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Books > Language and Literature > History > Visible Histories Disappearing Women (Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal)
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Visible Histories Disappearing Women (Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal)
Visible Histories Disappearing Women (Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal)
Description

About the Author

 

Mahua Sarkar is an associate professor of sociology and a faculty member of the women's studies and the Asian and Asian-American studies programs at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

 

Introduction

 

This book studies the production of Muslim women as invisible and oppressed/backward in the written history of late colonial Bengal. Unlike in projects of recuperation, the intent here is not to correct the problem of invisibility/silence of Muslim women by recovering them as visible/vocal subjects within the familiar terms of conventional history-a history that denied them such presence in the first place. Instead, my focus is on understanding the discursive and material contexts that have historically produced Muslim women as victimized, invisible, and/or mute. What I seek to make visible in this project, in other words, is not so much Muslim women but rather the contexts of their specific (dis) appearances in writing and the ways in which they have been marginalized and/or made to (dis)appear within both the conventional (colonial and nationalist) and critical historiography of colonial Bengal.

 

Feminist scholars have amply documented the phallocentric tendencies of normative historiographies that typically ignore women as historical subjects. Recently, feminists in India have engaged in further reflection about the implicit Hindu majoritarian biases of not just nationalist/normative histories but even feminist scholarship. These recent intellectual developments provide important normative historiographies that typically ignore women as historical subjects. Recently, feminists in India have engaged in further reflection about the implicit Hindu majoritarian biases of not just nationalist/normative histories but even feminist scholarship. These recent intellectual developments provide important points of departure for my research. However, I do not read the relative absence of Muslim women within the history of colonial Bengal simply as an effect of the (unintentional) phallocentrism and majoritarian preoccupations of extant histories. Instead, I locate their invisibility or erasure in writing at the intersection of two discourses of modernity: nationalism, which treats nations as the rightful subject of modern history, and liberal feminism, which privileges certain notions of agency while discounting others as the proper markers of feminist/modern subject hood. As I will argue later in this chapter and hope to show throughout the book, the nation-centeredness of history as a discipline and the intellectual politics of liberal feminism have together produced Muslim women as the oppressed, mute, backward, and eventually invisible "other" of the normative modern (read conscious and/or rights bearing, Hindu/Iiberal, citizen/feminist) subject within the written history of colonial Bengal, even when they (Muslim women) exercised all kinds of agency whether as subjects who should have been easily recuperable within the terms of nationalist or feminist accounts or as subjects who refused the lures of a modernity that exceeded the limits of their comfort or perceived abilities.

 

The book, thus, investigates silence itself as constitutive, and not simply an oversight, of dominant-conventional and critical-historical accounts. History appears in this study not as an "incomplete record of the past" in need of correction but an active participant in the "production of knowledge that [Legitimizes] the exclusion and subordination'?" of subaltern groups such as Muslim women-designated as nonmodern in an ongoing process of producing and reaffirming a normative modernity," For progress, as Walter Benjamin's insights into the "temporal paradox of modernity" teach us, can only be mapped through the systematic invention of images of the archaic, of what is superseded, perhaps even destroyed," An important underlying concern of this study, therefore, is to explore the very possibility, and hence the difficulties, of writing a feminist history that reads difference not as "lack" or "lag," but as indicative of the "complex genealogy of the modern.'" To this end, I also interrogate the somewhat uncritical uses of the notion of "agency" and "subject hood" as they figure, at times, in feminist scholarship, especially in the small but growing body of work on Muslim women in colonial India. And, finally, while the widely acknowledged importance of the past for understanding the present certainly informs it, this study is also an ongoing reflection on the myriad ways in which the present influences how we read or approach the past.

 

I begin in this introductory chapter with a critical engagement with recent significant feminist and postcolonial scholarship to map out "when and where" Muslim women "enter" into the written history of colonial Bengal," In four interrelated chapters, the substantive core of the book then traces Muslim women as they appear or disappear in colonial, Hindu nationalist, and liberal Muslim writings in late colonial Bengal, as well as in the private memories of pre-partition Bengal of both Muslim and Hindu women today. The concluding chapter of the book ends with some reflections on the linkages between the"epistemic violence"? Of past representations and the very real corporeal violence against Muslim women in contemporary India.

