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The Troubled Relationship of Feminism and History

Why has history remained somewhat impervious to the questions raised by feminist interventions, while other disciplines have felt the imperative of a turn to history in general and feminist historiography in particular? This paper reviews both older and more recent contributions to the field of history to trace the dominant frames within which the methods and critiques of feminism have been accommodated.

REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW oCTOBER 25, 200857The Troubled Relationship of Feminism and HistoryJanaki NairWas it an exaggeration when Andre Beteille (1995:112) had this to say about the impact of feminism in the academy: “…the space within the academic world dominated by ideas about the unity of theory and practice was occupied for some time by Marxism. That space is now increas-ingly being taken over by feminism.”? In his short comment on feminism in academia, Beteille noted the excitement that feminism had generated within the Indian academy, although it was not without dismay that he also pointed to the pernicious effects that the political mission had on the intellectual practice, for “every craft has its own conventional methods. Feminism tends to make light of those demands as being artificially constraining in the context of its larger moral and political demands” (ibid).1 Towards the end of the short comment, he also noted the changing gender composition of Indian campuses, sounding a dark warning about the threat posed by women’s studies’ exclusionary tendencies to the very institutions in which they had “lodged themselves”. 1 IntroductionPractising feminist historians in university and research institu-tions today, more than a decade after this prophetic comment, would be hard put to find evidence of either such a successful “occupa-tion/lodging” or of declining standards that have been the singu-lar achievement of the moral/political burdens of feminism. If anything, there is a sobering realisation that feminism faces a new kind of challenge both within the hard won spaces of the academy and without. This paper will discuss some of these challenges to the ways in which Indian feminism has thought out its mission within and beyond the academy. The specific reference here will be to the field of history. There is no doubt at all that history is among the disciplines which have been richly fertilised by the insights of feminism. Over the last three decades, Indian historians have not only uncovered new archives, but have plundered with impunity the methods of other disciplines to arrive at a fuller, richer account of the past. There has also been an impressive lateral spread of the historical method among a wide range of fields, from film studies to developmental economics. Yet this sophisticated body of work has done little to alter the sanctioned ignorance of the mainstream academy. In inverse proportion to the quantum of high quality writing on Indian history from the standpoint of women is the relative imperviousness of the discipline itself to feminism’s insights. The disciplinary foundations of history, its thematic orientation, and its periodisation have remained relatively unchanged by the work of feminist historians, who are corralled within mainstream history programmes. Feminist history may add to, without reconceptualising, historical investigation itself. What clues does this provide about the field of history and its relation-ship to feminist critique generally? Why has history remained somewhat impervious to the questions raised by feminist interventions, while other disciplines have felt the imperative of a turn to history in general and feminist historiography in particular? This paper reviews both older and more recent contributions to the field of history to trace the dominant frames within which the methods and critiques of feminism have been accommodated.I am grateful to Mary E John, and the Indian Association for Women’s Studies for giving me the opportunity to present this paper at the plenary session of IAWS at Lucknow, February 7-10, 2008. I am also grateful for the comments of Mary E John and M S S Pandian on an earlier version. This article is not intended as a historiographical exercise. As I repeatedly say, the scale and depth of feministhistoriography is too vast to be discussed in a single article: therefore, all references are strictly illustrative of points I am trying to make, and this is not intended as an exhaustive survey.Janaki Nair ( is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoCTOBER 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly58Has the massive institutional presence of women’s studies, of which women’s history is a part and feminist history an even smaller part, been matched in equal measure by a theoretical presence within (or a bringing to crisis of) the conventional practices of historical research and writing? The short answer would be that feminist history suffers, like all the branches of that luxuriant growth called women’s studies, from the problem of “hypervisibility” in the institutional sense while remaining ghettoised in a theoretical sense. The more disturb-ing question would be to ask whether the hypervisibility has fostered ghettoisation. Has the increased visibility of women in history effec-tively contained the endangering feminist critique