

26. Mahua Sarkar, Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial India (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2008), 13.

27. See, for example, Jobeda Khanam, Jiban Khatar Pataguli, 100; Safia Jabir Ali, “Manuscript Memoirs of Mrs. Safia Jabir Ali,” Badruddin Tyabji Family Papers 6, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, India, entry for October 21, 1942; Abida Sultaan, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2004), 127–28.

28. Meher Kabir, “Amader Kal,” in Nurunnahar Faizunnessa, Kaler Samukh Bhela, 62.

29. Jahanara Habibullah, Remembrance of Days Past: Glimpses of a Princely State during the Raj (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2001), 45–47, 85–89. For another example, see Sufia Kamal, Ekale Amader Kal (Dhaka: Gyan Prakashani, 1988), 3–4.

30. Lubna Kazim, ed., A Woman of Substance: The Memoirs of Begum Khurshid Mirza (Delhi: Zubaan, 2005), 142.

31. For two early examples, see Nawab Sikandar Begam of Bhopal, A Pilgrimage to Mecca, trans. Mrs. Willoughby-Osborne (London: Wm H. Allen, 1870); and Sultan Jahan Begam, Rauzat ur-riyahin (Bhopal: Matba‘-i-Sultani, 1909). The latter was published in English translation as: Sultan Jahan Begam of Bhopal, The Story of a Pilgrimage to Hijaz (London: Thacker, Spink, 1909).

32. Ummat ul-Ghani Nurunnisa, Safarnama-i-Hijaz, Sham o Misr (Hyderabad: N.p., 1996). This translation has been prepared for a chapter by Daniel Majchrowicz in our Anthology of Muslim Women Travelers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

33. The original source is a letter from the author to her daughter Na’imah, dated February 25, 1936, in Nishatunnisa Begam, Begam Hasrat Mohani aur unke Khutut va Safarnama (Delhi: Maulana Hasrat Mohani Foundation, 2015), 117–22. This translation has been prepared for a chapter by Daniel Majchrowicz in our forthcoming Anthology of Muslim Women Travelers.

34. Ghulam Fatima Shaikh, Footprints in Time: Reminiscences of a Sindhi Matriarch, trans. Rasheeda Husain (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6. This passage was reprinted as Ghulam Fatima Shaikh, “The Changing Faith,” Friday Times (Lahore) 22, no. 49 (January 21–27, 2011),

35. Nalini Jameela, Oru Laingikathozhilaliyude Atmakatha, chapters 3 and 5.

36. I rely here on Anshu Malhotra’s excellent analysis and translation of Piro’s poetic autobiography, “Ik Sau Sath Kafian” [One hundred and sixty kafis], at “Accessing Muslim Lives,” The stanza quoted is the thirtieth kafi. The question mark denotes where the meaning is unclear. I have added commas for greater clarity. For a fuller study, see Anshu Malhotra’s Piro and the Gulabdasis: Gender, Sect, and Society in Punjab (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017).

37. For the original text, see Raihana Tyabji, The Heart of a Gopi (Poona: Miss R. Tyabji, n.d.). For my analysis of this text as self-representation, see Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, “The Heart of a Gopi: Raihana Tyabji’s Bhakti Devotionalism as Self-Representation,” Modern Asian Studies 48, no. 3 (May 2014): 569–95.

38. See, for example, Abida Sultaan, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, 150; Begum Khurshid Mirza, A Woman of Substance, 144; Raihana Tyabji, Suniye Kakasahib (Wardha: Hindustani Pracher Sabha, 1954); and Akhtar Imam, “Amader Shikal,” in Nurunnahar Faizunnessa, Kaler Samukh Bhela, 30.

39. The original is printed in Letter 1, February 17, 1908, in Muhammad Amin Zuberi, Khutut-i-Shibli ba-nam-i-muhtarma Zahra Begum sahiba Faizi va ‘Atiya Begum sahiba Faizi (Bhopal: Zill us-sultan Buk Ejansi, 1930), 29. For a full translation, see Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Sunil Sharma, Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010), 33–34.

40. Joan L. Erdman with Zohra Segal, Stages: The Art and Adventure of Zohra Segal (Delhi: Kali for Women, 1997), 109.

41. I think here of diasporic authors, like Sara Suleri Goodyear.

42. See Dwight F. Reynolds on the tarjama, or biographical notice, in his Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 42.

43. Including a significant component on life abroad within a longer narrative is Safia Jabir Ali’s “Manuscript Memoirs,” (Badruddin Tyabji Family Papers 6, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, India), in which she records her life in Burma in the early 1920s (see chapter 5). Similarly, Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri dedicates a chapter of Hamsafar (Karachi: Daniyal, 1992) to life in Paris in the 1930s, while Abida Sultaan describes her diplomatic assignments to the United States, China, and Brazil in the 1950s and a later stay in Jordan in Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, 217–25, 253–55. An autobiography dominated by foreign travel is Ghulam Fatima Shaikh’s Footprints in Time with four out of seven chapters dedicated to the eight years she spent living in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and the Khilafat Movement. There are many more examples in Muslim women’s autobiographical writing of long stays in the United Kingdom, especially. On the inclusion of travel narratives in this study, see chapter 1.

44. Ishvani, The Brocaded Sari (New York: John Day, 1947); Princess Mehrunissa of Rampur, An Extraordinary Life (Noida: Brijbasi Art Press, 2006); and Sara Suleri, Meatless Days (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). It is worth noting that despite writing in the United States, where she had lived for nearly three decades, Mehrunissa Khan still styled herself as “Princess Mehrunissa of Rampur” on the cover. Also relevant here is Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Lahore with Love: Growing Up with Girlfriends Pakistani-Style (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010).

45. Examples include Yasmin Hai’s The Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter: Becoming British: A Memoir (London: Virago, 2008); and Sadia Shepard’s The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home (New York: Penguin, 2008).

46. On the Fyzees’ Turkish links, see Lambert-Hurley and Sharma, Atiya’s Journeys, 18–20.