Women of India is an important volume, not only because as editor Bharati Ray has to gathered in one place essays by almost all the important gender studies scholars in India, but also because it seeks to put into one text all the imaginable aspects of the history of women in modern India. The collection is part (vol. IX, part 3) of a larger project on History of Science, Philosophy and Culture of Indian Civilisation, coordinated by D.P. Chattopadhyay, a project that has already produced a large body of work seeking to chronologically and comprehensively describe all that there is to know about Indian history, culture, knowledge-systems and religions. Placed within this oeuvre, the book under review acquires a kind of a larger claim to representativeness, which readers of the volume must necessarily engage with. A few preliminary remarks on this. The very fact that such a volume takes the form of a collection of many texts rather than one continuous narrative is important.
It shows that from the perspective of gender studies, there could be no illusion of a civilizational totality—though civilization is a term central to the larger project of which the volume is a part—that could seek to encapsulate women’s history in India. For the history of women, if anything, has been a history of dissent and conflict, especially over so-called civilizational terms and claims. Bharati Ray’s introduction too makes no attempt to weave the various essays into any one structure, or even argument, on ‘women of India’. Though one is left somewhat dissatisfied with the introduction, which works as merely a classificatory list of the essays to come, perhaps this was a deliberate editorial strategy—to refuse to give a false coherence to gender studies in the name of it all being about India and Indian ‘civilization’? Yet, the title of the volume speaks differently. The earlier volume on women in ancient and medieval times was called Women in India. The fact that the volume on women in modern times is called Women of India does seem to suggest that there is a presumption at work here—that with colonialism, gender politics get automatically imbricated in the nation. But is this not the precise point on which gender studies in India have been most vocal—that bringing gender to the centre-stage must necessarily proceed though a critique of the idea of nationalism and nationality, through a critique of the sensibility that women are of India in the same ‘natural’ manner of belonging as all others?
Women of India is organized in six sections—family/law, body/sexuality, knowledge system, work, creativity/voices, and politics. The first section on family/law problematizes one of the most fundamental and lasting binaries of modernity—namely, the private/public distinction—that continues to haunt gender politics. It goes on to show how the interior—both of the self and the community—actually gets fashioned through public, legal discourses, and how, at the same time, the very effectivity of juridical discourse gets founded on an interiorization of law as the private norm of conjugality. Flavia Agnes writes of how Victorian morality, English legal principles, and adversarial court procedures get internalized into marriages in India through the creation of the concept of religious ‘personal laws’. Patricia Uberoi writes of how in the decades after independence heterogeneous kinship norms, for instance in south India, came under moral and cultural pressure from north Indian, upper-caste patrilineal notions of normal/prohibited relations. Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon present the findings of their 2000-2001 survey of Muslim women—to explode commonly-held beliefs about Islam and women and thus implicitly shows that from the perspective of gender politics a community is clearly not at one with itself and thus cannot be written of necessarily as a coherent totality.
The second section is on body/sexuality. Leela Visaria investigates India’s worsening sex-ratio and argues that behind this lay a generalized phenomenon of women’s excess mortality, from infancy to the age of 34, and that this goes far beyond explanations which only quote female foeticide as the reason. Prem Choudhury, through a study of women’s oral traditions in north India, documents how traditional women’s songs could portray transgressive desire—very often in the form of lust for low-caste men. She also shows how such songs were the targets of criticism by men, whose efforts at control and domestication of female sexuality became effective particularly with the rise and consolidation of martial Hinduism in the 1920s. One of the most fascinating essays in the volume is G. Arunima’s ‘Friends and Lovers: Towards a Social History of Emotions in 19th and 20th Century Kerala’. Through a reading of novels and women’s autobiographies, Arunima argues that the enunciation of the self-consciously ‘modern’ subject in the colony occurs through the creation of a ‘culture of love’, as it were, where love gets figured not just as desire and fantasy but as both individual right (to choose a partner) and individual expression (writing the self), often against kinship/caste structures and community norms. From such an intimate perspective, seen as not quite admissible in public (both liberal and otherwise) discourse, the modern moment reappears ‘elsewhere’, somewhat displaced from the realm of masculinist history-writing and history-making! In the other interesting essay in this section, Kumkum Sangari analyses the structure of different kinds of social violence, to go on to argue that the ideology and technique behind different violent acts—whether widow immolation or communal riot—are actually remarkably similar, if seen from a feminist perspective.
