The poets and the feminist

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Atiya Fyzee Rahamin. Photo: Illustration: V.S. WASSON

This book contains letters and poems of Mohammad Iqbal that were in the personal posession of Atiya Begum.

The original English translation of Atiya Fyzee's journal written in Urdu during her sojourn in the West.

January 4, 2014, marks 47 years since Atiya Fyzee Rahamin's death and her bequest to the Karachi municipal corporation, and 137 years since her birth; but neither all the time, nor all the changes and progress has produced the courage that would be needed to reclaim her legacy.

THIRTEEN of the books Atiya Fyzee Rahamin once owned are on display in the tiny gallery near Karachi’s Burns Road. Everything is covered in dust and much is in disrepair. There is a caretaker who is sometimes there, but often the gallery is shuttered up, its dozen or so paintings hidden from the rare visitor’s view. She left it all—scores of paintings by her husband, Samuel Fyzee Rahamin, hundreds of rare books on art and history, and boxes and boxes of artefacts and treasures collected from her travels over a lifetime—to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation. Her wish was that the collection be kept safely, displayed at a more appropriate location in the years to come. It was early January 1967, and perhaps then there was still room to hope that such a thing would happen, for those were still the early years of Pakistan, before 1971, before Islamisation, before the Taliban.

Atiya Fyzee Rahamin was born in Istanbul to a trader father whose Tyabji clan commanded a sizeable entrepreneurial empire trading Indian goods into Ottoman markets. Perhaps it was this initial accident of a foreign birth that made her want to rise above the strictures of seclusion that marked her upbringing, most of which took place in colonial India. The position of women in the late 1800s dangled on the cusp of change. Were they to be educated or kept curtained by illiteracy? If they were permitted to learn, should they learn mathematics and science, subjects that were beginning to be prescribed for Muslim men? Or should their learning be a reflection of the lives that were to be expected of them, the artistry of cooking and sewing and needlepoint, with some poetry and some music to garnish their wifely obedience and motherly self-sacrifice? These questions loomed large in those portentous days, and the men and women of Atiya’s family were at the centre of them.

Their own father came down on the side of education, and as a young girl, Atiya was educated at a mission school now known as the Queen Mary High School for Girls in Bombay. The Fyzee sisters, Zehra, Atiya and Nazli, along with their mother Amirunissa, were also regular attendees of a club created for the women of the Tyabji clan to have recreational opportunities. Under the auspices of “Aqd-e-Suraya”, they participated in debates, badminton games, poetry readings, and other such activities, all of which were quite meticulously documented in the diligently maintained minutes of the organisation. The emancipation of women, their release from the dictates of purdah, was thus a cause championed by the family patriarch Badruddin Tyabji (Atiya’s uncle). Speaking at the Mohammedan Education Conference held in 1903, he expressed his strong disagreement with the seclusion of women in purdah, which required them to be “penned up within the four walls of the house like some strange animal”.

The limbo in which matters regarding the education of women or the freedoms available to women stood was aptly represented by the different fates awaiting the Fyzee sisters. While they were all being educated, the youngest, Nazli, was betrothed in 1886 to the Nawab of Janjira. She was only 12 years old at the time and would be the much older Nawab’s second wife. Against all the rhetoric of educating women, Nazli’s marriage represented the reality that while education was imagined as a worthy value for women, none of the freedoms that it was expected to accrue was automatically available to women. The fact that the marriage into aristocracy represented a significant elevation of status for the trading Fyzees thus seemed a significant concern in its solemnisation.

Nazli’s mournful union to a much older man was undoubtedly a prominent fixture in Atiya’s own considerations of the ills and joys of marriage. For a long time she fled it, focussing instead on her educational and creative pursuits. On September 1, 1906, the young and unveiled Atiya boarded alone the steamship SS Moldavia, bound for London. Every aspect of the journey, from the mournfulness she felt watching the images of her loved ones recede into the horizon, to her impressions of her travel companions, to the tumultuous sea that made comfort impossible, was recorded in Atiya’s “roznamchah”, or daily diary. This travelogue was published under the title Zamana-e-Tehsil in an Urdu women’s magazine. In this way, the courage of this pioneering young woman to attend a Mary Grey College, a British teaching school, was made available to the literate women she left behind in India.

Meeting with Iqbal

Atiya’s travelogue, with its candid and composed confessions regarding events and activities in the foreign land in which she found herself, would gain her more than just a readership. As she writes in her book on the poet Iqbal, “On the first of April 1907, Miss Beck sent me a ‘special invitation’ to meet a very clever man by the name of Mohammad Iqbal, who was specially coming from Cambridge to meet me.” She accepted the invitation and found at the dinner table a “man of ready wit”. When she asked him why he had come to see her, he said, “You have become very famous in India and London through your travel diary.”

