Lihaaf: Ismat Chugtai's Revolutionary Take on Sex and Sexuality

Updated: Oct 4

Khushi Singh [Second-year Law Student, Jindal Global Law School]

“Lihaaf”, the controversial short story by Ismat Chugtai was published in the year 1941, way before Independence, in an Urdu Literary Journal titled Adaab-i-Latif (Trivedi). It talked about repressed sexual desires and the exploitation of another’s body to fulfil oneself. No wonder it caused great controversy, outrage, and even an obscenity prosecution, in which Ismat had to defend herself in the Lahore Court for this work. Nonetheless, it was widely published throughout the next few decades and became one of her most well-known works. “Lihaaf” was way ahead of its time in the sense that it could dabble with the taboo subject of two married partners being sexually attracted to their respective genders and individually engaging in secret, same-sex encounters under the garb of a normal, heterosexual marriage.


Though it gained notoriety for its homosexual overtones, it also dealt with the isolated and stifling existence of a neglected wife in a traditional, conservative society (Dar). However, through a reading of “Lihaaf [The Quilt]” by Ismat Chugtai, this article argues how the emphasis on sexuality and queer relationships sidelines the issues of power dynamics and child sexual abuse before the independence era. Before we begin, it’s important to note that since the story is narrated from the viewpoint of a child, there is never an express mention of the sexual encounters or direct acknowledgement of the characters’ sexualities (Gupta 66-67).


While in the current times, assuming somebody’s sexuality purely based on the following incidences would be considered stereotypical and hence problematic on many grounds, it was believed then that Nawab Saheb was a closeted homosexual (Khanna 51). He had never indulged in sexual encounters with prostitutes or dancers throughout this life, which was considered a “virtue” due to which Begum Jaan was married off to him despite the age difference between the two (Chugtai 36). However, even after marrying Begum Jaan he simply ignored her existence in his life and treated her like an old possession, done and dusted with (Chugtai 36). With this, Chugtai also emphasises how the institution of marriage was viewed as a business transaction in which women were reduced to commodities to be purchased and then put within the boundaries of the house (Khanna 51). He never even tried to be affectionate towards her, let alone love her at all. Instead, he used to spend all his time running an open house for young attractive male students, whose expenses were borne by him. He showed them great hospitality and attended to all their needs, which was indicated by how he got delicacies prepared for them during their stay (Chugtai 36) while Begum Jaan “rotted in her room”, neglected and jealous of the young boys who receive more care and attention from her husband than she ever did. The phrase, “one cannot draw blood from a stone“ (Chugtai 36-37) indicates how he had no love whatsoever to give to her which in turn sheds light on the possibility of his being a homosexual (Khanna 51).


In addition to this, an element of power dynamics is also evident here. Being secretly attracted to the same gender didn’t stop him from controlling her like a true patriarch (Trivedi), for he was still the ‘head’ of the house. She was never allowed to leave the house at any cost (Chugtai 37). Thus he ensured that he would neither love her the way she wanted nor let her live her life on her terms (which she did nonetheless, after the arrival of her masseuse, Rabbu).


Neglected by an aristocratic husband who preferred to spend his time with beautiful young men, eventually, the cocooned woman found physical and emotional fulfilment in the bed she ended up sharing with her servant (Gupta 67). What started as daily massage sessions to reinvigorate the ‘undernourished’ Begum Jaan (Chugtai 37) soon turned into a clandestine, intimate relationship between her and Rabbu. Begum Jaan’s body suffered from a “permanent itch” (Chugtai 37); it was indicative of the repressed fantasies harboured by her which were finally compensated for through the means of Rabbu. Instead of withering away in desolation, she made a bold choice and used her sexuality as an instrument for her empowerment (Khanna 52). Although outwardly she abided by the patriarchal norms and possessed all the traits necessary for a virtuous woman in a conservative setup, it was within the confines of her room that she refused to give up her needs and desires for sexual satisfaction even if the only way left to her was to fulfil them by resorting to a ‘deviant’ way of sexual relationship (Khanna 52). She refused to give in to the repressive marriage customs that defined her only in terms of a relationship with her husband. Instead, she created for herself the image of a new woman, free from the shackles of patriarchy and articulated a new gendered consciousness (Khanna 52). The impetus and motivation for her homoerotic relationship with Rabbu was the ‘male-male relationship’ between Nawab and the young students (Khanna 52); in both cases, their bodies and their desires bridged the gap left by their dysfunctional heteronormative marriage (Trivedi).


Through the story, Chugtai’s writing was able to bring to light the untouched subject of female desire and sexuality (Trivedi), even if she didn’t explicitly define the relationship between the two women for it was described to us through the visual details given by the naive and innocent narrator (Khanna 52). She talked about women’s bodies, not as objects of the male gaze, but rather as independent entities (Trivedi). She showed women snatching back their agency in a male-dominated society (Dar). As a result, she was able to successfully ‘lift the veil’ over the controversy and make the invisible, the subject of discussion (Trivedi).


