Emerging nations, women's rights

Print edition : November 04, 2005

Gendered Citizenship: Historical and Conceptual Explorations by Anupama Roy; Orient Longman, New Delhi; pages 291; Rs.550.

AS author Anupama Roy informs us, the issue of citizenship has seen a revival of interest among social scientists, especially political sociologists, over the last decade or so. The striking aspect of this work is its interdisciplinary methodology; it negotiates gender, while examining the issue of citizenship, and explores the `woman question' against the backdrop of anti-colonial `nationalisms' that are drawn from the Indian past.

Anupama Roy's work is based on rigorous research. She provides a detailed background of how the idea of citizenship evolved and how women were, according to her, excluded from the idea of `man' as citizen from the time of slave societies. She argues that this phenomenon survived in changed forms over the feudal and capitalist epochs, and is present today in our globalised, post post-modern 21st century.

Anupama Roy explores commonsense notions of citizenship from within an egalitarian framework. Her critique examines and incorporates the positions of Marxist and feminist scholars. Marxist thought focusses on the inherent contradictions between capitalism and equal rights, emphasising the inequality in citizenship status that this coexistence actually implies. Feminist scholars refer to the `gender-blindness' of the citizenship debate which, at best, has a token acknowledgement of women and, at worst, keeps them out of the discussion altogether. Methodologically, one can perhaps argue that the two positions (namely Marxist and feminist) can be harmonised. After all, any meaningful discussion on citizenship would be incomplete unless both are accepted.

The author's incorporation of complexities such as caste, ethnicity and national identity makes this work extremely relevant in the context of the specificities of India. The author draws upon the experience of the colonial world, especially India, and the work of historians and political theorists to argue her point effectively. Anupama Roy recounts the experience of women in countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas that emerged from colonisation into new citizenship models through national liberation movements. Feminist scholars note that patriarchal accounts of these movements recast `elite' women as national symbols and yet, gave them an identity that conformed to traditional norms and values. Women entered the political arena to be subjugated and marginalized by patriarchy; for the women directly involved in politics, from `passive resisters' to armed revolutionaries, central questions that affected them as women remained unchanged.

Consequently, issues such as dowry, rape, genital mutilation and discrimination at the workplace continue to haunt the lives of women in the newly liberated countries. If liberation is based on the principle of equality, how can nationalists deny women citizenship?

In order to clarify the theory behind her concept of gendered citizenship, the author explores the idea of a private `domestic' female sphere versus a male public sphere that is associated with the emergence of modernity in the West. She incorporates this in her discussion of colonial India to explain how the idea of domesticity was restructured in colonial India in the contest between patriarchal nationalists and the colonial state. She also draws on the work of historians and political scientists who have studied late colonial India to analyse the `nature of women's membership as citizens' in an emerging `body politic'. And, true to her framework of interdisciplinary paradigms, she refers to some Hindustani literary tracts that deal with the `ideal' role of women.

The author argues that these ideas of womanhood proliferated into a hegemonic order under the patriarchal context of national movements. However one can also see that certain sections of female society wanted to incorporate themselves within the virtually invented `ideal' model of womanhood. That is, some women both accepted and reinforced the order of patriarchy. Nevertheless, the author's greatest contribution is to topple the argument made by some political scientists and historians who refer to the domestic/ female space as an almost frozen site. Anupama Roy's study, in fact, finds these spheres severely contested; the private sphere was both resisted by women and intervened with by men.

THE author focusses on the debates over voting rights for women that began in 1917 after the October Revolution in Russia prompted debate in the capitalist countries and their colonies. This process saw a `gendering' of Indian nationalist ideologies of citizenship, where colonialism denied voting rights to Indians in general. She argues that since the struggle for voting rights for women became a part of a set of struggles that developed against colonialism, it was, therefore accorded a very low priority. Women asserted their rights based on their identity as women to extend the parameters of `equal' rights for all only to find a new framework that sought to depoliticise their role in society. What is indeed striking is the fact that the issue of voting rights for women seems to have been `lost' by the 1940s within the context of the question of India's independence and the subsequent transfer of power. As one reads along, one is struck by the similarity of this struggle and today's almost unending efforts to get the Women's Reservation Bill passed in free India's Parliament.

The author's examination of the Indian Constitution is intended to remind the reader about the way the Indian ruling classes, whom she prefers to call the `nationalist elite', made several compromises and left many of the burning issues unresolved. The project of nation building defined women's citizenship rights ambivalently. In fact, Anupama Roy's work criticises nationalist historians who see the nationalist movement as an all-people one. To illustrate her point, she shows how outcastes, workers, peasants, women and the environment were excluded in the new nation. Her point is that in order to establish a just and equal order, the fight against gender oppression and the marginalisation of women must be included in any struggle aimed at a radical transformation.

Anupama Roy refers to issues such as patriarchy and religious intolerance as emerging from and reinforcing globalisation. It is in this context that she sees the need to resist globalisation in order to defend multiculturalism and the rights of the individual based on the principle of equality. For her, this alone can alter inequalities and generate possibilities for the development of a civil society in which space is provided for the marginalised sections of society, including women.

This book is a major contribution to gender studies. Its interdisciplinary thrust would attract not only political sociologists, but also historians of colonial and contemporary India, as well as those interested in cultural studies.

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