Crossing Thresholds (Feminist Essays in Social History)

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Item Code: NAJ004
Author: Meera Kosambi
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9788178243382
Pages: 416 (10 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 400 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


The notion of the threshold, indicating the restricted periphery of the 'woman's place' in family and society, was firmly embedded in the psyche of nineteenthcentury women in western India, Yet some remarkable and articulate women (who are the focus of this book) 'transgressed' patriarchal boundaries-crossing thresholds, literally and metaphorically-to make their mark in the public sphere, These Indian women created the 'first ripple feminism' of the region.


Nineteenth-century men also inhabit the book social reformers and those who helped these women, as well as conservatives who opposed both the reformers and the progressive women. The central objective of Professor Kosambi’s book is to interrogate official social history which posits strong male reformers and passive women recipients as well as retrieve and assess women's own pioneering contribution to their proto-feminist efforts.


The Introduction present-, a conceptual framework of public-private spheres, attempts to retrieve women's subjectivity through their published narratives and discusses questions of representation and 'voice'


The ten essays that follow span a variety of topics the politics of iconizing Individual women women's complex relationships to their home" and their bodies, women's exposure to education and nationalism the nature of conjugality and 'consent, ideas of motherhood and widowhood.


Uniting all these themes is the effort to amplify women's voices and reconstruct their experiential worlds.


The book straddles the areas of Gender Studies, History, and Asian Studies while underscoring the resonance of these women's lives with those of other women across South Asia and the West.


About the Author


Meera Kosambi is a sociologist trained in India, Sweden, and the USA. She has specialized in Urban Studies and Women’s Studies. She was formerly Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies at the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai.


She has taught, lectured, and published widely in India and abroad. Her books include Returning the American Gaze: Pandita Ramabai’s The People of the United States (1889) (2003), and as translator Dharmanand Kosambi: The Essential Writings (2010).




A CENTURY AGO OUR FOREMOTHERS WERE CAUGHT IN A multitude of social transitions similar to ours. The power of our empathy for them in a liminal society is matched only by the difficulty of precisely re-creating that vastly different world. Even with the best will and empathy, retrieving the subjectivity of these women from our twenty-first century coign of vantage remains a serious challenge.


Over the past twenty years, the world inhabited by them has begun to come alive for me through research: it has allowed me to sometimes peep into, and sometimes explore, the lives of Pandita Ramabai, Anandibai joshee, Ramabai Ranade, Savitribai Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Kashibai Kanitkar, Rakhmabai, Baya Karve, Parvatibai Athavale, Lakshmibai Tilak, Yashodabai joshi, and their contemporaries. For feminist scholars, the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century social history of Maharashtra offers a wealth of untapped material. Some of that material has given rise to this volume, which is an attempt to sketch the social, cultural, and political trends and issues that confronted and shaped the lives, actions, and writings of women of that time, relying on their own testimonies.


The lives and contributions of the individual women that I have outlined here are fascinating-and have been shown as such in scholarly writings in Marathi and English (though without locating them adequately within their socio-cultural frame). Together, these women 'Child Brides and Child Mothers: The Age of Consent Bill (1891) Controversy' derives partly from a paper read at the Fourth International Conference on Maharashtra: Culture and Society, held at Tempe, Arizona, in March 1991 by Anne Feldhaus, and published as 'Child Brides and Child Mothers: The Age of Consent Controversy in Maharashtra as a Conflict of Perspective on Women', in Images of Women in Maharashtra, edited by Anne Feldhaus, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998, pp. 135-62. It is also based partly on 'Girl Brides and Socio Legal Change: The Age of Consent Bill (1891) Controversy in Maharashtra', published in the Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 26, nos 31 & 32, 3-10 August 1991, pp. 185768. It is reproduced (with revisions) by permission of the editors concerned.


'Motherhood in the East-West Encounter: Pandit a Ramabai's Negotiations' first appeared as 'Motherhood in the East-West Encounter: Pandita Ramabai's Negotiation of "Daughterhood" and Motherhood', in Feminist Review (Special Issue, 'Reconstructing Femininities: Colonial Intersections of Gender, Race, Religion and Class', edited by lane Haggis and Meera Kosambi), no. 65, Summer 2000, pp. 49-67, and published by Taylor and Francis. The revised version here is reproduced by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.


