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Reclaiming an Incipient Feminism

Feminism Crossing Thresholds. Feminist Essays in Social History by Meera Kosambi; Permanent Black, Mumbai/NewDelhi, MAITHREYI KRISHNARAJ Meera Kosambi is a well known scholar on Maharashtra

Reclaiming an Incipient


Crossing Thresholds. Feminist Essays in Social History

by Meera Kosambi; Permanent Black, Mumbai/NewDelhi, 2007; pp 397, Rs 695.


eera Kosambi is a well known scholar on Maharashtra’s social history. Her close acquaintance with Maharashtra’s history, her knowledge of Marathi and social analysis and her research skills endow this book with a rare authenticity. It is also non-judgmental and does not dismiss the yearnings of the actors of that period as faulty but places them in the milieu of their period. Would we in 2007 think the same way, given so much that has happened since then? Yet what these feminist foremothers thought, spoke and wrote was extraordinarily prescient. They were ahead of their times. The book is witness to her meticulous research and is in the best traditions of academic scholarship. She has taken immense effort to garner material from varied sources, both from within the country and outside and has scrounged remote libraries to glean insights into her subjects. I wish that young scholars today would learn from her example what it means to pursue one’s subject matter dispassionately, patiently, over several years. It reminds one of Robert Browning’s poem on the “grammarian‘s funeral”. Reading her introduction I was struck by the fact that the book is not just a chronicle of some outstanding women’s lives and thoughts, but it is equally Kosambi’s own journey towards feminism.

When dealing with women’s history, we have to simultaneously address two concerns (i) of writing women’s history and

(ii) writing women into history. The first has to begin before the second can be accomplished. Some of the challenges of writing women’s history are, first of all, becoming aware of patriarchal assumptions and secondly not just to find better answers but to ask better questions. Women’s history cannot be a separate history standing by itself but has to be conjoined with the history of societies in all their ramifications, which involves the act of retrieving, reinterpreting and repositioning history. Kosambi admits she is interpreting the lives of the women she has chosen to comment on from the vantage point of today’s sensibilities but in doing so she is not just imposing her voice over those of these women. She is careful to make them speak for themselves through their writings and their concerns and through their difficult negotiations with settled social customs. Their position is contradictory, for while seeking autonomy, they also do not wish to break away completely by pushing their logic too far.

Pushing the Threshold

She has used the metaphor of the threshold to convey the public – private dichotomy; a dichotomy that exists in all societies to limit women’s access to public space. However what constitutes the private and what constitutes the public differs. In western societies, men and women do meet as couples, as dance or date partners in the public realm and hence the taboo locations have to do with positions of authority or acquisition of knowledge or encroachment into men’s occupations. The household threshold is on the other hand a strong metaphor in the Indian cultural scene especially for the upper castes that performs the task of controlling the mobility and sexual behaviour of their women. Indian society has high segregation of the sexes. Kosambi’s apt reference to allotted spheres for women even within the household is significant. There are permitted spaces for women- within the household the ‘antahpur’. The distinction, Kosambi argues, between the private and public is very much a colonial phenomenon. This distinction in pre-colonial peshwa period was blurred both spatially and conceptually. Here she gives us a glimpse of how the ‘wada’ was constructed in Pune, the centre of peshwa rule. This reminds me of my own experience of Tamil Nadu’s old cities as for example in Kumbakonam where the description of the interior architecture matches her description. There were separate brahmin habitats called the ‘agraharam’. Men received visitors on the ‘payal’, a platform to sit outside the house and they did not enter the house. Only male relatives did and even they did not go to the women’s quarters.

