Women and development

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

Exploring Gender Equations: Colonial and Post Colonial India edited by Shakti Kak and Biswamoy Pati; New Delhi, 2005; Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; pages 494, Rs.600 (hardcover).

THIS book is a collection of papers presented at a conference organised by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on the processes of `development' and the way they have mediated and impacted connections between (construction of) gender (and women), society and the state. There are 18 articles in the book that thematically deal with a variety of issues. The editors set the framework for discussion in an erudite introduction which argues that the processes of capitalist development have not necessarily led to dismantling of the old "semi-feudal economic order", but have, in fact, co-existed with it, thereby actually being a party to the emergence of regressive and oppressive ideologies. The range of essays in this book is wide and covers an expansive period from colonial to contemporary times.

Although there are no formal sub-sections in the book, there are six major issues/sections around which the papers have been written. The first issue deals with the construction of the ideal of pativrata (devoted wife) in Punjab and the United Provinces. The second issue is women's mental health and health care facilities. The third section comprises case studies of women in Kashmir, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The fourth set of essays deals with women as part of the labour force. The fifth issue is the construction of gendered identities through theatre and cinema. The sixth set of essays focusses on issues such as dowry and local governance in contemporary times. The last essay reflects on the challenges that South Asia as a region faces in the context of an increasingly globalised capitalist order.

Anshu Malhotra and Charu Gupta's articles focus on social reforms in northern India and their role in articulating and recasting women in an ideal of pativrata. Anshu Malhotra's article on domestic ideologies in Punjab argues that in its aspirations for a `middle-class' status, the upper-caste Hindu-Sikh elite attempted to redefine the woman as a pativrata or a dutiful wife/daughter-in-law. In the context of continuing interaction with a colonial regime, this class wanted to establish for itself an elevated social standing that was a marker of modernity and to have also a domestic realm that was a party to the "success of such an ideological endeavour". The pativrata was the woman who could endure suffering, make sacrifices and be adequately responsive to patriarchal demands and pressures; in this case the grand project of class construction of which she would be the repository.

Charu Gupta's article argues that although the social reformers attempted to reorder the household by propagating the ideal of pativrata and increasing "sexual disciplining and control over the social movements of women", the same processes often generated unintended, but liberating consequences for women. For instance, once women were educated, they read beyond the prescribed texts/syllabi, and these readings included erotic novels, detective fiction, love stories, plays, and so on, the kind of material that the reformists had wanted to keep away from women. Waltraud Ernst, Maina Chawla Singh and Samiksha Sehrawat's essays have women's health as their concern. Waltraud Ernst problematises the idea of madness as a peculiarly `female malady' in the context of the colonised, where an entire population was deemed to be irrational and effeminate anyway. The question then is: would madness be constructed differently for the colonised male and the colonised female? As opposed to Britain, where females outnumbered the males in mental asylums, in the Indian context, it was the opposite. Her argument is that in the Indian context, gender was but one category around which madness was medically theorised.

Maina Chawla Singh's essay studies the genesis of the Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, and the Christian Medical College, Vellore. She underscores the initiatives and efforts of Western women physicians in the making of these institutions. It is interesting to learn that both these institutions were initially women's hospitals. While the hospital in Vellore started admitting male patients and students to keep the hospital a financially viable institution, the hospital in Ludhiana opened its doors to men when the Civil Hospital in Punjab could not accommodate the casualties in the riots following Partition.

Samiksha Sehrawat's essay examines the founding of the Lady Hardinge Medical College and Hospital for Women in Delhi. She points out that though the efforts of the Association of Medical Women in India (AMWI) were seminal to the genesis of the institution, the AMWI had initially argued against setting up the college in Delhi because it doubted whether Delhi could provide qualified teaching staff or ensure an adequate supply of students.

In the three essays on women in Kashmir, Jharkhand and Bengal, the common thread is the time period that covers both colonial and contemporary time. In her essay, Shakti Kak points out that colonial intervention in Kashmir only brought piecemeal measures for women, and these too were restricted to work done by missionaries in the areas of health and education. It was only after 1930 that the women's question found a place on the manifesto of Naya Kashmir, which detailed the rights of women as equal citizens. However, in contemporary times women's rights have been considerably eroded in the face of the political violence that plagues the State. The precariousness and volatility of the situation has meant that women have once again been confined to the house; employment and educational opportunities have reduced. This notwithstanding, women have shown remarkable courage in protesting against violence and the arbitrary functioning of paramilitary forces in the State.