The project began with the following observation: while recent decades have seen an extraordinary explosion of scholarship on women in colonial India, much of this literature is preoccupied with Hindu (typically upper caste or middle class) women." When Muslim women do appear-more often in studies of post independence India-they are often portrayed as oppressed and lagging behind,"

 

A common assumption underlying the silence about Muslim women in the literature on colonial Bengal is that very few among them wrote or did anything that merits attention," Indeed, a survey of mainstream periodicals, popular magazines, and newspapers - which together made up a nascent public domain based in crucial colonial cities such as Calcutta and Dhaka in the mid-nineteenth century would seem to confirm this impression. The dominant issues, such as sati, widow remarriage, or even the Sanskritization of Bengali, being debated at that time on the pages of these periodicals were all concerns of a new, predominantly Hindu middle class. The fortunes of this Hindu gentry, now known as the bhadralok: in Bengal, was intimately tied to the fate of the colonial economy, and especially the prominence - both economic and cultural- of Calcutta as the main seat of colonial rule in nineteenth-century India," By all accounts, Muslims in Bengal were marginal to this early process of middle-class formation," Nor were they part of the cultural "renaissance" spearheaded by a mainly Calcutta-based, middle-class, Brahmo and Hindu intelligentsia in response, at least in part, to British criticism of the putatively inherent inferiority of colonized subjects."

 

However, recent research has revealed that by the third quarter of the nineteenth century a small but growing body of middle-class Bengali Muslims had themselves taken to the print media, and were even cultivating Bengali as a language, in the teeth of concerted opposition from the Muslim orthodoxy. Faced with both colonial attempts to classify them as largely fanatical and "low-caste Hindu converts" and Hindu representations of them as dissolute, alien, and inferior, Muslims began systematically questioning, developing, and honing their identity as a community. In Bengal, this attempt resulted in the publication of a slew of Muslim-edited periodicals and popular magazines, which began to appear sporadically, mostly out of Calcutta, by the end of the nineteenth century. These publications together provided an important discursive space in which Muslim intellectuals could express themselves and contest the dominant constructions - both colonial and Hindu of community and class identities in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Bengal. Some of these journals further problematized Muslimness by encouraging Muslim women to publicly call into question their specific gender oppressions. Consequently, we find that by the first decade of the twentieth century many Muslim women in Bengal were writing, some quite prolifically, in the Muslim and Hindu journals spawned by the vibrant material and cultural economies of urban centers such as Calcutta and Dhaka. Records of similar efforts by Muslim women outside of Bengal, in cities such as Lahore and Bombay, are also not uncommon," Their contributions in the form of articles, short stories, poems, autobiographies, and travel accounts all of which helped to change women's roles within the home and outside-have been considerable.

 Yet it is not easy to find mentions of Muslim women or their contributions in Indian nationalist or even postcolonial history," The recorded history of women in pre-partition Bengal, for instance, continues to be overwhelmingly a narrative of the reformist experiments of a small minority of Hindu/Brahmo women, who actively participated in the modernizing projects of the new "liberal" elite," Needless to say, the intellectual and reform efforts of many accomplished Muslim women in other parts of colonial India have gone similarly unnoticed." Until recently, even much of feminist scholarship has failed to highlight the work of Muslim women, presumably because, as Meredith Borthwick puts it, it "deserves a separate study" or because "the Muslim gender system differed significantly from the Hindu," as Dagmar Engels would have it.The assumption, it would seem, is that Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent have separate histories that can be, indeed, need to be, recorded as discrete, largely self-referential accounts.

 

In the course of the last decade, more nuanced and/or revisionist efforts have attempted to redress this lacuna, but such attempts have rarely gone beyond the inclusion of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's (1880-1932) work," ignoring in the process other Muslim woman writers who made significant literary and critical contributions in pre-partition Bengal.How does one explain this continued occlusion of Muslim women in much of the written history of colonial Bengal produced in postcolonial India?

