Portraits of women

Published : Apr 08, 2011 00:00 IST

Showcasing the strengths and limits of a narrowly conceived project of feminist history writing.

THE visible presence of the women's movement in India over the past several decades has generated an increasing interest in publishing around the subject of women. The institutional response to the women's movement has led to the introduction of Women's Studies in university curricula across the world. As part of the thrust towards multiculturalism and diversity, many universities offer courses that focus on women's position in Third World countries. At the same time, there is the advance of diasporic India and a booming Indian economy.

All in all, there is an interest in Indian women. Added to this is the mystique surrounding the rich cultural diversity of the country and what the writer of the volumes under review refers to as two sharply contrasting aspects of Indian women, the first facade is of the serene, primordial mother Great Goddess, ...the other is the clouded face of the domestic handmaiden trailing behind men in life expectancy, nutrition, health, education, pay, and other rights on the subcontinent.

The interest that the women's movement aroused has generated research on a range of subjects, and there is ample source material available to undertake complex social analysis from a historical perspective.

The present volumes emerge from an effort by one trained in history to cover the entire gamut of women's lives in India from very ancient times to the present day a task that not many professional historians in India would undertake, certainly not in a single publication. But those who approach the subject from more distant shores are emboldened by their apparent familiarity with the country and also the need to explain enigmatic India to others. That perhaps explains the drive to cover themes as vast and diverse as region, environment, gender; Vedic goddesses and women; mothers and wives in the Smriti texts; Buddhist and Jaina nuns and laywomen; women in classical art and literature; the divine feminine: devis, yoginis, taras; queens, saints, courtesans; Muslim women in pre-modern India; women in the colonial era; male reformers and women's rights; feminists and nationalists and women in India today, all in the course of some 500-odd pages.

The volumes are, undoubtedly, packed with information, collected from a wide range of classical texts and also secondary literature. However, the framework within which this is placed is highly problematic. What does one say about a book which states at the outset that due to the longevity of Indian history, this study of women is, therefore, divided into two broad chronological sections, that is, the pre-modern era from antiquity to the early medieval Hindu kingdoms and the later era under Turko-Afghan and Mughal dynasties, colonial rule and the independent state after 1947?

This comes after nearly half a century of debate on historiography among Indian historians with regard to periodisation, as well as the need to write history incorporating perspectives from below, apart from the subaltern encounter. The material presented is organised around four interrelated themes to focus on gender and female sexuality, that is, pre-modern social, religious, cultural, political paradigms of women in male-authored texts; their later resurrection by men and women for contemporary political and social purposes; women's narratives in their social contexts; and the contentious issues of female agency and objectification.


The book traverses a vast ground. There are pertinent and extensive quotes from classical texts. These are supplemented by and counterposed with women writing that was first highlighted in Women Writing in India edited by Tharu and Lalitha, as well as other, more recent, research. However, the focus remains largely on elite women and hardly any attempt is made to match the information gathered from literary texts with evidence from other sources that would give a clearer picture of women's lives and the material culture within which these were embedded.

While literary sources remain a significant medium for understanding women's status, lives and conditions in early times, the importance of archaeological sources and the attempt to locate women in concrete material conditions cannot be discounted, as can be seen from Gerda Lerner's work in the context of Mesopotamia, which pointed to the tremendous scope for this kind of analysis. However, referencing for archaeological sources does not go beyond the first few pages.

The narrative concerning women starts with ancient and classical texts, which reveal that in the pre-eminent interface between Aryan and local Dravidian-aboriginal cultures, the core value crystallised across the subcontinent. This was the high honour given to female chastity, a virtue whose lustre almost exceeded that of women's natural intelligence in archaic texts.

It is as if the author herself is trapped in the typologies that she traces from the texts: heroic, divine, maternal, saintly, victimised, lustful or manipulative. The women retreat into private courtyards and zenanas to emerge as sisters, matriarchs, wives and widows and feminists in the discourse of male reformers on women's rights and of Hindu and Muslim nationalists, and as objects of male political contestations during the Raj; and in the efforts of the reformers who used women's customary constraints to negotiate their own place in the Raj, making women fodder for the nationalist engine.