Thus began a relationship, the truth of which has been the basis of much speculation over the years. The legacy of Pakistan’s national poet fitting into the parameters of a man directed exclusively toward the metaphysical, untouched by physical desire, has largely dictated the terms of the narrative. Unsurprisingly, there is little mention in Iqbal’s copious biographies and poetical exegesis of the human chapter of his life, in which Atiya Fyzee played a significant role. The letters and recollections of Iqbal that Atiya did choose to publish later in his life reveal a man far different from the iconised and distant figure chosen by his male biographers. In Atiya’s recounting of their days in Heidelberg and London, we see an intense and brilliant man, more than a little enamoured of the attentions of the beautiful and unveiled and mostly foreign women around him. There are hikes to castles and readings of poetry and incidents of bursting into song. The young Iqbal obliges to help prepare authentic Indian meals and enjoys the easy banter at picnics and outings.

In such an atmosphere of idyllic youth and unconventional abandon, romance would have to blossom; but the shreds of evidence that would testify to its bloom have been duly dissected by the guardians of Iqbal’s legacy. He was after all a married man, with children, when he arrived in London and images of coquetry do not fit in the picture of an anointed poet bent on the task of reviving the faithful of the subcontinent from their apathy. The human, it is deemed, has no part in the heroic, and history has slotted Iqbal squarely in the latter.

The casualty, as is ordinarily the case, is the woman who may have been the object of his affections. One verse of a poem Iqbal sent to her not long after they met ends thus: “By a glance you taught me the rules of annihilation: How cool the day that had burnt away the motes from me.” There are more letters and more poems. Some have been weighed on the scales of poetic ambiguity, with the lack of names as evidence that the object of love was not Atiya but a German student named Emma Wiegengast, whom Iqbal met at Heidelberg and also corresponded with. The love of a foreign woman during an Indian man’s educational sojourn was presumably far more permissible than a dalliance with a liberated Muslim woman. Iqbal himself, on his return to India and a marriage with a wife chosen by others, complains profusely about his lovelorn condition to Atiya in several letters. “I am miserable,” one proclaims, as its writer pours his frustrations into the page, “as a human being I deserve happiness.” He does not, however, pursue happiness. Despite the deep intellectual companionship he enjoyed with Atiya, he never proposed to her, choosing to marry instead a second and then a third wife with little education and no intellectual aspirations.

The duplicity of men who would love her but lack the courage to claim her as a partner was not revealed to Atiya Fyzee by Iqbal alone. Her relationship with the poet and Muslim intellectual Maulana Shibli Naumani (1857-1914) belies a similar dynamic in a conservative man—both baffled and fascinated by a liberated and intellectually astute woman. A noted figure at the time, Shibli met Atiya due to his acquaintance with her sister, who was now the wife of a Nawab and thus in a position to further many of Shibli’s projects of educational uplift for Indian Muslims. Interestingly, Shibli himself did not support the idea of women leaving purdah and pursuing an education. He had in fact penned a whole essay refuting the position of Sayyid Ameer Ali and arguing that Islam did not permit Muslim women to emerge from purdah. As he tells Atiya in one missive, “We old-fashioned people do not like women to speak in public freely and to appear uncovered. But you are already in the public world, so whatever happens now should happen on a perfect level.”

Other letters testify to more tempestuous passions on the part of Shibli, whose poetic oeuvre made a return to ghazals, or romantic poetry, in the years during which he knew Atiya. In one exchange between the two, he responds to Atiya’s displeasure that her family was not mentioned in a public announcement of thanks for contributions to one of Shibli’s projects. Shibli responds by glibly invoking the Mughal tradition of indirect allusion rather than explicit naming, going on to say: “I have openly written two ghazals for your departure and arrival [to and from Europe]. And Atiya what is all this about writing and reading. Every hair on my body is a poem describing and praising you… you say I am not very courageous.” Atiya did not understand his situation, Shibli insisted: recognition of her or a lack of attention to people’s views could lead to a destruction of an important movement for the awakening of Muslims.

The correspondence between Atiya and Shibli ended not long after, and he died in 1914. Atiya went on to marry a man who was not a poet or a born Muslim. At 35, an advanced age in the age of pubescent marriages, she married the painter Samuel Rahamin, whom she had met in London. Originally a Jew, he converted to Islam to marry her, and the two made the unusual move of taking each other’s names. Known from then on as Atiya and Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, they collaborated on many artistic projects, including a history of Indian classical music and several plays that were performed in London.

In the days since their deaths in Karachi, several local city governments in the violence-addled city have made overtures at the construction of the new gallery that is to house the treasures that Atiya Fyzee left behind. The grandest came in 2009, when a newly elected city government promised that a 1,800-seat auditorium and expansive gallery would be constructed for the exhibition of the works and artefacts.

All of it, it was said, would be constructed in three months. In 2012, there was still no sign of it, and construction continued to be delayed. January 4, 2014, marks 47 years since Atiya’s death and her bequest, and 137 years since her birth; but neither all the time, nor all the changes and progress has produced the courage that is needed to reclaim her legacy.

Rafia Zakaria is a columnist forDawn , Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper. She is a PhD candidate in Political Philosophy at Indiana University and author of the forthcoming The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan .


Iqbal: Poet-Philosopher of Pakistan edited by Hafeez Malik;

Columbia University Press, 1971.

Atiya’s Journeys : A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian London edited by Siobhan Lamber Hurley and Sunil Sharma; Oxford University Press, 2010.

Iqbal by Atiya Begum edited by Rauf Parekh; Oxford University Press, 2011.