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Situating women, experiencing gender

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Padmini Swaminathan

Essays on the understanding of the experience of gender in India

WOMEN OF INDIA - Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods: Bharati Ray - Editor; PHISPC & Sage Publications, B-42, Panchsheel Enclave, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 1950.This book is a monumental compilation comprising 24 contributors, spread, slightly over 600 pages, sweeping across two centuries, drawing together diverse disciplines and themes, but focussed on understanding the experience of gender in India. In a nutshell, the editor describes the underlying message of the volume as follows: "Gender [then] is about power. And, if it is about power it is about politics. The essays in this volume explore the operation of power and the resistance to it, the space that was denied to the disadvantaged gender - women - and the space they created for themselves, and the history of the mutual roles of women and men in colonial and post-colonial India." Needless to state that this short review cannot do justice to the volume. A mild flavour of the contents is all that can be attempted. An important contribution of the volume is the emphasis on historical underpinning crucial to make sense of present gendered legislations, policies, programmes and practices. The essays by Flavia Agnes on 'personal laws' and that by Patricia Uberoi on the 'family' underscore this point. In addition, Uberoi's piece raises important questions on the manner in which marriage practices between the North and the South were legally debated and ultimately 'resolved' without addressing the gender question.

Dalit feminist identity

A telling message emanating from Hasan and Menon's piece based on a nation-wide survey of Muslim women is the central role that marriage plays in women's lived reality. In the process they expose the misconceptions that inform much of our understanding of the community, namely, of Muslim personal laws defining their status and of constantly viewing Muslims as a monolith category. An equally engaging piece by Gopal Guru on Dalit feminist identity laments the fact that, in recent years, the "Dalit feminist oppositional imagination is operating under the Dalit male shadow." Using the Maharashtra experience as a backdrop, Guru argues that "while the outer dimension of Dalit feminist is radical against the state and the communal forces, its internal dimension against its male dominated politics lacks this cutting edge." The theme of violence gets explicated in several papers and from varied perspectives - in the excess mortality among young girls in the ages one to four thereby accounting for a much greater share of deficit - to, the need to understand violence as leading "out of religious particularism and into the broad cultures of capitalism and the transnational production of patriarchal ideologies."

Women in politics

The women-in-politics theme has two very interesting papers, one by Tanika Sarkar, and the other by Kalpana and Vasanth Kannabiran. Sarkar tracks the changes in feminist historiography, particularly the progressive decline in production of fresh and significant questions to enhance our understanding of issues such as, why women's politics is not always emancipatory and why struggles that may use an emancipatory language of rights and self-determination still do not engage specifically with gender issues. The Kannabirans, through a discussion of the political history of women in Andhra, aver that the barriers to women's full citizenship lie within the public and the private in their contiguity and overlap. This public-private divide, according to them, is at the root of the exclusion of women from citizenship in theory and practice; it is an ideological construction, one that is contentious and political in nature and which is constantly negotiated by different social groups. The struggle to control the meaning and positioning of the public-private divide is central to the process of engendering citizenship. Gabriele Dietrich's very provocatively titled piece, 'Is the Women's Movement on the Move?' however fails to sustain interest, since, in an attempt to discuss a bit of everything, it fails to address substantively the core arguments of 'organisation' and of 'inventing a new life-style' that it set out for itself.

Women and science

There is no doubt that the volume has much to offer. Nevertheless, there is substantially more that it does not. The uneven quality of the papers is one part of the problem. For example, among the weakest links are the papers on 'Women and Formal and Informal Science' and the one on 'Women and Environment'. The categorisation into formal and informal science is itself problematic; further, how can the recognition of 'women's knowledge' be constituted into 'feminist science'? Moreover there is complete silence on the structures and the functioning of existing so-called scientific institutions, their priorities and/or their engagement with what is delineated as science. The fundamental issue of the paper on women and environment is not clear: are we celebrating a special knowledge that women [used to] have vis-à-vis nature? Are we lamenting that 'development' and the rising literacy levels of the younger generation are weaning women away from 'traditional' occupations? What do we want to preserve, by whom and why? Do we have a framework that will help us understand the aspirations of the people and women of Kolli hills?This brings me to the second substantive issue that I find difficult to comprehend. Despite the statement by the editor that the volume is about gender and therefore about power, there is no attempt to weave in this understanding into the different contributions. The question becomes all the more pertinent when juxtaposed against the fact that the notions of time, space and context have been defined by each author in her or his own way. Therefore, while each individual contribution stands on its own, the volume as a whole lacks coherence of purpose.


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