Predisposed to patriarchy

Print edition : December 16, 2005

Restless Mothers and Turbulent Daughters: Situating Tribes in Gender Studies by Shashank Shekhar Sinha; Stree, Kolkata, 2005; pages 249, Rs. 550.

ADIVASIS seem to have disappeared from the horizon of many historians and sociologists in the post-modern world of the 21st century. In this context, it is refreshing to read Shashank Shekhar Sinha's book, published by Stree, Kolkata, which focuses on a section of society that is vibrant and highly visible in South Asia. The book examines the world of Adivasi women in Jharkhand. Integrating the theoretical premises of gender studies and social history, the author emphasises the importance of a methodology that seeks to incorporate Adivasi women into history. An interesting aspect of this work is the way in which sources, including oral history, are used to bring the people of Chotanagpur (present-day Jharkhand) to life.

Sinha's book is a holistic analysis of the marginalisation of women in the colonial and post-colonial period. It spans 150 years from 1850, from early colonisation which brought about changes such as the conversion of affluent sections of Adivasi society to Hinduism, the arrival of dikus (outsiders) and the erosion of traditional rights, through the emergence of the zamindar-sahukar-sarkar nexus in the late 18th century to the present day. It draws upon interdisciplinary research to show that while the process of marginalisation was exacerbated by colonisation, customs and traditions predisposed Adivasi societies to the patriarchal influences of their colonisers.

Sinha examines some of the hegemonic traditions of Adivasis. He warns against constructing traditions as immutable age-old customs, arguing that they are non-frozen and constantly evolving complexities. Thus, in his examination of the land rights of women among Santals, Oraons, Mundas and Hos we see the incorporation of caste-Hindu land rights. He notes that built-in bias for males worked in their favour as their societies underwent change. Consequently, one can perhaps see how the pressures of patriarchy also influenced the conversions to Hinduism.

The author explores the world of Adivasi women, ranging from their role in the rural market and the position of a female child to sexual interactions of young girls and the question of choosing partners. Without romanticising Adivasis, he refers to bride price and the possibilities of divorce and re-marriage, along with taboos and restrictions on women such as exclusion from rituals as well as witch-hunts that primarily target widows. The author deconstructs the oral tradition to demonstrate the effort to control and regulate female sexuality. Through a host of fascinating folk poems and proverbs Sinha stresses the gender angle associated with witchcraft. He argues that these should be seen as acts of resistance; since patriarchy denied them participation in rituals, Adivasi women created an alternative space for themselves. With colonisation this order of patriarchy in Adivasi society got reinforced.

Sinha studies the Adivasi household and its production system in order to understand the role of gender in the social division of labour and political structures. Although men do not participate in domestic work as a rule, their occasional involvement is not a matter of ridicule, as in Hindu society. Indeed, in some Adivasi communities such as the Hos, men have a role to play at the time of childbirth. In terms of the production process, the author notes the major contribution of Adivasi women in areas such as food gathering, shifting cultivation and settled agriculture. This is borne out by the control exercised by women over income. Thus, whereas women have decision-making powers among the hunter-gatherer communities, this is not the case with settled agriculturists, where male ownership of land enables patriarchy to assert itself. Along with gender inequalities, other features of caste Hindu society were incorporated through interactive processes associated with their `modernisation' and socio-economic `development'. In this context social and political domains merged in favour of a dominant male leader; patriarchy restructured itself with the establishment of a new mode of production - which is, in fact, inversely related to the condition of women and ensures their marginalisation.

Sinha discusses the alienation of Adivasi land which began in the colonial period and continues in post-colonial India and argues that post-colonial `development' activities has shown remarkable continuity with their colonial counterparts. Ironically, this process has led to the Adivasis being forced out of their lands and even their region. It has commercialised forests, with devastating consequences for Adivasi people who are usually dependent on them for almost all their needs. It has also served to create a cheap labour force for the industrialisation, mining and agriculture in the region, in which women received discriminatory wages. The zamindar-sahukar-sarkar order is insufficient to explain this problem and Sinha's most significant contribution is his exploration of the inner dynamics of Adivasi society. He discusses the shifting order of patriarchy that conditions thinking and legitimises gender inequality. The author critiques problems related to `development' projects in post-colonial Jharkhand. As emphasised, these retain distinct imprints of the discriminatory process of gender exclusion. In this sense at least, the price of the cultural transition - ranging from bride price to dowry and the conversions to Hinduism and Christianity to interactions with non-tribal, urban cultures - is borne by women.

Sinha reminds us about the active participation of women in the Kol, Santal and Munda rebellions during the anti-colonial movements that swept the Chotanagpur region. However, specific issues related to gender seem to have been veiled in these struggles. He refers to Adivasi widows and daughters and their experience of insecure rights, which made them contest dominant discourses within customary law to acquire land rights. And, in the contemporary world, women's resistance also incorporates struggles against liquor and witch-hunts, private capitalists, `development' projects and representation in local bodies such as panchayats.

He also refers to assertions of gender identity through witchcraft and annual hunts (which are considered male preserves), negotiations with exploiters such as sahukars and zamindars (when their husbands are out on work) and attempts to defy sexual taboos by eloping with non-tribal people and becoming their concubines (though these cause complications related to their sexual devaluation and exploitation). The author refers to other acts of resistance such as strikes, bandhs, roadblocks and demonstrations.

This book makes a major contribution to gender studies. It demonstrates the importance of looking beyond `conventional' sources to incorporate features such as the experiences of Adivasi women. Its effort to focus on a world hidden from history would attract not only historians but also sociologists and cultural anthropologists. It focusses on the internal dynamics of patriarchy in Adivasi society, as well as that of colonial capitalism, stressing the way in which each reinforced the other to the disadvantage of Adivasi women. As such it questions not only the romanticisation of Adivasi societies in the matter of gender equality, but also the paradigms of nationalist historians who link their problems to the process of colonisation. It seems that, after all, the conventional watersheds - pre-colonial/colonial or colonial/post-colonial - seem not to have been significant turning points in the lives of Adivasi women.

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