An interesting observation that can be noted here is that sexual relations between persons of the same gender were deemed forbidden at the time “Lihaaf” was published. Their presence was acknowledged, but it was still 'veiled'. Thus the narrator in the story employed the use of metaphors to avoid addressing it directly. The narrator’s voice also reflected the narrator's cluelessness about the entire truth (Trivedi). Thus, the story disclosed the dynamics of sexuality within the closed circles of enclosures i.e. the quilt, only through the child’s visual description and display of Begum Jaan’s body (Patel 181). The quilt not only became an important symbol for covering the frightened narrator (whenever she saw the shadows of the quilt) but also for concealing the subversive sexual activities of Begum Jaan and Rabbu (Khanna 52). Since engaging in an extramarital affair (especially one of a homosexual nature) was considered a taboo at that time, they used to indulge in this ‘little secret’ of theirs late at night, behind closed doors and away from the prying eyes of the conservative society.


Nonetheless, while Ismat Chughtai's “Lihaaf” successfully breaks away from the conventional status of women in a patriarchal system and explores homoerotic themes, it also conceals abuse and biases beneath its layers (Dar). To begin with, since Chughtai was still relatively unfamiliar with homosexuality when she wrote the story, it feels like elements of her personal biases are mirrored throughout the narrative (Dar). Begum Jaan, married to a Nawab who was already rumoured to be queer, had turned into a mere possession over which she had no control (Dar). The only way she could explore her sexual urges was with Rabbu. As a result of Nawab's refusal to heed Begum Jaan's wishes, a same-sex relationship became her last resort; hence, it did not normalise Begum Jaan's sexuality, but was rather a ‘deviation’ from the norm; as a result of her unique predicament i.e. an absent spouse (Dar). Begum's wants did not appear 'natural,' since they thrived on the lack of satisfaction via the ostensibly usual path, i.e. heterosexual, legitimate means (Dar). Instead, they further reinforced the negative stereotypes associated with homosexuality, “being a homosexual is one’s choice and hence queer people can be ‘converted back to normal.’”


Secondly, three other instances of power dynamics are evident here, apart from the one mentioned above. While there is no mention of any instance of harassment by Nawab, he was a patron to the young men and hence, in a position to manipulate and control them easily. Next, in the case of the relationship between Begum and Rabbu: both of them belonged to different strata of the society, so a huge class difference existed between them. As a result, Rabbu was always sexually dominated by Begum during their encounters (Dar). However, the ultimate difference existed between the narrator and Begum for she was her caretaker, due to which she had immense power over the child (Dar).


However, it is alarming to observe that the young girl's sexual assault as a result of this power imbalance remained mainly unacknowledged (Dar). Even though Begum Jaan physically holding the girl and satiating her passion by rubbing against her was a clear example of abuse, there was little to no focus on the misery and anguish she may have suffered as a result of this experience (Dar). This reflects the fundamental premise of child abuse, in which children have no agency and are left to wonder about the nature of the incident. The point is not whether she indulged in a sexual act with the girl, but that the child's feelings of violation and distress should have taken precedence (Dar). Begum Jaan, a mature adult woman, was aware of what she was doing to the girl but chose to continue nonetheless. Begum Jaan left the girl powerless in the same manner as patriarchal, imperialistic society seized control over her (Dar). As a result, while Lihaaf is regarded as feminist literature, Begum Jaan was far from the righteous protagonist of the narrative. She morphed into a sexual predator, abusing the little authority she had in her relationship with the kid, and in doing so became the very thing she swore to destroy (Dar).


  1. Chugtai, Ismat. Lihaaf [The Quilt]. Translated by M. Asaddudin. 9 June 2014. Internet Archive, Manushi, https://www.manushiindia.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf.

  2. Dar, Rutba. “Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf Is A Brave 1942 Story Of Women’s Sexuality, But Are We Missing A Crucial Part?” Women's Web, Women's Web, 20 8 2020, https://www.womensweb.in/2020/08/ismat-chughtai-lihaaf-the-quilt-womens-sexuality-child-sexual-abuse-aug20wk3sr/.

  3. Gupta, Priyamvada. “Habitations of womanhood: Ismat Chugtai's secret history of modernity.” Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence, Routledge, 2012, pp. 66-88. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=lf8wfOR1058C&lpg=PT83&pg=PT83#v=onepage&q&f=false.

  4. Khanna, Tanvi. “Gender, Self-Representation and Sexualised Spaces: A Reading of Ismat Chugtai's Lihaaf.” IMPACT: International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Literature (IMPACT: IJRHAL), vol. 2, no. 7, 2014, p. 5. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/6.HumanitiesGenderSelfRepresentationAndSexualizedSpacesTanviKhanna/mode/1up.

  5. Patel, Geeta. “Marking the Quilt: Veil, Harem/Home, and the Subversion of Colonial Civility.” Colby Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 2001, pp. 174-188. Digital Commons, https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/cq/vol37/iss2/7/.

  6. Trivedi, Grishma. “Review: Lihaaf.” In Plainspeak, Tarshi, 15 October 2018, https://www.tarshi.net/inplainspeak/review-lihaaf/.

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