Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 6, 1987 p. 99.

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C. M. Nairn


There are very few documents—particularly of an autobiographical nature—that throw light on the life of the common people of South Asia prior to the twentieth century Rarer still is an autobiography by a woman. That is, however, only one reason why the story of Bibi Ashraf's education as told by her is so valuable to us For even otherwise her simple tale would have gripped our attention due to its poignant, yet matter-of-fact narration of the tremendous odds against which this young Muslim girl of remarkable determination struggled to educate herself in mid-nineteenth century North India. In what follows we shall first present a biographical sketch of Bibi Ashraf, then a translation of her autobiogrphical account, and lastly some discussion of two relevant issues suggested by her story

Who was Bibi Ashraf^

Bibi Ashraf's full name was Ashrafunnisa Begum—in calling her Bibi Ashraf we merely follow the example of her biographer, Muhammadi Begum,2 and show her both affection and respect. She was born on 28 September 1840 in a family of Shi'ah Sayyids in Bahnera, a small rural community in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh Bahnera must have been a very small place: even in 1901, according to the Gazetteer, its total population was 2,582, of which the Muslims accounted for 1,561, its main feature was a weekly market.3

Bibi Ashraf's ancestor's were said to have come from Bukhara in Central Asia to serve under various Mughal kings. Her grandfather owned land in Bahnera and the family lived comfortably on the income from it. Bibi Ashraf's father, Sayyid Fateh

1 This biographical note is based on Hayat-e Asraf, the only detailed account of Bibi Ashraf, written by Muhammadi Begum (Lahore Imambara Sayyida Mubarak Begum, n d ) The original edition must have come out in the first decade of this century We have used the recent photo-reprint published by Sayyid Babar All as a public service (Lahore, n d )

2 Muhammadi Begum, another remarkable person, was the first woman to edit an Urdu magazine devoted to the welfare of Muslim women she was also one of the first to write novels in Urdu for women She edited TahzTb-e NiswaN a weekly magazine for women which was published by her husband Sayyid Mumtaz All (1860-1935), this magazine lasted from 1898 to 1949 For a discussion of Muhammadi Begum s novels, see Shaista Akhtar Banu Suhrawardy, A Critical Survey of the Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story (London, 1945), pp 123-130

3 District Gazetteers of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Vol XIV, Bifnor (Allahabad Government Press 1928) p 304


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