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Updated: June 21, 2011 12:03 IST

Challenges of women in North India

V. K. Natraj
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political economy of production and reproduction caste,custom,and community in north india
political economy of production and reproduction caste,custom,and community in north india

Haryana is in the news these days, often for wrong reasons — for barbaric punishments meted out by the traditional (Khap) Panchayats in the name of justice, and for the highly unfavourable sex ratio, for example. But the State ranks high in agricultural production.

In pre-Independence India, however, it was backward. How has the transformation of Haryana from a deficit to a surplus State impacted its culture and mores, especially insofar as they relate to women? How ‘communal' is the State in terms of Hindu-Muslim conflict? Is there evidence of a perceived threat among males in relation to legislation that seeks to benefit women? These are the principal questions Prem Chowdhry examines in this volume.

She discusses some cases of what are commonly referred to as ‘communal riots' against a wider backdrop and shows how they are often the result of several factors, the most significant of which are claims to and conflicts over land.

The paper, “Contours of Communalism: Religion, Caste and Identity in South-East Punjab”, where she analyses cases of the pre-Independence years, creates a feeling of déjà vu, given the rash of communal disturbances occurring today. Among the best in the volume, it shows how religion came to be used as a cloak for furthering other interests.

Challenges

Arguing that ‘cow protection' continues to inflame passions, she points out, with a sense of satisfaction and profound relief, how the Bajrang Dal/VHP combine failed in its efforts to communalise the issue.

The challenges that confronted the traditional structure of authority stand out as Chowdhry's major concern. Some of the interesting questions she raises relate to gender, property and inheritance rights of women (particularly, widows), and the resistance of the patriarchal society to any pro-women reform. She juxtaposes the property rights of widows with the untiring efforts of the patriarchal system to exercise control over their sexuality.

In a highly insightful piece, she looks at the way widows sought to retain their hold over the deceased husband's property, defying the common practice of levirate marriage and illustrates how some even courted the label, ‘unchaste' by living with a partner instead of submitting to the levirate/karewa system. Also evident from her studies is that men feel threatened whenever any law that seeks to empower women is formulated or implemented. There is the case of the Haryana Government trying to undo some of the progressive pro-women features of the Hindu Succession Act through an amending legislation in 1979. It fell through because the President withheld his assent. Men's perceived threat is also behind much of resistance to any attempt to reform the working of traditional institutions, such as ‘caste Panchayats' that perpetuate the regressive age-old practices.

‘Khap' Panchayat

All the findings and discussion on these issues are particularly relevant now, when ‘Khap Panchayats' have invited the wrath of the Supreme Court for endorsing what are called ‘honour killings'. There is also the distinct possibility of the male perception of threat getting reinforced by the sustained efforts being made to create more political space for women by, for example, reserving seats for them in Parliament.

The contradictions noticed in rural society — subtle and sometimes not so subtle — also get reflected in the way women are treated. The paper on the cultural centrality of the ghunghat brings this out very well. Women participate fully in the labour force. Yet, while it is the done thing for men to get urbanised and take to habits associated with that way of life, women are enjoined to “guard” the culture. The paper with a rather evocative title “First Our Jobs, then Our Girls” explores the complex dynamics of Dalit-non-Dalit relations. She makes the point that state agencies do not intervene to uphold the law when Dalits are the targets of violence.

Rich in content and critical in analysis, this is a recommended read for academics as well as lay students interested in understanding Indian society. Finally, one is pleased to come across a book that is copy-edited well, a rarity these days.

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