Recasting Women (Essays in Colonial History)

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Item Code: NAF928
Author: Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid
Publisher: Zubaan Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1989
ISBN: 9789383074327
Pages: 494
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 390 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

In this landmark collection on colonial history, Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid bring together some of India’s leading historians and feminist theorists to examine the impact of patriarchy on women’s daily lives during the colonial period specifically in relation to caste and class.

From the abolition of sati to popular culture of 19th century Bengal; from the ‘ideals’ of womanhood contained in Vedic texts to the Telangana People’s Struggle in Hyderabad in the late 1940s and 50s; what emerges in each of the essays is how, as Uma Chakravarty puts it, ‘the past itself [is] a creation of the compulsions of the present’.


This anthology has grown out of our need as academics and activists to understand the historical processes which reconstitute patriarchy in colonial India. We wish to focus primarily on the regulation and reproduction of patriarchy in the different class—caste formations within civil society. This is not in order to underplay the role of the state in maintaining, modifying or aggravating patriarchal practices. Rather, our political understanding and experience as observers and participants in women’s protest movements of the seventies has left us, like many others, bedeviled with a host of questions about the nature of the social and cultural processes within civil society which determine the working of patriarchies in the daily lives of women. We feel that the implications of the reconstitution of patriarchies in the colonial period bear significantly upon the present, and this, in fact, is the justification for this venture.

There are two reasons for the consciously exploratory character of this book. Firstly given the regional, class and caste variation of patriarchal practices and their diverse histories, it is necessary to have specific studies, in order to build an adequate theoretical basis. Overarching theoretical formulations are helpful and necessary to undertake any work but they need constant testing and overhauling by historically and materially specific studies of patriarchal practice, social regulation and cultural production. If patriarchies are not, as we believe, systems either predating or super-added to class and caste but intrinsic to the very formation of, and changes within, these categories, then to rush into theoretical generalization at this stage would be to risk both simplification and rigidity. We are not however making a plea for theoretical eclecticism or “pluralism:’ hut for flexibility within a field which is still being defined. Most of the essays have taken shape through discussing our idea of the book with the contributors. In turn, the richness and diversity of their essays has altered our own understanding as it is reflected in this introduction.

Secondly, the social and political developments of the past two decades have shattered the post-colonial complacency about the improving status of women and with it has gone the legitimacy of nationalist models of reform and ‘development’. It is now apparent that far from enjoying the benefits of so- called development, the majority of women have in fact been pushed to the margins of the production process. Alongside this ‘invisible’ economic process, there is a visible escalation of communal conflicts and an increasing politicization of religious’ identities. These latter developments have given a new lease of life to patriarchal practices under ‘religious’ sanction. There has for example been a resurgence of widow-immolation in parts of northern India. The role of the state and its apparatus has also been far from negligible. In fact the urban women’s protest movements in the 1970s were in part propelled by the frequency of dowry murders—usually treated by the police as a private ‘family’ matter—and custodial rape—a symptom of the acquisition of greater repressive powers by the state. All of these matters have given a pressing urgency to questions about the inter-relation of patriarchal practices with political economy, religion, law and culture—in sum, questions about the politics of social change. This situation has introduced into feminist research the need for a different object of enquiry.


Feminist historiography now implies in some sense a move towards the integrated domain of cultural history. It may be appropriate to describe what we mean by feminist historiography. Historiography may be feminist without being, exclusively, women’s history Such a historiography acknowledges that each aspect of reality is gendered, and is thus involved in questioning all that we think we know, in a sustained examination of analytical and epistemological apparatus, and in a dismantling of the ideological presuppositions of so-called gender-neutral methodologies. A feminist historiography rethinks historiography as a whole and discards the idea of women as something to be framed by a context, in order to be able to think of gender difference as both structuring and structured by the wide set of social relations. In this sense, feminist historiography is a choice open to all historians. Not as a choice among competing perspectives, or even as one among personal predilections of the sort which dictate interest in a particular region or a particular historical period. Nor is the issue here the tokenist inclusion of women or the numerical or even qualitative evaluation of their participation in this or that movement. Rather as a choice which cannot but undergird any attempt at a historical reconstruction which undertakes to demonstrate our sociality in the full sense, and is ready to engage with its own presuppositions of an objective gender- neutral method of enquiry, as well as with the presuppositions of the social moments and movements it sets out to represent. The fact that this is a choice seldom exercised may perhaps even be partly ascribed to the emergence of women’s studies in India which appears to be a convenience for mainstream historians who can now consign the onus on specialists in a ‘separate’ discipline, and so recreate yet another gender—based division of labour within the rarefied world of academia.