The next section on knowledge has a comprehensive summary by Aparna Basu on women’s education in India from 1850 to 2000, an essay by Anil Gupta and R.A. Mashlekar on the systemic exclusion of women from formal science and women’s special knowledge skills in informal sciences like indigenous medicine and healing, and a study by Madhav Gadghil, Jayshree Vencatesan and R.J. Ranjit Daniels of the women of Koli hills, currently struggling for right to access and conservation of their hill environment and sacred groves
Smita Tewari Jassal’s essay on ‘Gendering Agrarian Issues’ shows how land reforms have always favoured men, at a renewed exclusion of women, because men are assumed to be direct tillers and therefore primary agricultural producers (despite the fact that men are the ones who more frequently migrate out to urban areas). Legal reforms too have bypassed rural women, because daughters’ rights via the 1937 Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act and the 1956 Hindu Succession Act did not apply to agricultural lands. Even government housing projects and bank credit work with the idea of men as heads of households, showing how well-intentioned redistributive and developmental projects can actually go on to further entrench structures of traditional patriarchy. Sudha Deshpande analyses patterns of female employment and gender-based wage discrimination across firms and industries and goes on to make the important point that the tyranny of the household and devaluation of domestic work are important determinants of how women are seen in outside work as well. Women continue to be seen less as productive subjects and contributors to development and more as intended beneficiaries of social service. Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah look at two industries with different positions in the liberalization process and at their restructuring in contemporary times—namely, plastic industries, a low-end manufacture, now struggling against imported, cheap East Asian products, and the flourishing, export-oriented diamond industry, benefiting from lower duties, import facilities and tax holidays. Interestingly, both industries use the same ‘traditional’ strategy—that of using young women workers, as low skilled, flexible, and ‘contingent’ employees—to make and retain their place in the global market. Suhas Paranjape and K.J. Joy talk of the need to develop a struggle for sustainable and equitable reorganization of India’s water sector, in the form of a movement that is led by women, because they are the ones who have suffered most from the destruction of common property resources and are the ones who bear the increasingly onerous task of fetching drinking water at a time when water is almost fully cornered for commercial uses like power-generation and irrigation.
The last essay in the section on work is Parama Roy’s marvellous ‘Women, Hunger and Famine: Bengal 1350/1943’. Parama Roy argues that even though the number of men who died in the Bengal famine of 1943 was higher than the number of women, it was the women who were portrayed, in both literary and visual representations, as the real suffering, violated and brutalized figures of hungry times—what she calls the ‘fable of the famine’. The beautifully written essay, ends with what should perhaps stand in as the central statement to the whole volume: How do we represent the centrality of female suffering to any account … outside the received languages of honour, patriarchal protection and pure victimization? How do we come to terms with the limits of our capacity to represent subalternity … without an occultation or sentimentalisation of this (non)subject. These are the questions … which invites us into a ‘politics of difficulty’ (p. 400).
The last two sections, Voices/Creativity and Politics appear as if in response to this question about the ‘politics of difficulty’. Amlan Dasgupta’s essay on women practising north Indian ‘classical’ music describes old and new locations—the kotha, the gramophone industry, the gharana, the folk and the reet (the normative/grammatical) as social/cultural domains—and the contestatory moves that women performers had to make as they negotiated their way through these spaces in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anuradha Kapur’s essay on theatre describes women directors experimenting with reconfiguring the body (as ambiguously gendered), the event (as fragmentary and unspectacular moments) and action (as everyday rather than heroic practice) on stage. Jyotindra Jain talks of the struggles by women craftspeople for the recognition of their art and Jutta Jain-Neubauer records the seemingly unexpected phenomenon of women patrons of architecture in Gujrat. Tanika Sarkar writes of the complexity of women’s agitational and associational politics in the last century and a half and of its fraught relationship with wider political processes within the nation. While women’s politics is not always emancipatory nor women’s collectivity naturally given, Sarkar argues, one thing can be said for certain—that women’s political participation fundamentally reconstitutes the meaning of politics, as the public and the intimate, the social and the political, the ‘rational’ and the sentimental come together, as Sarkar says, ‘in a contradictory whole’. Women’s politics therefore cannot always be reduced to a politics of self-interest and self-empowerment—that is, to a politics of rights, in the conventional individual-oriented sense of the term. Vasanth and Kalpana Kannabiran present an outline of a political history of women in Andhra and go on to raise the question that has been repeatedly asked by women who had participated in mass movements and had then been forced to withdraw into the domestic sphere after the conclusion of the movement—namely, what does citizenship mean for those who are effectively prohibited from full-time and full-scale public participation by virtue of the sexual division of labour into the public and the private, the political and the domestic? The volume ends with an intimate account by Gabrielle Dietrich of doing both academics and politics as a gender studies person in India, who poignantly argues for a politics of alliance between feminist and other class-based movements.
Evidently, Women of India is a volume rich in the sheer range of positions and voices that it presents to the reader. One could quibble about its representativeness. One could wonder if an essay on women’s writings or an essay on dalits and gender could not have been included. But then any collection would end up excluding some and including some, and it would not be fair to stretch the point too much. What one misses more in the volume is the sign of editorial effort. One wishes that each section had been prefaced by an editorial note explaining why and how such a section got constituted, and giving us a sense of the changing nature and politics of gender studies as a domain of engagement. In the absence of this, the volume seems to presume a kind of self-evidence for the ‘women’ and for study of gender, which leaves one somewhat uneasy and disturbed.
Prathama Banerjee teaches history at Miranda House, Delhi University. Her book Politics of Time: ‘Primitives’ and history-writing in a colonial society has been recently published from Oxford University Press.