of founding concepts or periodisations? Has women’s history had the unfortunate effect of channelling the insights of feminism into a restricted and somewhat discrete sphere of research?2 Indian Feminist Politics: Intellectual QueriesTo begin with, exactly how productive has the tension been between the intellectual and the political missions of feminist history? This was Wendy Brown’s (2005:116) starting point in her provocatively titled article ‘The Impossibility of Women’s Studies’. She argued that while the link between political activism and academic feminism was creative in the early years of the second wave feminism, there has been a tendency to collapse the two positions in ways that have depleted the critical achievements of feminism within the academy. How does her analysis bear on the Indian case?We well know that the questions and methods of feminist schol-arship in India have been primarily, and with powerful and insight-ful effect, been driven by certain critical political events (and the links between the women’s movement and academic feminism in India are too well known to bear repetition here). Perhaps nothing demonstrates the role played by critical events in structuring feminist history as the many and wide ranging investigations of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Feminists such as Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia traced their investigations of Partition to the moment of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi: “It took 1984 to make me understand how ever present Partition was in our lives too, to recog-nise that it could not be so easily put away in the covers of history books. I could no longer pretend that this was a history that belonged to another time, to someone else” [Butalia 2000: 6]. Following this return to the violence of Partition, many other histo-rians were drawn to re- examining the painful birth of two nations, although the pioneering work of the feminist historians in establish-ing the profoundly gendered ground of that historical moment was noted only among other concerns [for instance Pandey: 2003]. Similarly, it was in the wake of the demolition of the Babri masjid that genealogies of Hindu nationalism were investigated, and women emerged as both the ground of communal discourse as well as, in some cases, its agents [Sarkar and Butalia 1995; Baccheta 1999; Basu et al 1993]. Finally, it was the sudden visibility of caste as a ground for claiming entitlements in the sphere of employment that urged histori-ans, particularly of regions in northern or eastern India, to rethink the meaning of caste as the “unspoken” in constructions of some histori-cal subjects. The post-Mandal years bore fruit not only among those who had hitherto ignored questions of caste, such as Sumit Sarkar (1997:359 fn 3)or Urvashi Butalia (2000: 311), but scholars who brought to the forefront another history of southern India’s long and productive engagement with caste questions, such as V Geetha and Rajadurai (1998:xi), who say: “We were provoked to address the question seriously and at some length by those anxieties of history which marked the late 1980s and early 1990s and crystallised into the Mandal Masjid conjuncture” [See also Tharu and Niranjana 1996]. The robust movement to question and destabilise caste privileges led to more democratic imaginings long before the Mandal issue made caste the common sense of the entire Indian nation, as scholars such as M S S Pandian (2007) have shown. Still, as Uma Chakravarti (2003) demonstrated, the Mandal years forced feminists to rethink the relationship between caste and gender in creative ways: “The anti-Mandal agitation was an important moment in defining the need to understand caste from a feminist perspective” (ibid: 3-4), leading to the use of new categories, such as “brahmanical patriarchy”. The discussion of feminist scholarship’s debt to the critical politi-cal event serves not to highlight a deficiency or even describe a secondary mode of intellection, but a particular institutional and pedagogical practice within which the effects of western theory have been slighter. Consequently, the mode of feminist theorisation in India has been quite different from those of what we might poorly describe as the global west. Once more for reasons to do with the uneven institutional spaces within which such intellection takes place, the effect of feminist history has been to make histori-cal understandings an imperative for many other social science disciplines – literary criticism, sociology and anthropology, even economics – and thus feminist history has made a far more substan-tial difference laterally to many of the feminist approaches to these practices than to the more general professional practice of history. The gains, therefore, though they have been substantial and impressive, have nevertheless not translated into the foundational shifts within the discipline that are more than amply warranted. Academic MissionsOne cannot therefore entirely ignore the problem that Wendy Brown (2001:37) has raised, though from a very different optic than Beteille, namely the intellectual costs of the political and moral burdens that are borne by feminism. Brown suggests a certain paralysing quality to the imperatives of what she identifies as “moralism” within the academy, which tends to sap the vitals of a political charge which was enabling in the first place.2 