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Persisting inequalities


The problem with this rather impressive collection is that it contains far too many articles for one volume.

Exploring Gender Equations: Colonial and Post-Colonial India, edited by Shakti Kak and Biswamoy Pati, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 2005, p.494, Rs.600.

THE Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has brought out several anthologies on gender in the last three decades. The first collection, titled Indian Women: From Purdah to Modernity, edited by the then Director and Gandhian scholar, B.R. Nanda, was a pioneering volume, containing articles by stalwarts like Vina Mazumdar, Aparna Basu, Zarina Bhatty, Rama Mehta, Veena Das and Ashis Nandy. More volumes followed, edited by Karuna Chanana, Meenakshi Thapan and others, reflecting the new dimensions in gender studies that were unfolding. The present volume, like its predecessors, is also the outcome of a seminar held in October 2003 by Shakti Kak and Biswamoy Pati, the editors of this volume.

A random exercise?

The problem with this rather impressive collection is that it contains far too many articles for one volume. There are 18 in all, each accompanied by a reading list, which is a welcome insertion. The articles could have been grouped together thematically and arranged in different sections. Yes, the articles of Anshu Malhotra and Charu Gupta at the beginning of the collection are thematically linked, critically examining prescriptive reformist tracts of social reformers and advocates of education for women. This is followed by three articles which again form a fairly cosy group: Waltraud Ernst on Madness, Gender and Colonialism in British India, Maina Chawla Singh on Gender, Medicine and Empire and Samiksha Sehrawat on The Founding of the Lady Hardinge Medical College and Hospital for Women at Delhi. Thereafter, the collection becomes a random exercise. Shashank Shekhar Sinha's piece on Adivasi Women in Transition should have been arranged along with Archana Prasad's article on Tribal Women and Breadwinners in Central India, especially since both vehemently deny the notion propounded by many anthropologists that prior to colonial rule tribal women enjoyed more freedom and egalitarianism.

At the workplace

The articles by Samita Sen and Shobhana Warrier on Labouring Women in Bengal in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries and Women and the Workplace (with special reference to women workers in the textile mills of Madras, Madurai and Coimbatore) respectively have some common concerns. Both look at how extra economic factors have a bearing on labour relations. Sen brings out the tension between the married woman worker's right to "consent" to labour contracts and the so-called sanctity of marriage and family authority. In 1873, the Inspector General of Police, Assam, had stated that "a married woman may be said to have entered into a contract with her husband which precludes her from engaging in services to another party for a term of years without his consent"! Warrier shows that while, on the one hand, the factory "constituted a cultural space entirely different from that of agrarian society", there was nevertheless a tendency to bring old cultural practices into the workplace. Thus the custom of segregating a woman during the days of her menstrual period was sought to be perpetuated by a union demand that women should be given three days leave in a month for that period. On the other hand there were markers of a break from tradition as well. "Women imbibed the work ethics and discipline of the mills and got used to the scheduling of their lives by the mill siren that signalled the time to go to work, the time for recess as also the conclusion of work hours for the day." In Madurai, she tells us, the workers never dared to eat food at their new workplace, because if they were found eating inside the mill, sand was thrown on their faces by way of punishment.

Patriarchy and communalism

Papiya Ghosh looks at the relationship between communalism and patriarchies. She has studied the activities of two Muslim women's organisations in Bihar: the Tehrik-e-Niswan, an ultra left group affiliated to the CPI-ML (Liberation) and the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, a backward and dalit formation, in relation to issues of personal law, reservation and electoral politics. She finds that while the "left-communitarian feminism" of the former is monolithic, ignoring lower caste politics and caste patriarchies, the latter does not directly address the issue of gender. The pasmanda Muslim women resent having to be in purdah while the ashraf women went about with "bob cuts aur lipstick". Nasima Bharati's words: "Jab bahar mein haq mill jayega toh ghar mein haq lene mein koi time nahi lagega" (when we get our rights outside, then it will take little time to get our rights within the home) are significant. Ghosh could have provided English equivalents of the quotes, however.

There are many more interesting pieces in this collection: Rama Baru on the gendering of the health services; Lata Singh on theatre and the space given to women; Brigitte Schultze on her project with dalit and adivasi women in Kerala and their engagement with cinema; Shakti Kak on Women in Colonial and Post-Colonial Kashmir; Fumiko Oshikawa on Being a Middle Class Housewife in India and Japan and Miriam Sharma on the impact of globalisation on women in South Asia. The lone male voices are those of Biswamoy Pati on the violence of contemporary Oriya society vis--vis women and the relationship between dowry, patriarchy and caste, and Amit Prakash on Women, Development and Governance in the context of Uttar Pradesh.

Negligible change

Broadly, what emerges is that gender equations continue to be unequal, though in some cases, as in theatre and even in local governance (Panchayati Raj Institutions) the trajectory from the colonial to the post-colonial period has been an encouraging one. On the other hand, we have Archana Prasad's finding that even as the tribal woman emerges as the main breadwinner of her family, her status and decision-making power is not improved. "The only area where women seem to have the dominant power to make a decision seems to be in the area of what to cook for their families." As for working conditions, the words at the end of Miriam Sharma's article regarding the attitude of employers towards women: "the women themselves are happy to take the employment and if they did not have this, they would have nothing at all," says it all.

Though the introduction does refer to the nationalist movement and the political participation of women in the freedom struggle as being "mostly under the hegemony of men and male-dominated organisations", there are no articles which engage with this theme. This begs the question: when discussing gender equations from the colonial to the post-colonial period, does the long trajectory of anti-imperialist struggle not figure anywhere at all?

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