At a time when gender discourse has become almost ubiquitous and there are all kinds of feminists around — including Madhu Kishwar, credited with founding the women’s journal “Manushi” — it should not be forgotten that discussion of women’s issues in Hindi did not begin or end with “Manushi”. As movement for girls’ education gathered strength in the early years of the last century as a concomitant of the freedom struggle, women and girls slowly came to mark their presence in the Hindi public sphere. It was German philosopher Juergen Habermas who evolved the concept of ‘public sphere’. It consisted of organs of information and political debate such as newspapers and journals, as well as institutions of political discussion such as parliaments, political clubs, literary salons, public assemblies, pubs and coffee houses, meeting halls and other public spaces where socio-political discussion took place and influenced political practice.

In her 2002 book, “The Hindi Public Sphere 1920-1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism”, Francesca Orisini has discussed the emergence of new institutions such as the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan and the Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha for the propagation of Hindi written in the Nagari script, the appearance of many literary journals such as “Saraswati”, “Chand”, “Sudha” or “Hans”, the coming into vogue of kavi sammelans, the opening of public libraries and educational institutions, and the articulation of women’s points of view. How history was used to offer a particular nationalist version of historical characters like Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi by novelists such as Vrindavan Lal Verma offers a fascinating insight into the current usage of history to buttress a particular ideological viewpoint. This was also the period when women found, for the first time, a public space to articulate their worldview and life experiences in specialised journals founded and edited by women.

A recent book, “Political Literature in Colonial North India: Women and Girls in the Hindi Public Sphere”, written by Shobna Nijhawan and published by Oxford University Press, sheds valuable light on the way women started their own journals and initiated frank discussions on issues concerning their lives a century ago. “Arya Mahila”, “Stri Darpan”, “Chand”, “Grihalakshmi”, “Jyoti”, “Kumari Darpan”, “Khilauna”, “Madhuri” and “Maryada” were some of the prominent women’s journal of the early decades of the 20th Century. Some of them predated the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi on the national political scene. In the February 1917 issue of “Stri Darpan”, editor Rameshwari Nehru informs the readers of the journal’s approaching eighth anniversary. In contrast to some of the currently fashionable strains of feminism that advocate exclusion of men, Rameshwari Nehru was very keen to take them along.

Nijhawan draws our attention to an article written in “Stri Darpan” by Ramshankar Avasthi, an eminent Leftist politician who was a supporter of equal rights for women. Published in January 1920 issue, it anticipated Simone de Beauvoir’s “path-breaking insight” in the second half of the 20th Century. Avasthi identified social stratification as preceding gender division, and thus anticipated Simone de Beauvoir’s “path-breaking insight” that one is not born “woman” but becomes “woman” according to cultural norms. He in fact fantasised about a world in which gender roles would be reversed. However, editor Rameshwari Nehru did not agree with his prescription of role reversal so that men could also undergo the sufferings of women. In a postscript to the article, she wrote: “Freedom for women cannot mean slavery for men.” At a time when the Hindi-speaking region is a helpless witness to everyday occurrences of crimes against women, gender-insensitive statements of misogynist politicians, and an apathetic bureaucracy and police force, it is difficult to believe that such enlightened men and women were active in the very same region a century ago. These journals admittedly displayed a diverse level of consciousness. There were some who dealt with domesticity so as to prepare girls for their future role and there were others who aimed at equipping them to face the outside world. Yet, they were similar in one respect. They showed that women were taking their role as educators, thinkers, writers and disseminators of new ideas very seriously, thus making full use of the Hindi public sphere that had taken shape in the preceding decades. Now, they had a public presence.

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Point, counterpoint…June 13, 2014