It is in the chapter on Women in the Colonial Era, where the author uses official sources, British parliamentary papers in this case, to discuss issues such as education and indentured labour that the discussion begins on the mass of women's lives on a more concrete historical plane.

The gap in the framework of the book is aptly summed up in the concluding section of the Introduction titled Shakti, Saint or Slave, which argues that a study of women's experience is validated simply because historically women's experiences have been uniquely their own, whether in segregated female spaces or integrated public forums. Their agency or objectification is specific to each era, region, culture, economy, polity, and religion. Thus this book examines the narratives by and about women in the context of their regional history. To study India's women, we must come to terms with Indian patriarchies and the region's contradictions of power and pathos, beauty and ugliness, compassion and cruelty, serenity and chaos.

To an extent, the volumes showcase the strengths and limits of a narrowly conceived project of feminist history writing, which, even though it manages to put together a vast array of facts, supported by textual and even scriptural referencing for understanding women's status, leaves the reader clueless as to why and how patriarchy persists or what are the linkages between women's seclusion, exclusion and selective inclusion within the structures of power.

The manner of presentation of facts foregrounds the need for a more contextualised location of the women referred to, outside the scriptures, outside the courtly intrigues and outside their patriarchal configurations and contestations. In other words, the contestation, as the author clearly understands, is at the level of complex political formations wherein caste and class operate to constitute gender differentially. To analyse that a singular focus on patriarchy will not do.

In a sense that marks the challenge for the project of feminist historiography. To weave the story of women within the context of social history needs deeper engagement with the socio-historical process, including in more specific ways. For that a general narrative on women in India will not do except to underline that patriarchy existed and operated in such a way as to render women unequal through these times.

The fact remains that a huge amount of information, including on women's work, indentured labour and Goa's experience under Portuguese rule, is packed in the two volumes. However, the section headings reinforce the pitfalls of opting for titles that may connect to a Western audience. While the author's familiarity with South India, particularly with the literary and cultural developments in the region, is a strong point in the book, she has failed to build on it to provide an overview of a vast range of regions and subjects.

Since much of our writing in Indian social sciences is focussed on the North, a more specific focus on the South could have been used to advantage. Thus, much of the information garnered is likely to be lost on the reader. The manner of presentation of the facts, which involves moving from the micro level to the complicated weave attempted on a trans-historical plane, is likely to leave a professional historian with a sense of unease.

For example, in the very first chapter, in a section on Social Matrix, the discussion on the Adivasis moves from 300 B.C. to the All India Democratic Women's Association's documentation of rape of women from Adivasi or S.T., Scheduled Castes or Dalits (S.C.), all in fewer than 10 pages.

The concluding chapter encompasses some contemporary issues such as declining sex ratios, domestic violence, education, employment and the Women's Reservation Bill. It is supplemented with a who's who of women activists in the modern period. However, the book lacks a framework and a sense of direction as what to present by way of a conclusion.

The reader is left flummoxed about the contention that is sought to be made, if any. The point is, when history is presented as myth, text, fact and information, all in one, without an attempt to delineate the different layers or to identify these in the context of specific historical structures and processes, it fails to acquire or impart a clear meaning. In the absence of these linkages, the changing forms and nature of patriarchy appear to be reduced to patriarchal bias in the texts and their composers while imperialism/colonialism become a contestation between orientalists, evangelists, conquerors and reformers-nationalists. Thus, the connections are not drawn between historical process and evolving cultural practices or anti-imperialist consciousness, women's assertion and organisational activity, even where these aspects are mentioned.

Greater patience could have been exercised while editing the volume as some glaring errors such as defining jhum variously as shifting agriculture, rotational horticulture and just agriculture within a space of a few pages, inconsistency in spelling Garos, and repetition on women in the Sultanate period and in the Mughal courts.

Indu Agnihotri is Senior Fellow, CWDS, New Delhi.

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