Here let us recall that feminism’s invest-ment in history, worldwide, is linked to its desire to dismantle and transform persistent gender hierarchies in known historical epochs, and geographical spaces. This is why, as Marilyn Strathern (1987) has pointed out, it is inappropriate to use the term “paradigm” shift to describe the academic practice enabled by feminism, for the latter’s programmatic agenda makes it work towards and anticipate the transformation of practice, unlike the processes identified by Thomas Kuhn for the natural sciences.It may be more appropriate to discuss the ways in which the disci-pline of history has been “brought to crisis” by feminist practice. The answers to such a query are sobering. Should we conclude then that what might have been an enabling link with politics at the time when feminists were an embattled lot, and outside the walls of the academy, acts as an ideological drag as feminism has got more entrenched within the academy, with the proliferation of specialised centres, journals, courses, presses, and conferences? In other words, is it the
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW oCTOBER 25, 200859very success of women’s studies in general and academic feminism in particular that has created the conditions for the radical separation from mainstream social scientific or historical practice? In the Indian instance, it would be irresponsible, and even impos-sible, to follow the logic of Brown’s argument all the way. In addition to the general imperatives of feminist engagement with history, there are historically specific conditions which have defined the emergence of the field itself [Mazumdar and Agnihotri 1995; Tharu and Niran-jana 1996; Menon 2004]. In the Indian setting, the political and intel-lectual missions are intertwined in ways that are inseparable and indeed would lead to the impoverishment of both if that link were severed. We know only too well that some of the sharpest questions about the colonial/nationalist past have been raised in response to the compelling challenges of contemporary political life, whether they relate to the recrudescence of widow immolation [Sangari and Vaid 1991] or the surging fortunes of the Hindu right [Sarkar 1991]. Moreover, the success of women’s studies generally and feminist historiography in particular has been substantially aided by the Indian state’s willingness to nurture, if not absorb, the critical insights of feminism in its programmes, policies and endowments. In this sense, academic feminism has flourished under conditions that are uniquely Indian, alongside and with as well as against the power of the Indian state. So if we are to take Brown’s critique seriously at all, it will be in order to ask whether the time is ripe for a reconceptualisation of the link between the intellectual and academic missions, lest we fall prey to the kinds of sterile politics or formulaic writing that any proposed severance could generate. Let us begin by briefly summarising the reception of women’s history/feminist history within the academy.3 Women’s History in the Indian Academy The sobering fact is that a division of labour within the Indian academy allows mainstream disciplines to carry on with business as usual, while the feminist scholar is left largely in dialogue with other feminists. To recall what is probably a well worn parody of Michel Foucault that captures the predicament of feminist studies in India today, this may be a case of “discipline and vanish!” There is an awful, unintended way in which feminist efforts to claim the “field of one’s own” [Agarwal 1994], “the book of her own” [Sarkar 2001] and the “space of her own” [Bagchi and Gulati 2005] have been seized as a way of quarantining feminist historiography. The most benign form of this division of labour is the mode of peaceful academic co-existence. One may demonstrate this by tracing the career of one path breaking feminist work. Lata Mani’s (1998) pioneering study of sati in colonial India was among the first texts to critically interrogate the sources from which a well known narrative has been fashioned, one which is made familiar in schools and colleges throughout India, namely that the 19th century was the period of social reform, a period in which the status of women was forever transformed. The abolition of sati thus became emblematic of a wide range of struggles to reform a backward social order. Mani’s work, however, revealed not only the complicity between Indian reformers and their colonial counterparts, whether official or missionary, but most important noted the silence of the women in this enormous outpouring of concern about sati which prompted more than 2,000 parliamentary papers, raging debates in India and Britain, and a series of legal regulations. This, she further suggested, was a struggle that concerned itself more with the status of Indian tradition than the status of Indian women. Mani has generated critiques from among feminists themselves: Tanika Sarkar has argued against what she sees is the baneful effect of Edward Said’s discussion of “orientalist” discourse [Sarkar 1993], and also suggests that “colonial structures of power compromised with, indeed learnt much from indigenous patriarchy and upper caste norms and practices” though it is not clear that Mani suggests otherwise [Sarkar: 1993: 1869].3 These critical engagements only underlined the path breaking importance of