This article focuses on Saadat Hassan Manto’s observations regarding the position of women in conservative British-Indian society. By conducting a critical examination of Manto’s female characters in his short stories, the reader will be pulled towards the underlying theme of Feminism backed by Humanism and Realism. Manto’s humanism reflected through women, the most deeply affected victims of the partition. Manto had a preoccupation with writing about prostitutes and their individual trials in their own peculiar set up in society. Instead of condemning these fallen women Manto empathised with them and wrote about their pain of being exploited by society. Manto as a writer peeped through the windows of partition and prostitute stories. They provided him the occasion and subject to depict humanity. 

Manto began his career as a translator of popular European literature under the tutelage of his mentor Mr. Bari. Writers like Gorky, Chekhov, Oscar Wilde and Freud paved his inclination towards realistic writing. Europe was facing Holocaust and India was experiencing a historical moment of her own. Simultaneously on the artistic front literature took shape in the form of a movement called Progressive writers movement. Manto was a pioneer and an integral part of that movement until his writings with time found a voice and life of its own. India’s bloody partition reflected in his work in such a manner that even the progressives shied away from that blatant depiction. Manto’s stories like ‘Bu’, ‘Kali Shalwar’, and ‘Khol Dou’ shocked the literati and each one of them turned their backs on him, despite the fact that they once praised him highly. Obscenity charges were made against him in India and later on in Pakistan but nothing was proven. 

Manto’s position on women has been constantly scrutinized in current literature. Where some authors focus on his elaboration of women’s characteristics and qualities, others tend to exclusively concentrate on his humanisation of exploited sex-workers. 

 According to Mukhopadhyav, Manto portrayed women as heroes during the partition. Since they were the ones who suffered the most heinous acts such as being abducted, gang raped and separated from their families, and yet still found compassion, patience and resilience in themselves to help the so called ‘enemy’. In Manto’s short story ‘Mozail’ the protagonist Mozail a Jewish woman, during the bloody riots of 1947 protected and helped a Sikh couple to flee the murderous Muslim crowd. By sacrificing herself she showed enormous courage in the moment of crisis and rose above the religious boundaries. Similarly, Rumi writes about Manto’s depiction of women as being brave, intelligent and capable of surviving without a man.

On the other hand, Khurram Ali Shafiq defends Manto for allegedly objectifying women, and explaining in detail Manto’s feminist view. For example, Manto would describe a woman’s anatomy in a realistic and explicit manner. That shocked the progressive writers and the conservative society. Shafiq like Luce Irigaray, a French philosopher, considers the three categorisations of women found in Manto’s female characters, the anxious teenage girl who is no less than a boy in mental and physical prowess, the homemaker with holier than thou attitude and the commercial, immoral sex worker. 

The last category especially has been extensively discussed by the likes of Sukrita Paul Kumar. She talks about Manto’s portrayal of sex workers as humans and not as some non-existent, silent, and inarticulate part of society. They have feelings, can have revelations and can be good people. For example, a prostitute like Saughandhi in Manto’s shorty story ‘Hatak’ experiences an existential crisis due to a humiliating rejection and she showed her spiritual capability of going through an inner journey to burst the lie of love. Saughandi, a low class prostitute had accepted her professional fate in society but a hidden part of her is hungry for love, which forces her to share her hard earned money with her lover. But in one moment of clarity, when she is utterly humiliated and rejected by a customer, paves her way to smash this lie of love and she kicks her selfish lover out. A moment of revelation; that she had enough of paying a man to be loved.

Similarly, Dr. S Z Abbas looked at Manto’s writing on prostitution as an institution created by men in the social order where women are commodities traded for money. Through Manto’s two short stories, ‘Hatak’ & ‘Behind the Reeds’ he critically analyses the theory of ‘one is not born a woman but becomes a woman’, by famous philosopher Simone de Beauvoire. Is someone born a woman or they become a woman because the male society treats and looks at them in a certain manner and expects certain characteristics in their behaviour and physical appearance. 

Manto through his characters, both men and women, portrays some very basic fundamental human traits. Manto’s stories were drawing attention to little tragedies during one big tragedy of partition. So, his protagonists, whether male or female revolved around the fact that we all are humans and are capable of kindness, courage, sacrifice, caring, tolerance, and above all forgiveness. This was the universal appeal of Manto’s characters. In a short story ‘Mahmuda’ Manto writes about how a love less sex less marriage can drive a woman away from her own home into the arms of strangers and yet at the same time a neighbour who is in love with her could understand the tragedy the plight behind this woman’s fallen state. ‘Behind the Reeds’ is another story where a woman’s character in her jealous rage is shown capable of murdering another woman and completely enjoying it.    

Manto wrote in a detached manner but he was not indifferent because he cared deeply. Obscenity charges against some of his stories were never proven simply because there was no element of titillation in them. For Manto was influenced by Dr. Freud and completely agreed that sex is an integral part of a human being. In a short story ‘Bu’, a man is obsessed with a woman’s body odour and after his marriage he is unable to enjoy fragrant and clean marital bliss. ‘Khol Dou’ and ‘Thanda Gosht’ became the bane of his life. These stories told about the horrors of partition in the most explicit manner and though they were based on everyday happening people simply could not digest them and Manto was condemned in the court. 

In ‘Khol Dou’ a girl is returned to Pakistan after being ravaged by men on both sides of the border. The doctor instructed her to open the windows and instead in a traumatic state she believes that to mean untie her shalwar and remove it, opening up her legs. The ironical part is her father is simply oblivious of what just had occurred and is ecstatic to see her body move, that he screams in delirious manner, ‘she is alive’, completely ignoring the shocking gesture. ‘Dhuan’, another controversial short story depicting a teenager’s rising sexual feelings. Manto probably was the first South Asian writer to point out the raging hormones of boys and girls. Complex sexual politics is at works in this story. Manto’s short stories are filled with romantic sensibility tending to evoke sympathy in readers talking about deep emotional, moving experiences of human life. 

My personal view of Manto the man and Manto the writer, where one begins and the other ends, would highlight Manto’s life and works integration in an investigative way. His life’s roller coaster ride; the highs, the lows and migration in 1947 is very close to my heart as my mother belonged to Manto’s city Bombay and she migrated to Lahore the same time as Manto, himself. The forced circumstances which lead to leaving your loved ones or birth place are an excruciating aspect of migration. 

Also sexuality in Manto’s stories gave power to women and gave voice to all fears and addresses the curiosity of that time. The last decade has witnessed massive public support for repressed women. Whether it’s the #meetoo movement or women’s emancipation in different countries, it’s there to stay and grow. Issues such as a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body or equal pay are prevalent in today’s world, which is why a number of authors are studying Manto’s feminism. My article is intended to show that Manto was ahead of his time in terms of understanding women’s perspectives and had the pulse of society in his hand. He wrote about controversial topics that still exist on a social and ideological level and are universal in its appeal.


 The writer is a freelance columnist.