The chronicles refer to upper caste brahmin women on whom social restrictions were most onerous. We know very little of what important events occurred in women’s lives and we know even less of what went on within the women’s sphere that mediated changes from one period to another. Kosambi’s book attempts to redress this lacuna. The galaxy of women included here are Pandita Ramabai, Anandibai Joshee, Rakhmabai, Baya Karve, Parvatibai Athavale, Kashibai Kanitkar, Savitribai Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Ramabai Ranade, Yashodabai Joshi and Lakshmibai Tilak. As Kosambi says, their clear feminist articulations make them not “token women achievers of the past but individuals who embodied both the sociocultural tensions and their resolution during an era of rapid transition” (p 6). The voices of these women foreground the tremendous potential they possessed to bring about social change by questioning established conventions of gender relations, but this potential went unrealised due to the stout resistance of society at large. Kashibai was

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

one of the first generation of educated women in Maharashtra. These women were imbued with a consciousness of sisterhood of women. It was a diffuse kind of feminism which had a contradictory meshing of conformism and resistance. Ramabai Ranade continuously gives praise to her husband; Lakshmibai Tilak too extols her husband’s share in her own progress, underplaying her own courage and efforts. Baya Karve led her life at the uneasy intersection of social reform projects. Her child marriage was followed by widowhood and later marriage to Dondo Keshav Karve, whose dedicated service to women’s education earned him a Bharat Ratna. The two principal issues in the reformist agenda on widowhood were abolition of disfigurement and remarriage. Baya Karve and Parvati Athavale were the only women who wrote about the trauma of disfigurement. In the film Water by Deepa Mehta which depicts the fate of widows in Kashi, the picture of the little girl who is a child widow is poignant. As Uma Chakravarty has said, a widow’s disfigurement was meant to signify her social death. In my own family, my great grandmother as a widow had undergone this disfigurement, as married at 10, she became a widow after begetting four daughters.

The history of Maharashtra, its social reform movement and its impact on the women of the class on whose behalf struggles were fought are no doubt limited to the region, but have an inspiring message for the rest of the country. While women may have been aware of their oppression, it is their education that gave them the instruments for thinking and evaluating their position, as also exposure to other cultures and feminists abroad. Both Ramabai and Anandibai were exposed to western education and received the support of American feminists. Whether we call them feminists or not they were definitely precursors to the emergence of a more sustained collective articulation of feminism. Collective expression does not suddenly emerge on the horizon one fine day, but emerges only when such efforts cumulatively form a groundswell, with other triggers that loosen the social milieu. The encounter with colonialism was a critical factor in entwining gender issues with nationalism. It is very interesting that India is among the few countries where this happened. In contemporary India middle class women enjoy higher education and employment in large numbers but the symbolic threshold operates subtly. It is alright for women to bring home extra money, but they have to come home straight after work and shoulder family responsibilities, including taking leave to observe rituals and family obligations like attending birth, marriage and death rituals of near relatives.

The Reform Debates

A wonderful merit of the book is the inclusion of photographs. The thematic organisation of the book also helps in our understanding of how many issues these radical women dealt with: child marriage, motherhood, daughterhood, wifehood, conjugal rights, seeking visibility, nationalism, right to education and female subjectivity. The book valuably recaptures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries struggle between the conservative males who saw reform of marriage and women’s positions within it as a violation of the cultural practices of the society and as an unwarranted intrusion by the colonial regime into what should not concern it. While many episodes of the reform movement may be familiar to us, the vividness with which the author narrates the actual debates that took place between men, for example, between Tilak and Agarkar, are interesting and capture for us the flavour of that formative period in our women’s history.

We learn how discussions on the Age of Consent Bill or the famous Rukhmabai case had legal ramifications, including the interpretation of our ambiguous shastras that encapsulated the Hindu Law. In an age when pre-puberty marriages were common, an appeal for the health of the girls exposed to early “consummation” was cited as the need to advance the age from 10 years to 12 years when girls were expected to have had their menarche. The discussion by the defenders of traditional custom highlights the patriarchal control of women’s sexuality and procreative abilities – the conjugal rights issue underscores the fact that women were regarded as the property of men. The Hindu rituals of ‘kanyadan’ and ‘garbadan’ are concrete manifestations of the male right to women’s bodies. Today the stipulated legal age of marriage for girls is 18, even so, in Maharashtra there are many districts where girls are married at 15 and sometimes even less. There has been a recurrent demand that all marriages should be registered as Hindu marriages are “sacramental” and not contractual.

In the chapter ‘Motherhood in the East-West Encounter’ the cross-cultural centrality of motherhood is underlined. “Voices of motherhood were intricately woven into the British discourse of imperialism and the Indian discourse of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. The author substantiates this observation by illustrating how British women in colonial India undertook their civilising mission in which sisterhood had no place as it implied equality.