Shashank Sinha's hypothesis is that the operation of three systems - patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism - has marginalised Adivasi women in the Chotanagpur area of Jharkhand. He disputes the argument that tribal societies were more egalitarian in pre-colonial times. He says women could not inherit land in tribal societies, and restrictions were imposed on sexual behaviour too. Colonial intervention introduced private property and the colonial administration also took away a large part of the tribal land. Since women were primarily responsible for collecting useful things from the forest for the household, the distancing of the forest resources directly affected them. In the eventuality of "land alienation, restrictions on the use of forest resources and the absence of remunerative employment", migration as an option opened up in the areas around Assam and Bengal in tea gardens and mines run by the British. Sinha argues that migration for work in tea plantations and mines led to further marginalisation because women had to live in bad conditions, and were often sexually harassed. To deal with hardships, many Santhal women even took to prostitution.

Samita Sen's essay closely examines the migration of women to tea plantations. Initially women, single, married and widowed, made the journey to the plantations without explicit consent from the men who exercised control over them. But in 1901, this "free migration" ended with the colonial state making the family's consent mandatory for migration to a plantation site.

The theme of marginalisation of women in tribal communities is continued in the latter half of the book where Archana Prasad's essay discusses the marginalisation and disempowerment of women of the Baiga tribe in Madhya Pradesh.

Papiya Ghosh's article is a comparative study of the positions of the Tehreek-e-Niswan (TN) of the CPI(ML) and the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (PMM), a backward and Dalit Muslim organisation, on the politics of the (reform of) Muslim personal laws, electoral politics and reservation of seats for women in Bihar. The TN is the result of the Left realising that in the Indian context struggles for democratic rights have to go beyond "class struggles" and take into account lived realities around primordial identities. That said, the TN glosses over the internal diversity of Muslim women as opposed to the PMM, which critiques the monolithic image of the Muslim community.

Amit Prakash's essay explores the changing understanding of development for women: "women and development" to "women in development" to "gender and development" to "participation, empowerment and development of women". His focus is on the working of the Panchayati Raj institutions in Uttar Pradesh after the implementation of the 73rd Amendment that reserves 33 per cent of seats for women in all such institutions. His essay argues that though reservation of seats is important, the (caste) panchayats and their patriarchal biases often come in the way of women's active participation in the panchayats.

Biswamoy Pati's article brings to light the growing incidences of dowry and dowry-related deaths in contemporary Orissa, with six case studies. He argues that dowry is not just an urban, middle-class phenomenon in Orissa where under-development and poverty have made dowry and related violence a crime that cuts across religions and class and caste distinctions. He also points out that demands for dowry can be "reinvented" and go beyond monetary transactions to "promises of jobs" and so on, non-fulfilment of which can compromise a marriage or lead to dowry-related violence.

Miriam Sharma writes the last essay, in which she discusses how the processes of globalisation have led to a patterned female employment in the unorganised sector. Her research on the export promotion zones, particularly the garment industry in India and Bangladesh, shows that such industries are labour-intensive and that the bulk of the labour force constitutes women who are paid low wages, are not unionised and face harsh working conditions. Her moot point is that global capitalism tends to increase the inherent structural inequalities and "unevenness" in any system. This is evident from the fact that for women working in Indian industries, the fight for decent working conditions, equal wages, protection against sexual harassment at the workplace and benefits such as maternity leave has not been easy. Shobhana Warrier's essay on the textile mills in Madras (now Chennai), Madurai and Coimbatore in colonial South India also brings this out.

There are four other essays in the collection. Fumiko Oshikawa's article makes a comparative study of the construction of the ideal of "Middle Class Housewives" in Japan and India. Rama V. Baru's essay is a study of the hierarchy that operates in health services. Her argument is that social hierarchies replicate themselves in the professional hierarchies in the health services, with doctors (mostly male) primarily belonging to the upper-caste/class while the Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (all females) belong to upper and middle castes, but landless and poor peasant families. Lata Singh and Brigitte Schulze's essays focus on gender in theatre and Malayalam cinema.

The essays are well delineated, and the diversity of the disciplines and issues makes the compilation remarkable. The extensive use of empirical and archival data by most of the contributors to substantiate their arguments is noteworthy.

This book will particularly interest those who want to equip themselves with an understanding of the women's question in India and the emerging economic, social and political changes that impact women and shape the multiple identities in which they are located.

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