 

The connection between "woman" and "nation" has been the focus of much feminist inquiry." While "hegemonic theorizations" of nations and nationalisms and, I would add, even the more critical readings by such scholars as Benedict Anderson and Etienne Balibar that recognize the nation form as modem, imagined, and constitutive of identities-typically pay little attention to the workings of gender, feminist theorists insist that the nation is in fact a gendered construct that accords unequal access to power and resources to men and women. What is more, as feminist writers such as Carole Pateman, Carol Delaney and Deniz Kandiyoti, to name only a few-contend, the gendered inequity in modem society is not accidental but rather constitutive of the very definition of the nation and the modem (nation)state. Women are often constructed within nationalist discourse as "inherently atavistic the conservative repository of the national archaic," and as such they are considered fundamentally undeserving of membership in the national political community except as the dependents of men and under the latter's moral supervision. Consequently, as feminists point out, the twentieth century may have brought impressive gains in terms of formal political rights for women, with their "promise of justice and equality," but women's substantive positions as citizen-subjects in the public realm are still undercut by their very "real subordination" within the private/familial domain, or what Rajeswari Sunder Rajan has recently called the "masculinity of nationalist ideolog[ies]" and the "fictions of citizenship."

 

Meanwhile, this continued marginalization of women stands in stark contrast to the almost compulsory foregrounding, even valorization, of women as emblematic of nations and communities.'? To quote Kandiyoti, the centrality of women to the nation is "reaffirmed consciously in nationalist rhetoric where the nation itself is represented as a woman to be protected" or manifested "less consciously in terms of an inordinate degree of attention on women's appropriate sexual conduct.")! In their influential work, Nira-Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias also highlight this "intense preoccupation" with controlling women and their sexuality in processes of national and ethnic identity production, which understand the principal role of women to be bearing sons for the nation." That haloed place, strategically accorded within nationalist discourses to the idealized construct "woman," has meant that any attempt to raise the issue of women's positions or rights, both in the colonial and post colonial era, are invariably enmeshed in larger debates over "women's appropriate place and conduct" that are widely considered to be crucial "boundary markers" of the "cultural authenticity and integrity" of communities/nations as they embark on various modernizing projects." As feminist scholars argue, analyses of the position of women in any society must therefore be grounded in an examination of the historical processes of nation and state formation and the specific ways in which women were incorporated into these projects.

 

Contents

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

 

Introduction: Writing Difference

1

1

The Colonial Cast: The Merchant, the soldier, the "writer" (clerk), Their Lovers, and the trouble with "Native Women's" Histories

27

2

The politics of (In) visibility: Muslim women in (Hindu) nationalist discourse

48

3

Negotiating Modernity: The Social production of Muslimness in Late colonial Bengal

78

4

Difference in memory

133

 

Conclusion: Connections

196

 

Notes

205

 

Bibliography

287

 

Index

331

 

Visible Histories Disappearing Women (Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal)

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About the Author

 

Mahua Sarkar is an associate professor of sociology and a faculty member of the women's studies and the Asian and Asian-American studies programs at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

 

Introduction

 

This book studies the production of Muslim women as invisible and oppressed/backward in the written history of late colonial Bengal. Unlike in projects of recuperation, the intent here is not to correct the problem of invisibility/silence of Muslim women by recovering them as visible/vocal subjects within the familiar terms of conventional history-a history that denied them such presence in the first place. Instead, my focus is on understanding the discursive and material contexts that have historically produced Muslim women as victimized, invisible, and/or mute. What I seek to make visible in this project, in other words, is not so much Muslim women but rather the contexts of their specific (dis) appearances in writing and the ways in which they have been marginalized and/or made to (dis)appear within both the conventional (colonial and nationalist) and critical historiography of colonial Bengal.

 

Feminist scholars have amply documented the phallocentric tendencies of normative historiographies that typically ignore women as historical subjects. Recently, feminists in India have engaged in further reflection about the implicit Hindu majoritarian biases of not just nationalist/normative histories but even feminist scholarship. These recent intellectual developments provide important normative historiographies that typically ignore women as historical subjects. Recently, feminists in India have engaged in further reflection about the implicit Hindu majoritarian biases of not just nationalist/normative histories but even feminist scholarship. These recent intellectual developments provide important points of departure for my research. However, I do not read the relative absence of Muslim women within the history of colonial Bengal simply as an effect of the (unintentional) phallocentrism and majoritarian preoccupations of extant histories. Instead, I locate their invisibility or erasure in writing at the intersection of two discourses of modernity: nationalism, which treats nations as the rightful subject of modern history, and liberal feminism, which privileges certain notions of agency while discounting others as the proper markers of feminist/modern subject hood. As I will argue later in this chapter and hope to show throughout the book, the nation-centeredness of history as a discipline and the intellectual politics of liberal feminism have together produced Muslim women as the oppressed, mute, backward, and eventually invisible "other" of the normative modern (read conscious and/or rights bearing, Hindu/Iiberal, citizen/feminist) subject within the written history of colonial Bengal, even when they (Muslim women) exercised all kinds of agency whether as subjects who should have been easily recuperable within the terms of nationalist or feminist accounts or as subjects who refused the lures of a modernity that exceeded the limits of their comfort or perceived abilities.