Cultural history seems to be the richest, most integrated, and yet most difficult form available for feminist historiograpy. Both its difficulty and its energy are, in one sense, generated by the obtuseness of the present situation. In order to understand the construction of gender difference—through ideologies, concepts and behaviour—and their relation to class and colonial economy, it is necessary to press against the boundaries of established disciplines. This not only involves knowledge of and working at the interface of various disciplines, but also a simultaneous questioning of the histories and assumptions of these disciplines. The act of understanding our construction as agents and subjects of social processes is itself a kind of intervention in the creation of exclusive knowledge systems. Perhaps the greatest difficulty lies in relating the ideological to the experiential; that is, of relating various symbolic constructs to the lives and actions of women, and in relating the often hegemonic ideologies produced about women (converging across region, caste and class) to existing divisions of labour and systems of production. Though there is no neat fit between symbolic constructs and the ordering of social relations or between consciousness and causality (as some sanitized versions of sociology and anthroplogy would have us believe) yet ideas, invented traditions, symbolic constructs do intrude upon the labour process in a number of ways ranging from the causative to the legitimizing.

The essays in this collection either attempt to construe the lived culture or social relations of a particular time and place through available records, or to show the making of a selective tradition through discursive and political processes. The essays are confined to the dominant Hindu community, largely in the north of India, and deal mainly with the middle classes. We feel that the exclusion of all other religious communities and of marginalized groups (dalit and tribal, agricultural and bonded labour) and the slender representation of women belonging to peasant and working class groups is a serious limitation because it is not possible to understand a dominant class or religious community without locating its relationship to other strata and religious groups. The geographical scope of the book is another kind of limitation considering the regionally differential intervention of colonialism. Finally, all except one essay are confined to areas under direct British rule. However, no anthology or even generalization about Indian women could hope to be representative. The book, though limited in terms of such representativeness is, however, held together by a common concern with the changing position of women both in its material specificity, and in its often inverse representations in the discourses which legitimize their social status. These may be useful for further work concerning the reconstitution of patriarchies.

Uma Chakravarti’s paper traces the colonial and indigenous construction of a Hindu-Aryan identity Lata Mani analyses the premises and parameters of the colonial discourse on sari (1805—1830). Sumanta Banerjee describes the making of a respectable Bengali middle class culture through the marginalization of the cultural forms of lower classes in Calcutta and the emergence of the bhadramahila’s (educated wives and daughters of the bhadralok) literary voice. Vir Bharat Taiwar gives an account of women’s magazines and issues of reform taken up by the middle class within Uttar Pradesh during the same period. Partha Chatterjee addresses the “nationalist resolution” of the women’s question, and shows how the new woman is the product of a new patriarchy formed along class lines. Susie Tharu traces the representation of the devoted wife, Savitri, within Indo-Anglian writing, in both its nationalist and post-independence incarnations. Nirmala Banerjee analyses the effects of industrialization on working class women in Bengal. Prem Chowdhry discusses the conjoining of colonial economic interests with the patriarchal practices of a local dominant peasant group, the Jats in Haryana. Kapil Kumar demonstrates the inter—relation of gender and class oppression among agricultural working women in Oudh (LT.P.) and the nature of their participation in the movement led by Baba Ram Chandra. Vasantha Kannabiran and K. Lalitha discuss the perceptions of women who participated in the Telangana people’s struggle (1946—50) showing both the liberating role of the movement and its limitations. Taken together, the papers elicit different kinds of relationships of patriarchal practices with class, nationalist reform, social movements and colonization. What emerges implicitly is the dialectical relation of ’feminisms’ and patriarchies, both in the inventions of the colonial state and in the politics of the anti-colonial movements.