'Women for All Seasons: Anandibai Karve and Parvatibai Athavale' is based partly on a paper read at the Fifth International Conference on Maharashtra: Society and Culture, organized in Mumbai in December 1992 by Suma Chitnis and Meera Kosambi and published as 'Life after Widowhood: Two Radical Reformist Options in Maharashtra', in Intersections: Socio-Cultural Continuities and Discontinuities in Maharashtra, edited by Meera Kosambi, Delhi: Orient Longman, 2000, pp. 92-117; and partly on 'A Woman for all Seasons: Anandibai Karve's Life (1866-1950) as a Palimpsestic Social Narrative', published in Breaking out of Invisibility: Women in Indian History, edited by Aparna Basu and Anup Taneja, Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research, 2002, pp. 81-105. It is reproduced (with revisions) by permission of the editors concerned.


Of the three unpublished essays, 'Walking on the Edge: Female Body and Self' was presented at the Eight International Conference on Maharashtra: Culture and Society, organized by jim Masselos in Sydney, January 1999; and 'Gender and Nationalism' was presented at the International Workshop on 'Gender and the Transmission of Values and Cultural Heritage(s) in South and Southeast Asia', organized by Frances Gouda in Amsterdam in May 2000.


All this writing was facilitated and encouraged by the colleagues and institutions who invited me to their conferences, funding my air travel and offering local hospitality: Anne Feldhaus, Irina Glushkova, Ioyce Goodman and Taylor and Francis, Frances Gouda, Patricia Uberoi and the Institute of Advance Study at Shimla, and Iim Masselos. I take this opportunity to thank them, as also the late Krishna Raj (editor of Economic and Political Weekly), Susan Magarey (former editor of Australian Feminist Studies), and Aparna Basu and Anup Taneja for inviting my articles, and lane Haggis for co-editing with me a special issue of Feminist Review.


Additional opportunities for scholarly interaction and library research were offered by other colleagues who invited me to their universities to deliver lectures and offered hospitality: Margaret Allen, (University of Adelaide), Brett de Bary (Cornell University), Donna Wulff (Brown University), Nancy Falk (University of Western Michigan), Sumit Guha and Indrani Chatterjee (Rutgers University). I was able to consult libraries in New York, Philadelphia, and London thanks to the generous hospitality of old friends: Mahadev and Iudit Apte, Polly and Harry Fischler, and Keith and Ruth White, respectively.


Other colleagues and friends have also helped me along. Ram Bapat took the time and trouble to read the manuscript thoroughly and discuss it during several intensive sessions. Permanent Black's anonymous reader gave a very positive response and made some useful suggestions regarding the Introduction, and Rukun Advani copyedited the manuscript skilfully and unobtrusively. In addition to the editors of the journals and books in which most of these articles earlier appeared, other friends and colleagues have read and commented on some of the essays, especially Jim Masselos, Sue Sheridan, Aroon Tikekar, Patrick Wolfe, Rajendra Vora, Maria Aurora Couto, and Zia Karim. Neeraben Desai and Mathreyi Krishnaraj, my predecessors as Directors of the Research Centre for Women's Sudies at the SNDT Women's University, Mumbai, readily engaged with me in discussions on theoretical issues with interest and enthusiasm. S.R. Chunekar generously shared his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Marathi literature as well as his large personal library with me. Sarojini Vaidya provided information on Kashibai Kanitkar, in sights into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Brahmin lifestyle, and some much-appreciated old photographs. The late S.P. Sathe explained many legal intricacies in the Rakhmabai case, and more recently Sharmila Rege provided stimulating discussions on gender issues. William J. Cobb gave me a valuable xerox copy of Anandibai Ioshee's letters to Mrs Carpenter (his great grandmother), and some photographs, from his family archive. R.M. Vidwans helped me with information about and photographs of Ramabai Ranade (his paternal grandmother's adoptive mother). Swati Acharya, Asmita Hulyalkar, Naina Shah, and Abhay Tilak helped out by providing or locating some books and references, and Aditya Adarkar suggested some stylistic changes. Aban Mukherji has always been an enthusiastic and supportive reader of all my writings. To all these friends and colleagues I offer my heartfelt thanks. Needless to say, the responsibility for the arguments developed in these essays rests solely with me.