 

The book, thus, investigates silence itself as constitutive, and not simply an oversight, of dominant-conventional and critical-historical accounts. History appears in this study not as an "incomplete record of the past" in need of correction but an active participant in the "production of knowledge that [Legitimizes] the exclusion and subordination'?" of subaltern groups such as Muslim women-designated as nonmodern in an ongoing process of producing and reaffirming a normative modernity," For progress, as Walter Benjamin's insights into the "temporal paradox of modernity" teach us, can only be mapped through the systematic invention of images of the archaic, of what is superseded, perhaps even destroyed," An important underlying concern of this study, therefore, is to explore the very possibility, and hence the difficulties, of writing a feminist history that reads difference not as "lack" or "lag," but as indicative of the "complex genealogy of the modern.'" To this end, I also interrogate the somewhat uncritical uses of the notion of "agency" and "subject hood" as they figure, at times, in feminist scholarship, especially in the small but growing body of work on Muslim women in colonial India. And, finally, while the widely acknowledged importance of the past for understanding the present certainly informs it, this study is also an ongoing reflection on the myriad ways in which the present influences how we read or approach the past.

 

I begin in this introductory chapter with a critical engagement with recent significant feminist and postcolonial scholarship to map out "when and where" Muslim women "enter" into the written history of colonial Bengal," In four interrelated chapters, the substantive core of the book then traces Muslim women as they appear or disappear in colonial, Hindu nationalist, and liberal Muslim writings in late colonial Bengal, as well as in the private memories of pre-partition Bengal of both Muslim and Hindu women today. The concluding chapter of the book ends with some reflections on the linkages between the"epistemic violence"? Of past representations and the very real corporeal violence against Muslim women in contemporary India.

The project began with the following observation: while recent decades have seen an extraordinary explosion of scholarship on women in colonial India, much of this literature is preoccupied with Hindu (typically upper caste or middle class) women." When Muslim women do appear-more often in studies of post independence India-they are often portrayed as oppressed and lagging behind,"

 

A common assumption underlying the silence about Muslim women in the literature on colonial Bengal is that very few among them wrote or did anything that merits attention," Indeed, a survey of mainstream periodicals, popular magazines, and newspapers - which together made up a nascent public domain based in crucial colonial cities such as Calcutta and Dhaka in the mid-nineteenth century would seem to confirm this impression. The dominant issues, such as sati, widow remarriage, or even the Sanskritization of Bengali, being debated at that time on the pages of these periodicals were all concerns of a new, predominantly Hindu middle class. The fortunes of this Hindu gentry, now known as the bhadralok: in Bengal, was intimately tied to the fate of the colonial economy, and especially the prominence - both economic and cultural- of Calcutta as the main seat of colonial rule in nineteenth-century India," By all accounts, Muslims in Bengal were marginal to this early process of middle-class formation," Nor were they part of the cultural "renaissance" spearheaded by a mainly Calcutta-based, middle-class, Brahmo and Hindu intelligentsia in response, at least in part, to British criticism of the putatively inherent inferiority of colonized subjects."

 

However, recent research has revealed that by the third quarter of the nineteenth century a small but growing body of middle-class Bengali Muslims had themselves taken to the print media, and were even cultivating Bengali as a language, in the teeth of concerted opposition from the Muslim orthodoxy. Faced with both colonial attempts to classify them as largely fanatical and "low-caste Hindu converts" and Hindu representations of them as dissolute, alien, and inferior, Muslims began systematically questioning, developing, and honing their identity as a community. In Bengal, this attempt resulted in the publication of a slew of Muslim-edited periodicals and popular magazines, which began to appear sporadically, mostly out of Calcutta, by the end of the nineteenth century. These publications together provided an important discursive space in which Muslim intellectuals could express themselves and contest the dominant constructions - both colonial and Hindu of community and class identities in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Bengal. Some of these journals further problematized Muslimness by encouraging Muslim women to publicly call into question their specific gender oppressions. Consequently, we find that by the first decade of the twentieth century many Muslim women in Bengal were writing, some quite prolifically, in the Muslim and Hindu journals spawned by the vibrant material and cultural economies of urban centers such as Calcutta and Dhaka. Records of similar efforts by Muslim women outside of Bengal, in cities such as Lahore and Bombay, are also not uncommon," Their contributions in the form of articles, short stories, poems, autobiographies, and travel accounts all of which helped to change women's roles within the home and outside-have been considerable.