The relation between classes and patriarchies is complex and variable. Not only are patriarchal systems class differentiated, open to constant and consistent reformulation, but defining gender seems to be crucial to the formation of classes and dominant ideologies. Again, the relation between changing modes of production, patriarchal structures and class positions is both aligned and disjunct. For example, men and women in the same class often have a differential access to forms of social privilege, to wages, and to the means of production. Further, though patriarchies are entangled with modes of social ordering, for example, and with existing hierarchies and modes of subjection, they also appear to have no single one to one relation with a given mode of production but seem to change through overlap and reformulation. In this sense they have a relative ‘autonomy’ and a different duration. The lives of women exist at the interface of caste and class inequality; especially since the description and management of gender and female sexuality is involved in the maintenance and reproduction of social inequality.

The compulsion of colonial rule to extract surplus, create classes conducive to its rule, and to produce legitimizing ideologies, led in part to an aggravation of existing unequal relations within many sections of Indian society Though there are many histories of social legislation and educational ‘reforms’ in relation to women there is as yet relatively less work on the relation between colonial intervention in the form of land revenue settlements and local patriarchal practices. Such ostensibly gender-neutral land settlements, whether guided by notions of preserving the ‘village republic’ or of creating a landed gentry; in fact, began a process of social restructuring which was simultaneously and necessarily a process of reconstituting patriarchies in all social strata. As most of this is either unrecorded or hidden history we can only briefly indicate some aspects of the changes in the agrarian economy which involved women.

Land settlements produced the following inter-related transformations. First, former landholding groups were re-empowered to a great extent within the new context of individual ownership of land and of market relations. This further impoverished both tenants and agricultural labour and exacerbated existing forms of extra-economic social coercion. It impinged thus on both the individual and social lives of women of these classes, and was perhaps one of the factors which later led to their wide participation in peasant struggles. Second, individual property rights were vested primarily in the hands of men, and women generally had only ancillary rights accruing from their subordinate relationships with men. In this there was both a continuation and a reinforcement of the exclusion of women from ownership or control of the means of production prevalent in the pre—colonial agrarian structure; where matrilineal systems did exist they were slowly transformed to patrilineal patterns of succession. Third, even when women of the subordinate classes did control some land (as tenants, for example), they had little access to the colonial legal and administrative machinery developed to manage the changed agrarian structure. The workings of an impersonal bureaucratic ‘rule of law’ administered from mofussil towns and district headquarters (as distinct from the working of the village panchayat) further marginalized the women from the ‘public’ sphere, even while it subjected them to its control. Such marginalization intensified their dependence on men. Fourth, along with land settlements, the colonial regime codified the customs of the dominant land owning and other rural groups. This froze custom into law and gave a juridical sanction to certain patriarchal practices regarding marriage, succession and adoption. Further, high caste Hindu norms in these matters, codified piece-meal as statutory Hindu law, were often privileged over customary law to the disadvantage of all Hindu women whether rural or urban.

A complex inter-relationship of contest and collusion between indigenous patriarchal norms, and those held by British administrators is visible in the colonial regulation of agrarian relations. For example, in Haryana (then the south-east part of the Punjab province), as Prem Chowdhry points out, the British while granting certain rights to widows in the interests of revenue extraction, were anxious to discourage them from availing of those very rights. Significantly, the attitudes of the British officials were determined by a conservative response to the feminist agitation in England which finally won the reforms in the Married Women’s Property Law after a long struggle (1856—82). Many of these officials perceived the acquisition or control over property and money by women as both unfair to men and as socially dangerous, a perception which was shared locally. If the colonial regime, out of political and financial interests, sought to reinforce the local customary form of widow remarriage (karewa) in order to ensure male control over inheritance and property, reform organizations like the Arya Samaj found common ground with them and legitimized the custom as Vedic practice, and so enfolded the Jat landholding peasantry into the confines of high-caste Hinduism. It also gave a material grounding to the myth of the woman of the Vedic golden age, but at the expense of peasant women. Here the older form of the control of widows of ritually lower caste groups merges with the reformed Hinduism of the upper castes to make new instruments for ideological control of the widow through an acceptance of karewa—a process which is matched by the workings of the colonial law The stability of both the home and of the agrarian economy was thus sought to be maintained.

