Eminent historians trace the early history of gender reforms in India in a conversation with Pamela Philipose

Most studies of the 19th and pre-19th centuries make two general assumptions about Indian women. First, the language of women having lost their rights is invariably used while looking at the limits of social reforms of those times. The presumption is that women had definite rights that they lost because of reformist interventions. Second, there is a complete underestimation of the power of orthodoxy in society.

So when reformers are talked about, they are taken to be conservatives because they were not thinking of women in the way that we feminists now perceive them. They were in favour of the family, in favour of chastity, monogamy, and so on, and we take that to be a mark of their conservatism, forgetting that the society of that era – whether Hindu, Muslim or any other – was dominantly ruled by orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, in fact, was hegemonic and still is. So if we bring orthodoxy back into the picture, then what the reformers were trying to do and say makes a lot more sense.

Let us start with Raja Rammohun Roy. There are different critiques of Roy, including one that maintains that he infantilised the way of the “willing satis”. Another saw him as a westernised, de-racinated person who stigmatised Indian tradition, scripture and religion as something anti-modern and that this was western reason speaking through a pseudo-Indian.

But what is forgotten is that the colonial government had promised – and by and large that pledge was kept – to give complete autonomy to religious traditions of all communities. This meant that any attempt to articulate the need for a change in gender relations had to be spoken about in the language of the scriptures. Therefore, if Roy had wanted an abolition of sati, he had to prove somehow that sati was non-scriptural.

If we look at the orthodox discourse, whether it was to do with the education of women, sati, widow re-marriage or the age of consent, we come across a whole host of scriptural sanctions and prohibitions, especially for upper caste and sharif (high-born) women. Here one could note that poor, lower caste women had some mobility and a certain amount of economic independence that was denied to their upper caste counterparts, primarily because they had to go out of the home to earn a living.

The scriptural argument for sati was that the woman wanted to commit sati in order to gain heaven for her husband for three million years. Seven generations of ancestors – maternal, paternal and matrimonial – would also immediately be freed from all sins and they too will gain heaven. This was believed in very firmly, and the ritual promise created an incentive for sati. In testimonies of satis collected by the colonial state, the common claim the women made was that they were going to heaven and that they cannot live without their husbands.

Interestingly, this argument was also an argument against widow remarriage. The view of marriage was that it was a sacrament. Once performed it was indissoluble – even with the death of the husband. This meant that no woman could have more than one husband. Even if her husband died, even if the marriage had remained unconsummated, even if the husband had abandoned her at the inception of the marriage, the woman was still considered attached to him and could not enter into any other relationship even after his death because that would constitute adultery.

We need to also remember that marriage was monogamous for women but not for men. By the early 19th century, men could, and did, have innumerable wives – and all their wives were burnt as satis in the process. The traditional argument for child marriage was that the best kind of marriage was the pre-pubertal union, preferably before the girl turned eight. However, there was no limit to the bridegroom’s age. A man of 90 could, and very often did, marry a child of a few years.

Scriptures did not have to give reasons - they just laid down the law. All this made for a regime of extremely severe injunctions against women. Mobility was not just frowned upon, it was absolutely proscribed. Sometimes education – a kind of oral education – was imparted. But as historian Uma Chakravarti pointed out in ‘Whatever Happened To The Vedic Dasi?’, if women became too involved in the quest for knowledge, they would invite a backlash. Maitreyi was killed because of her curiosity as a thinking, questioning woman. The woman had to follow her husband and look after his domestic life and the ‘good woman’ was to be worshipped. This perspective remained more or less intact throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.

The first questioning of this treatment of women began in the early 19th century, largely because of the new technologies of communication. Literature, newspapers, the spread of education – in particular, the spread of vernacular education – and translations of the scriptures, all resulted in the unleashing of questions over what was the more authentic spiritual perspective, especially with regard to women.

What we find striking about the reformers was their great sense of diffidence, even guilt. There is a Rammohun Roy saying, “When did you test the intelligence of women that you call them foolish?” We have Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar asking why women were born at all in this land. Whether it is Mahadev Govind Ranade in western India or Kandukuri Virasalingam Pantulu of southern India, the reformers were talking about the problems women faced if they wanted to be ‘good women’. In the process, these reformers – always in a minority - had to face severe lampooning, ostracism and social boycott. Although it was true that sati had been legally abolished, Rammohun had to find some scriptural argument for its abolition. Vidyasagar also managed to present some material extracted from the Parashara Smriti and interpreted it as a “must for Kali Yuga”.

Because they had to speak the language of the scriptures, the reformers often ended up tying themselves into knots. Rammohun stated, for example, that since sati was not mentioned by the Manu Smriti, this meant that Manu Smriti did not approve of it, and, therefore, sati was not valid. But when Vidyasagar wanted to legalise widow re-marriage, he was in a quandary because the Manu Smriti was absolutely against widow remarriage. So Vidyasagar had to very strenuously argue that in Kali Yuga, Parashara was the great authority. But that undermined the argument for the age of consent issue, since Parashara certainly recommended infant marriage for women.

First you invent tradition and, when you cannot do this, you defend tradition. For instance, in the years of nationalism there was a kind of glorification of tradition, with early nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak stoutly maintaining that Indian social conditions were wonderful in an earlier era.

But with all their contradictions, reformers did set into motion a process of change because they at least problematised the condition of women and made it the dominant public issue. If we are saying that for the first time these issues were not restricted to pandits and mullahs but became general topics of discussion, then it was also true that gender – beginning with sati – was the theme of the first public discussions in India.

These discussions never really stopped and carry on to the present day – albeit in a different language.

(Women's Feature Service)

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