Hum and After the Cut: A Close Looking Into Seventeenth-century Mughal painting, 'Zulaykha's Guests Distracted by Yusuf's Beauty'

  • Fatema Abdoolcarim

Student thesis: Phd


This PhD project is comprised of two parts, each of which is intended to stand alone. Though each piece was conceived and written separately, they do stem from a similar desire: to speak to the practice of khatna (a form of female genital cutting) among the Dawoodi Bohra community in new ways. Both film script and critical essay are rooted in the specificity of the context of the Dawoodi Bohra Shi'a Muslim community, but also share concerns for broader themes such as agency, silence, beauty, pleasure, and love. 'Hum' is a film script that tells a story in three parts, intertwining memoir and fiction. The story comprises of three interconnected vignettes that each focus on a different member of the same family: Rabia, Hayam, and Yusuf. In the first chapter, 'Rabia', a young female beekeeper grapples with her new home in Hong Kong, and with her new role as a mother. In the second part, 'Hayam', a mother-less girl, after undergoing the Dawoodi Bohra practice of khatna, searches to reclaim her innocent wildness through the intimate bond she forms with a young girl from the neighbourhood. And in the third chapter, 'Yusuf', a middle-aged, single father, while providing company to his dying friend during the hospital's visitation hours, is forced to confront his choices of the past. II. 'After the Cut: A Close Looking Into Seventeenth-century Mughal painting, 'Zulaykha's Guests Distracted by Yusuf's Beauty' is a critical essay that looks closely at a painting that illustrates a scene from a well-known Sufi love poem, 'Yusuf and Zulaikha', based on the Qur'anic chapter, 'sura Yusuf'. The painting depicts a group of women cutting their fingers, instead of fruit, at the sight of God's most beautiful creation, the Prophet Yusuf. Examining historical religious texts, their interpretations, poetic narratives and images of sexual and divine love, I challenge the historically popular interpretation attached to this scene: that it is proof of a woman's violent and dangerous sexual nature. Turning to the tradition of Islamic painting in which female figures are depicted uniformly, I re-read iterations of historical, religious and visual interpretation that have constructed a singular idea of woman and her sexuality. I read 'Zulaykha's Guests Distracted by Yusuf's Beauty' as an allegory for khatna among the Dawoodi Bohra community--a practice largely justified by the idea of a woman's uncontrollable sexual desire, and which treats a woman's sexual sensation as a singular experience--and give expression to a tradition that has otherwise no historical visual or written representation. Using a multiplicity of writing voices--autobiographical, political, historical, art historical, and theoretical--this thesis considers the practice of khatna, its politics, history, religion and representation reparatively, and encompasses the complex nuances that are inherent to such a practice; nuances that are so often overlooked when spoken with just one type of voice. The shift of writing tones in this thesis, which entangles personal story, religious interpretation and history, and the pleasure of looking closely at artwork, also expresses the desire to expand what the study of art can do. The study of 'Zulaykha's Guests Distracted by Yusuf's Beauty' is not to discover origins or new meaning linked to the painting; instead, my interest is to look towards the artwork as a guide for broadening new ways of looking into, understanding (and questioning) pleasure--the central theme illuminated by the image.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJohn Mcauliffe (Supervisor) & Carol Mavor (Supervisor)

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