Over the years, I have consulted several libraries and institutions for my research on nineteen the century social history, which has gone into the making of this volume. In Mumbai, these include the Asiatic Society's Library, library of the University of Mumbai (Fort), Documentation Centre of the Research Centre for Women's Studies at SNDT Women's University, and the SNDT University's main library. In Pune, they include the Dhananjayrao Gadgil Library of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, the Jaykar Library of the University of Pune, the Shasakiya Granthalaya (Vishrambag Wada), the library and archives of the Kesari-Mahratta Trust, the library of the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad and archives of the Seva Sadan. In addition, the library and archives of the Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission at Kedgaon supplied both books and photographs. In the UK I consulted the Newspaper Library of the British Library, and the archives of the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage. In Sweden I used the library of the University of Stockholm. In the USA I consulted the New York Public Library, the Philadelphia Free Library, the Archives of the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Arizona State University, University of Western Michigan, and Rutgers University, as well as materials in the office of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. In Australia I consulted the Fisher Library of the University of Sydney, the Barr Smith Library of the University of Adelaide, and the State Library of South Australia. I would like to extend my warm thanks to the staff of all these institutions for the help they have willingly offered.


Multiple Thresholds

The Conventional and still popular notion of the 'woman's sphere' carries with it the tenacious metaphor of the threshold, an image of restrictive, restricted, and dangerous periphery. One recent effective deployment of the image in Maharashtra's public discourse occurred within a Marathi cinematic statement of the evolving feminist consciousness-Umbaratha (The Thresh-old). This film steers a young, intelligent, and sensitive protagonist, Sulabha, through a major crisis in her life, across both real and metaphoric thresholds, towards a new awakening. Sulabha has been suffering from a culturally specific variation of the 'problem that has no name' which afflicted her American suburban counterparts two decades before her. She has been reduced to inactivity within the suffocating atmosphere of her affluent marital family. An array of servants takes care of all the housework; her childless sister-in-law appropriates the mothering of her daughter; her husband remains preoccupied with his career, and her mother-in-law immerses herself in the sort of 'charity work' which is culturally mandated for elite women.

Sulabha's plan to take up a residential job-as a trained social worker-is met first with shocked disbelief within her family, and, when she persists, with the implicit warning that she can cross the threshold at her own peril. Sulabha's exposure to a spectrum of women's problems at an institution for destitute women in a distant town, where she works briefly as a superintendent, brings her to a full realization of the deeply entrenched structures of patriarchy. Sulabha returns home, but only to find that even the memory of her presence has been erased. Her daughter has been claimed by the surrogate mother; her husband has set up a discreet liaison with another woman; her mother-in-law has practically disowned her. Sulabha, the wife-mother, has lost her functions and cannot re-cross the thresh- old to return home; Sulabha the individual apparently never existed in this family. The film's closing scene shows a defiant but confident Sulabha, empowered by her encounter with the outside world and, having left her marital home in search of selfhood, riding a train into a new dawn. Despite its commercial compromises. and the very real question mark hanging over Sulabha's naive optimism about a meaningful future as a woman alone and unsupported, the film re- mains to my mind the most powerful Marathi cinematic depiction of a woman opting to step out of her 'sheltered' marital home into the merciless world beyond the threshold.

How firmly this notion of the threshold was embedded in the psyche of Sulabha's nineteenth-century 'foremothers' can easily be imagined. Most of them were confined within the social universe of the home, with multiple, invisible inner thresholds regulating their mobility even within it. The external and visible threshold of the house represented for such women a reincarnation of the original, sacralized boundary-line that was supposed to protect all women's 'modesty' and honour-the Lakshmana-rekha of mythology. It may be worthwhile to recall the contours of that mythological fence drawn by men around women. This was the line, drawn with his arrow, by Lakshmana around the forest hut that sheltered his elder brother Rama, his sister-in law Sita, and himself during their exile.

