Updated: July 2, 2012 21:15 IST

Indictment of male reformism

Padmini Swaminathan
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Gendering Coonial India, Reforms, Print, Caste and Communalism. Critical Thinking in South Asian History
Gendering Coonial India, Reforms, Print, Caste and Communalism. Critical Thinking in South Asian History

Patriarchies were not only recast in more powerful ways, they were also subverted or questioned

It is significant that, in setting the context for the Reader under review, the author implicitly highlights the fact that it could be regarded as complementary to two earlier works, namely, Recasting Women [edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid] and Women in Modern India [by Geraldine Forbes] for, as the author emphasises, her Reader not only revisits “how patriarchies were recast, but also how they were challenged, destabilised and subverted overtly and covertly … the essays here also expand geographical arenas, pointing to regional complexities”. Apart from 12 essays, the book contains translated versions of three texts originally published in Malayalam, Gurumukhi and Hindi; two of the texts, penned by male reformers and publicists, betray deep anxieties about women’s behaviour and hence attempt to reshape the latter’s domestic and cultural roles, while the piece on ‘Womanliness’ by a woman is a sharp indictment of male reformist paradigms.


While recognising that there are still some gaps in the coverage of themes by the essays in the Reader, Gupta’s Introduction makes up for some of these omissions through a broad mapping of the historiographical debates and connections between gender, caste, social reforms, communalism and nationalism. Exploring, among other things, ‘how disorder crept into the moral order’ of society broadly links most of the papers thereby also revealing, not only how patriarchies were recast in more powerful though subtle ways, but also how they were subverted or at least questioned. In this context, Mrinalini Sinha’s poser in her paper that ‘in many ways it is men who have no history’ and therefore the need to give masculinity a history so that the various arrangements of power can be unearthed is extremely relevant and thought provoking.

Debates and contestations around the practice and interpretations of sati continue to engage scholars across the globe; Andrea Major’s piece attempts to place the early 19th century debate on sati in the context of a longer history of colonial interactions with the rite — a rite that had become highly political and which required the engagement of the State of the day one way or the other. Similarly debates around widow remarriage bring out the complex terrain that it occupied and Tanika Sarkar’s brilliant and elaborate discussion of the same sketches the ‘multiple, insidious and subterranean ways the campaign and the law fractured older ethical convictions’.

Education of women was high on the agenda of reformers even as the content and purpose of education not only defied resolution but actually revealed the anxieties [religious and otherwise] of the reformers. While Gail Minault’s essay sketches the manner in which Muslim women’s education was sought to be addressed from a male perspective, Devika’s piece brings out the Malayalee society’s obsession with modern female education that produced women ‘devoid of Womanliness’. However, as Gupta points out, the unintended consequence of whatever education reached women, did to some extent empower the beneficiaries in ways unanticipated by the reformers.

Anshu Malhotra’s paper on Punjabi bazaar literature — the jhagrras and kissas — traces the growth, content and complex relationship between the reform message and its commonsensical treatment by kissa writers. “The social/male fear of women’s uncontrolled sexuality was the misogynous thread that linked the jhagrras to the reformers … and so the need to control it”. In her discussion of “Theatre and Gender in colonial India”, Lata Singh foregrounds the theme of respectability that women as actresses had to negotiate, coming as most of them did, from poor and ‘not-so-respectable’ backgrounds. The respectability paradigm masked the fact that theatre was not just art but also a source of livelihood to these women actresses; further, while theatre work provided a semblance of reformation and rehabilitation for the ‘prostitute actresses’, it did not give them social respect even as the actresses internalised and upheld patriarchal ideology.

Prem Chowdhry’s piece is a fascinating account of the manner in which legal recognition of inter-caste marriages was tied up with wider socio-economic concerns regarding inheritance, widow remarriage, polygamy, bride-price and concubinage. Attempts were made to declare children of low caste women as illegitimate, revealing social resentment against mixed lineage groups. Equally engaging is Anupama Rao’s essay, which brings out the contradictory effects of social reform of gender by caste radicals. The rethinking on marriage that radicals brought about as part of their challenge of caste ideology did not necessarily extend into their own households; further, Rao highlights how the subject of non-Brahmin and Dalit politics came to be increasingly imagined as male.


Pradip Kumar Datta’s engagement with the story of abductions reveals among other things the anxiety to assert the fact that women belonged irretrievably to their community, that their consent had no role in choice of marriage partners. More important, rather than seeing abductions as typicalised discriminations that characterise different religions, it led to the communalisation of gender issues. Nonica Dutta’s account of Subhashini’s life story and Charu Gupta’s tracing of the link between the emergence of conservative Hindu communalism and sexuality are not only rich in details but are also brilliant methodological pieces that challenge received wisdom and sources of knowledge.

The Reader is thought through well. It would be interesting to have a sequel where some at least of the chosen themes are dealt with from a comparative perspective so that issues such as marriage, widowhood, do not become Hindu and Hindi centric but are also discussed across religion and regions.

GENDERING COLONIAL INDIA — Reforms, Print, Caste and Communalism: Edited by Charu Gupta; Orient Blackswan, 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 795.

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