 Yet it is not easy to find mentions of Muslim women or their contributions in Indian nationalist or even postcolonial history," The recorded history of women in pre-partition Bengal, for instance, continues to be overwhelmingly a narrative of the reformist experiments of a small minority of Hindu/Brahmo women, who actively participated in the modernizing projects of the new "liberal" elite," Needless to say, the intellectual and reform efforts of many accomplished Muslim women in other parts of colonial India have gone similarly unnoticed." Until recently, even much of feminist scholarship has failed to highlight the work of Muslim women, presumably because, as Meredith Borthwick puts it, it "deserves a separate study" or because "the Muslim gender system differed significantly from the Hindu," as Dagmar Engels would have it.The assumption, it would seem, is that Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent have separate histories that can be, indeed, need to be, recorded as discrete, largely self-referential accounts.

 

In the course of the last decade, more nuanced and/or revisionist efforts have attempted to redress this lacuna, but such attempts have rarely gone beyond the inclusion of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's (1880-1932) work," ignoring in the process other Muslim woman writers who made significant literary and critical contributions in pre-partition Bengal.How does one explain this continued occlusion of Muslim women in much of the written history of colonial Bengal produced in postcolonial India?

 

The connection between "woman" and "nation" has been the focus of much feminist inquiry." While "hegemonic theorizations" of nations and nationalisms and, I would add, even the more critical readings by such scholars as Benedict Anderson and Etienne Balibar that recognize the nation form as modem, imagined, and constitutive of identities-typically pay little attention to the workings of gender, feminist theorists insist that the nation is in fact a gendered construct that accords unequal access to power and resources to men and women. What is more, as feminist writers such as Carole Pateman, Carol Delaney and Deniz Kandiyoti, to name only a few-contend, the gendered inequity in modem society is not accidental but rather constitutive of the very definition of the nation and the modem (nation)state. Women are often constructed within nationalist discourse as "inherently atavistic the conservative repository of the national archaic," and as such they are considered fundamentally undeserving of membership in the national political community except as the dependents of men and under the latter's moral supervision. Consequently, as feminists point out, the twentieth century may have brought impressive gains in terms of formal political rights for women, with their "promise of justice and equality," but women's substantive positions as citizen-subjects in the public realm are still undercut by their very "real subordination" within the private/familial domain, or what Rajeswari Sunder Rajan has recently called the "masculinity of nationalist ideolog[ies]" and the "fictions of citizenship."

 

Meanwhile, this continued marginalization of women stands in stark contrast to the almost compulsory foregrounding, even valorization, of women as emblematic of nations and communities.'? To quote Kandiyoti, the centrality of women to the nation is "reaffirmed consciously in nationalist rhetoric where the nation itself is represented as a woman to be protected" or manifested "less consciously in terms of an inordinate degree of attention on women's appropriate sexual conduct.")! In their influential work, Nira-Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias also highlight this "intense preoccupation" with controlling women and their sexuality in processes of national and ethnic identity production, which understand the principal role of women to be bearing sons for the nation." That haloed place, strategically accorded within nationalist discourses to the idealized construct "woman," has meant that any attempt to raise the issue of women's positions or rights, both in the colonial and post colonial era, are invariably enmeshed in larger debates over "women's appropriate place and conduct" that are widely considered to be crucial "boundary markers" of the "cultural authenticity and integrity" of communities/nations as they embark on various modernizing projects." As feminist scholars argue, analyses of the position of women in any society must therefore be grounded in an examination of the historical processes of nation and state formation and the specific ways in which women were incorporated into these projects.

 

Contents

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

 

Introduction: Writing Difference

1

1

The Colonial Cast: The Merchant, the soldier, the "writer" (clerk), Their Lovers, and the trouble with "Native Women's" Histories

27

2

The politics of (In) visibility: Muslim women in (Hindu) nationalist discourse

48

3

Negotiating Modernity: The Social production of Muslimness in Late colonial Bengal

78

4

Difference in memory

133

 

Conclusion: Connections

196

 

Notes

205

 

Bibliography

287

 

Index

331

 

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