Pune and Mumbai were the locus of the internal conflicts between the conservative majority and the reformist minority. The mainstream reform discourse remained an upper caste, middle class and male project whose preoccupations with gender issues were dictated primarily by the brahmin community’s oppressive marriage customs that disregarded the customs of the majority communities. A lot of angst was exhibited by a perceived threat from female education. If women got educated would they not neglect their household responsibilities?

In the narration of individual life stories, the author attempts to examine their personae beyond the official biographies sketched by others of some of their iconic status. This was particularly so with reference to Anandibai Joshi whose career and life was deeply embedded in myth as one who exemplified total agency but ended as a tragic martyr. Rejecting such selective anchoring, Kosambi tries to unearth “the real” Anandibai. Similarly, Kosambi gives a more balanced picture of Kashibai Kanitkar who was the first woman writer of significance in Marathi. Here was someone who had dared to write a feminist utopia. Kashibai avoids the binary of male oppressors and female victims and despite identifying the family as the site of oppression, she thinks that education and employment will be enough to emancipate women. Kosambi sees in this a tussle between Kashibai’s early gender socialisation into the normative structure of patriarchy and her own feminist awareness. Even after four decades of reform, Parvatibai Athavale stood for women’s education in conformity with their gender role – to make them good wives and mothers.

The chapter in the book on ‘Gender and Nationalism’ is full of information on the various actors around that time: M G Ranade, R G Bhandarkar, K T Telang, B G Tilak and G G Agarkar. Through their voices reproduced here we can appreciate the battle between extremist nationalists

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 coupled with social conservatives and the more liberal voices. Despite Ramabai’s serious efforts to mobilise women for social reform, her subsequent conversion to Christianity unfortunately excluded her from Hindu society. The split between political and social reform was strengthened after the establishment of the Indian National Congress when the final vote went in favour of freedom from colonial rule, thus postponing real social reform for equal gender relations.

Reading Women in History

Kosambi has attempted to derive a new conceptual framework with analytical and empirical relevance. The heroines of this tome are not discovered for the first time

– they have been written about earlier by those dealing with autobiographical Marathi literature and by some women’s studies scholars tracing the trajectory of feminism in Maharashtra. The special contribution of this collection of essays is the abundance of original material incorporated, a sympathetic understanding of the constraints under which these women lived and the limits to their stretching their struggles beyond a point.

I believe the book should be recommended reading for all women’s studies scholars and centres, as material to be debated and discussed and as invitation to similar research in other regions. It should also go beyond women’s studies to general readers and the general curriculum. Many young women who enjoy freedoms their foremothers fought for declare they are not feminist – forgetting that where they are now is due to the struggles of their foremothers.

While Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu went through social reform which aided the process of women’s liberation, it is important for women’s historians to ask why such reform movements did not take place in other regions of this country. Why even the reform movements that occurred, like Arya Samaj, did not provoke feminism. One geographer has advanced the view that the northern plains had a different land ownership system which probably intensifies the ‘biradari’ and patriarchy. In the south and west, patriarchy was mooted and its extreme forms were more in the north. The proportion of brahmins in the south and west were less – 2 to 4 per cent in Tamil Nadu; perhaps similar in the west. We do not know the reasons conclusively – there are multiple explanations, and we have yet to explore these dimensions. Though brahmins were a minority in these regions, they wielded power. In the south female education took a headstart with missionary efforts and there were also non-brahmin movements that challenged brahminical hegemony.

Long after we thought the dust had settled down on Rukhmabai’s case, history is repeating now though it is not couched in the words of conjugal rights. A woman has been accused of inflicting mental cruelty on her husband by denying intercourse and be getting a child. The lower court acquitted her but the Supreme Court has upheld the husband’s complaint.

Let us hope the book stimulates interest in women’s history that is deserves. Kosambi has done a signal service to our own history by a sympathetic rendering of the voices of our foremothers whose feminism was “fragmented” because of the lack of enabling circumstances. I am not sure the expression fragmented conveys the notion of an emerging consciousness, it makes it appear “broken” whereas it was probably more incipient.



Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

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