In the princely state of Hyderabad, where the Telangana peasant struggle was later to take place, agrarian relations were a crucial determinant of the patriarchies experienced by both the women of ruling groups and by those from the exploited castes and classes. The system of subsidiary alliance with native rulers, one of the bulwarks of colonial rule, in one sense replicated, at a larger level, the effects of the land tenurial arrangements within regions in directly ruled territories. We are not in a position to indicate the nature of the change in patriarchies in states like Hyderabad where there was no direct colonial intervention in the agrarian economy but where a partial change in land tenurial arrangements was effected by the ruler. Perhaps future research in this area will facilitate comparison between the transformation of patriarchies within territories under direct British administration and those under indirect control.

In many parts of direct British administered regions, however, there are clear indications that colonial intervention in the agrarian economy generally intensified the oppression of the majority of rural women. For instance, in Oudh, the post-mutiny Taluqdari Settlement (1858) transformed the former ruling group of rajas, chiefs, and tax-collectors into landlords legally empowered to grant tenancies on the basis of a ‘free market’ economy. This re-empowering of the taluqdars (landholders) along new juridical and economic principles at one level integrated an existing system of feudal agrarian relations within the framework of the colonial economy. Not only did this exacerbate patriarchal practices among the exploited classes (such as distress sales of daughters and harassment of women tenants), but it increased the regulatory power of landlords and upper castes (for example, through village and caste panchayats) in maintaining caste and class based marriage norms and sexual morality.

It may be noted that, contrary to popular notions, sections of the landed aristocracy created and supported by the British attempted to be as ‘liberal’ as the urban classes. Some Oudh taluqdars, for instance, took up matters of education and social reform for women. The rural-urban divide was as such more spatial than social in the colonial context. Not only the urban landed aristocracy but the trading communities which later emerged as capitalists were also crucially linked to the agrarian economy and to rural society. This involved a certain degree of continuity in patriarchies practised in town and village.

On the other side, the working class both within and outside the industrial sector was also a product of a changed agrarian economy. Recurrent famines, the decline of artisan production, and the gradual emergence of the modern organized industrial sector all led to changes in occupational structure. These changes had special significance for women. Many were edged out of traditional village occupations and found only limited opportunities in the new sector, for instance in the textile and jute mills. Whether they were single (mostly widowed women) or with families, working women were, however, soon forced out of the new industries. Thus many women of the productive classes were pushed into the ‘domestic’ sphere, replicating to some extent the division between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ domain as defined by middle class ideologies.

The middle class, to some extent, also derived from rural society In addition to the urban professional and trading classes, the small landholders and village literati who sought jobs in the colonial administration and related professions, also became a part of the middle class. It was this middle class which was to develop ideologies of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ womanhood in contradistinction to the actual patriarchal norms prevalent among the other classes and in opposition to the ‘western’ woman. These notions were constructed and popularized through social reform and nationalist movements. As we shall see later, peasant movements were also to become carriers of such constructs.


1Recasting Women: An Introduction1
2Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi? Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past35
3Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India115
4Marginalization of Women’s Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal166
5That Magic Time: Women in the Telangana People’s Struggle235
6Feminist Consciousness in Women’s Journals in Hindi: 1910—20266
7The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question306
8Tracing Savitri’s Pedigree: Victorian Racism and the Image of Women in Indo-Anglian Literature334
9Working Women in Colonial Bengal: Modernization and Marginalization354
10Customs in a Peasant Economy: Women in Colonial Haryana395
11Rural Women in Oudh 1917—47: Baba Ram Chandra and the Women’s Question439
Notes on Contributors483
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