Sita would remain protected only as long as she stayed within the demarcated boundary. But the demon king Ravana, who lured away the two brothers, now tricks Sita into crossing the line and abducts her, leading not only to his great war with Rama depicted in the epic Ramayana, but also to persistent suspicions about Sita's chastity while in his captivity. After her rescue, Sita endures an ordeal by fire to prove her purity; refusing a second ordeal, she prefers to be swallowed up instead by Mother Earth-literally her mother. The Lakshmana-rekha, at first a trope synonymous with 'threshold', has now progressively shifted well beyond the threshold, yet the notions of household and domesticated chastity remain for Indian women- and men-potent derivative concepts from that first walling in. They closely circumscribe the 'woman's place' in the family and society and are reiterated in many forms of culture, especially literature.

Yet, some of Maharashtra's nineteenth-century women did 'transgress' the threshold to face the attendant risks. Pandita Ramabai- who held up Sita and other mythological female icons as role models for women readers of her didactic Marathi literary debut, Stri Dharma Niti (Morals for Women, 1882)-had herself earlier married by choice a man of a lower caste and from a different linguistic region, and then appropriated for herself a social leadership role despite being a woman and a widow. She was later to travel to England and the USA, convert to Christianity, author a militant feminist manifesto-The High-Caste Hindu Woman (l887)-and run institutions for widows and destitute women.

Another transgressor, renowned for her outright verbal militancy, was Tarabai Shinde, who pioneered feminist writing in Marathi by attacking male double standards of morality in•her powerful booklet, Stri-Purusha Tulana (A Comparison of Women and Men, 1882). Her predecessor, Savitribai Phule, was educated at home by her illustrious husband, Iotirao Phule, to work as a teacher in his pioneering school for girls in Pune around 1850, in the face of public harassment such as stone-throwing. Yet another pioneer, Anandibai Ioshee, travelled alone to the USA in 1883 to train as a medical doctor with the objective of providing much-needed health care to women.

Then there is the famous (legal) case of Rakhmabai. This young woman's repudiation of her childhood marriage contested patriarchal society's absolute power over young girls and led her to face a court trial in the mid-1880s. In the early twentieth century, we have Ramabai Ranade-Maharashtra's most popular icon of the 'modern pativrata'-who opened the Seva Sadan for educating Brahmin widows and making them economically self-reliant members of society. Her project also brought married women and women of other castes and religions into its ambit, and later included agitating for free and compulsory education for girls as well as for women's enfranchisement in the Bombay Provincial Council. Kashibai Kanitkar, who helped Mrs Ranade run the Seva Sadan, encouraged women's education and strove to legitimize it by preserving the image of educated women as good wives and mothers with impeccable conventional credentials. She also authored a utopian dream of gender equality. And there were other eminent women of their cohort in Maharashtra, who ventured beyond the threshold, literally or metaphorically, and who in their own distictive ways made their mark in the public sphere.

Some of these remarkable, articulate ,women inhabit this book, not as token women achievers of the past (although their achievements do need to be recorded), but as individuals who embodied both the socio-cultural tensions and their resolution during an era of rapid transitions. This era saw a redefinition of custom and tradition, a renegotiation of individual freedoms and constraints, and an at- tempt to recast Indian society in a mould at once more progressive and more truly Indian. How these women sculpted emancipatory spaces for themselves and their sisters, even while struggling to forge various compromises between conformity to convention and an emergent feminism inevitably born of their experiential world, is part of the story that unfolds through these essays, based largely on their own words. The book is also inhabited naturally by nineteenth- century men, the social liberals who helped these women within the constraints set by their own patriarchal beliefs, as well as the conservatives who opposed both the liberals and the women attempting to break the conventional mould.

This introductory essay contextualizes such women and men within the discursive frame of social reform, its tension-fraught relationship with political reform, and the diverse manifestations of nationalism pervading both-all of which were located within the larger interaction between the colonial state and hierarchical, intern- ally conflicted indigenous society. I also discuss here the women's narratives that have supported my analysis and trace the contours of their incipient feminism. Importantly, I try here to suggest an analytic framework for understanding the processes of these women crossing their thresholds and forging into-as well as reforging -the public sphere.

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