Underneath the Quilt: Female homoerotic desire, the zanana as a sexualized space, and challenging patriarchal constructions of marriage and the “oppressed” Muslim wife

Pre-post: This is a research paper I wrote in one of my gender studies graduate classes, and it’s currently being considered for publication. Of course, I can not, and will not, share the whole paper, but I am more than happy to share the introduction. I am hoping to get this paper published in a peer-reviewed journal at some point next year. So, in the meantime, happy reading!



Introduction: Situating “The Quilt”

Ismat Chughtai’s 1941 short story, “The Quilt” (translated from the original Urdu title, Lihaaf) is often perceived by both scholars and critics as an intrepid example of radical feminist politics [1]. Although the story does not make direct reference to same-sex desire or relationships, the depiction of sexual overtones are not far from apparent. Narrated by a young girl, “The Quilt” centers around two women: Begum Jaan, the wife of the wealthy, upper-class but religiously devout Nawab Saheb, and Rabbu, one of the maidservants working in the house. The narrator of the story comes to term with her own sexual awakening as she witnesses how Begum Jaan, who was initially “frail…wasted away in anguished loneliness,” [2] due to neglect of her uncaring husband, is soon revived under Rabbu’s attention: “her thin body began to fill out, her cheeks began to glow, and she blossomed into beauty ” [2]. The young girl’s confused, yet fascinated, recollections of the nightly movements of Begum Jaan’s mysterious quilt becomes a construct between “imaginings of pleasant satiation and grave danger, to the point where she stands on the threshold of forbidden knowledge” [3]. This is depicted at the end of the story, in which the “dancing” quilt rises by almost a foot, allowing the narrator to finally bear witness to what is exactly happening, “Allah!…What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never tell anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees” [2]. It is at this final moment that female homoerotic desire is ultimately realized, thus challenging culturally, and religiously, accepted gender and sexual identities.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to bring into discussion “The Quilt” with Gayatri Gopinath’s concept of female homoeroticism, as being one of the key themes from her book “Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures,” which challenges notions of visibility, suppression, concealment, and secrecy of same sex desire — all within the confines of the Muslim household, or more specifically, the zanana. It is important to examine “The Quilt” within notions of the zanana, which comes into the Urdu language from Persian and is a modification of the word zan, which means woman. The zanana therefore suggests enclosure, and literally refers to women and women’s space respectively. The story hence challenges the theorization of sexuality and homosexual desire that is located within the very traditional Muslim “heterosexed” household. “The Quilt” nevertheless tries to counter the rhetoric of desexualization of the zanana, and challenge conservative religious Islamic ideologies. It is apparent that by the time “The Quilt” was written in the 1940s, the intention was to shatter the narrative of the zanana as a space in which Muslim women could carry out specific roles assigned to them by patriarchy, and that were representative of the Islamic culture. Chughtai sought to write a story that would not only sexualize the zanana, but also disrupt the norms that were typically demanded, and expected, of Muslim women in religiously strict, patriarchal, predominantly heterosexual enclosures.

The paper will also examine how “The Quilt” sets to challenge notions of “proper” South Asian womanhood, in both the religious — more specifically Muslim — and nationalist context, where women are often represented as chaste, oppressed, immune to the home, and sexually pure. This view of the “oppressed” Muslim women is based on colonial constructions, which often “enforces totalizing stereotypes of oppressed figures living under what is often perceived as a violent and patriarchal culture” [4]. Muslim wives, in particular, are turned into voiceless vessels of their respective traditions and their bodies’ are robbed of their freedoms, and are further resorted to belonging to the man as a form of “property.” Yet, in “The Quilt,” Chughtai does not project the women’s subordinate status as being entirely monolithic. As a matter of fact, the Muslim women in “The Quilt” are never portrayed as entirely oppressed, passive, demure, and obedient individuals. Rather, these women use different strategies or measures to dispute patriarchal values, refute normative marital assumptions, and exercise sexual agency and freedom in same-sex desire.



[1] Khanna, Tanvi. “Gender, Self-representation, and Sexualized Spaces: A Reading of Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf.” IMPACT: International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Literature, Vol. 2, no. 7, July 2014, pp. 49-54.

[2] Chughtai, Ismat. “The Quilt.” Manushi. Trans. Ed. Manohar Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi: 1996. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

[3] Mitra, Indrani. “‘There is no sin in our love’: Homoerotic Desire in the Stories of Two Muslim Women.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 29, no. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 311-329.

[4] Khan, Hafiza Nilofar. “South Asian Fiction and Marital Agency of Muslim Wives.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 14, no. 3, July 2013, pp. 174-193.

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