Updated: May 25, 2010 10:36 IST

Women in Indian society

Padmini Swaminathan
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The two volumes under review, at once, provide a broad sweep and make a diligent attempt to contextualise Indian women's position in society — a heroic effort for which the author needs to be truly commended. The first volume dealing with early India takes the reader through, among others, the pre-Aryan aboriginal, Dravidian and Sanskritic cultures; the effects on women of the Vedic era, and, of mergers between Aryan and non-Aryan cultures; the paradigms of motherhood, female sexuality, and education contained in non-Vedic scriptures and epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; women's representation in Hindu and Buddhist art; the making of Indian society through streams of immigrants, their implications for gender and caste; Devi traditions in mainstream Hinduism, Tantric Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism; Bhakti women saints, philanthropic queens and courtesans in north and south India.

Muslim women

The second begins with a discussion on Muslim women in pre-modern India, moving thereafter to the colonial era (16{+t}{+h}-19{+t}{+h} century) and this is followed by a chapter on Indian male reformers and nationalists and the latter's views on women. The one on ‘Feminists and Nationalists' speaks about the select few whose contribution to the emancipation of women stood out at the regional, national, and international levels. The focus of the chapter titled ‘Women in India Today' is on ‘development' themes such as declining sex ratio, violence, education, employment, and environment. Placing women at the centre of the debate and tracking the trajectory of change in their position over time and across space, religion, regime and caste provides the much-needed historical context for a proper understanding of the gender disparities in areas such as education, employment and legal entitlements to property — apart from social and cultural inequities.

What is offered in the first volume is particularly valuable for the historical mapping of the erosion in women's religious and social rights since the Vedic era that paved the way for their subsequent marginalisation. Several interesting ideas and propositions thrown up by it merit further research. To give just one instance: strewn across almost all chapters is the pervasive anxiety among men in general about the position and property rights of widows, as also the connection between widowhood and the Hindu practice of sati. Intriguingly, there is a striking disconnect between the two volumes insofar as their approach to the issues related to widows and widowhood is concerned. In the second volume, where the ‘developmental' approach is pronounced, the historical context in which the theme was situated in the first is missing.

The chapter on ‘Women in Colonial Era' is noteworthy for bringing out how the colonial policies, though shaped by powerful ideological trends in Europe, were adapted to suit the local conditions with the sole objective of making money. The inclusion of a section discussing women in Portuguese Estado has provided a corrective to the skewed understanding that colonial India meant only British India. More importantly, it offers several clues to the differential social and cultural indicators that characterise present-day Goa vis-à-vis erstwhile British Indian States.

There can be no quarrel with the women leaders handpicked for notice in the chapter on ‘Feminists and Nationalists,' which offers a bird's eye-view of their contributions to the cause of women. If only the factors and circumstances that made it possible for them to achieve what they did had been more critically examined, it would have considerably enhanced the quality and purpose of the entire narrative.

More complex

The concluding chapter that seeks to provide a glimpse of the complex developments since Independence cannot be said to have done justice. For one, the historical link between the four sub-themes — ‘survival', ‘women in power', ‘women as dissidents,' and ‘some notable women in the arts' — remains unspecified; in that sense, it stands alone and does not qualify as the ‘concluding' chapter. Secondly, these themes are more complex than what the author has managed to capture, and the range and volume of literature now accessible on them (but not mentioned by the author) is phenomenal. Thirdly, the author's anxiety to pack as much information as possible has resulted in the work falling short in providing not only a critical assessment of the issues discussed in this chapter but also a historical perspective to the complexities India continues to face since Independence.

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