Mani’s formulations in recasting the narrative of “social reform” that haunted historical readings of early 19th century anxieties about the position of women. Similarly, Lucy Carroll’s (1989) and Prem Chowdhry’s (1998) examination of the operation of the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 revealed its disempowering effects on the property rights of (particularly lower caste) widows. Writings on theInfant Marriage Regulation of 1894 in Mysore, or ChildMarriage Restraint Acts in British India furthermore showed not only the complicity of colonial and nationalist patriarchies, but that these measures were most vigorously deployed against those family forms which were more accommodative of adult female desire and marriage [Sarkar 1993; Anagol Mcginn 1992; Whitehead 1996; Nair 1996]. These contributions should have led to radical revisions of the historical commonsense regarding 19th century “social reform.” There is no sign that such a widespread revision has occurred. To take another example: the narrative of modernisation follow-ing the encounter with colonialism was disrupted by historical research that showed how women were marginalised by the intro-duction of new technologies [Mukherjee 1995; Banerji 1989]. If anything, new technologies had an impact that was gender specific, and, as shown in the history of the Bombay textile indus-try in the 1920s and 1930s, led to either the deployment or dismissal of women according to the demands of the new ways of organising production [Kumar 1989]. Yet narratives of modernisa-tion inaugurated by colonial rule continue to hold their own. Women Power and Social ReformFinally, there is a large and growing body of work on the exceptional arrangements which gave women a degree of power within and outside the family during the pre-colonial and colonial periods [Srini-vasan 1985; Anandhi 1991; Nair 1994; Arunima 2004; Kodoth 2004, 2005; Saradamoni 1999; Devika 2006] Nair matriliny, for instance, was always acknowledged as a site of female power, even if such power was exaggerated in order to emphasise the urgency of reform. New feminist scholarship has outlined the ways in which colonial law and reform discourse constituted these practices as standing only to gain from the introduction of recognisable (read patrilineal) marriage forms. These scholars have also, crucially, debunked the idea of a golden age for women in different ways. At the same time, they concede that matriliny did ensure women more stability than the patrilineal home, although, following the transformations in the economic base of that family form, it could not become the basis for a more liberal gender relations. Has this insightful scholarship changed the ways in which the achievements of 19th and 20th century social reform have been understood? Has it led to the defamiliarisation of an “Indian” family form and disrupted the frameworks within which conjugality
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoCTOBER 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly60has been historicised, even by other feminists? The answer once more is a resounding no. The mainstream practice of history (as it is taught, learned or researched for the most part in university locations) remains tied to historically enduring patterns of the (patrilineal) Indian family, and to male initiated social reform as “progressive”. A partial victory of feminism’s insights may be noted in the ways in which nationalism has been reconfigured: the representations of the Indian nation as feminine, the large-scale and unprece-dented participation of women in the national movement, the new patriarchal norms that described and confined the proper realms of womanhood, and the ambiguous legacies of the Gandhian moment have certainly become a larger part of the historical commonsense [for instance Ramaswamy 2003; Kishwar 1996; Chatterjee 1991]. Even here, though, the irreconcilable differences between the claims on women by the family, the community and the state, so chillingly discussed by several feminist scholars, and raising doubts about whether indeed women have a “nation” at all [Menon 2004] has been allowed to occupy a small corner of the field of nationalism without disturbing its larger claims. A small body of work, therefore, has paid scrupulous attention to the presence of women, though without necessarily altering the framework within which social or political movements are analysed, without acknowledging, in other words, that “every aspect of society is gendered.” Gayatri Spivak’s (1985)early critique of the subaltern studies project in effect pointed to the failure of the subaltern histori-ans to acknowledge the presence of woman as a sign in nearly all aspects of social life. A relatively rare engagement with feminist reconstructions of nationalist or communalist histories is in P K Datta’s (1999) consideration of communal ideologies in the 1920s’ Bengal. Not only does the author emphasise the centrality of the sign of the vulnerable Hindu woman to Hindu communal discourse that sexual-ised Muslim men. The forms of Hindu and Muslim masculinism, and Hindu and Muslim women’s own part in furthering or challenging communal ideologies are also discussed, along with a richly detailed consideration of the question of real and imagined abductions of Hindu women by Muslim men.Elsewhere, the path of peaceful co-existence with feminist scholar-ship has been the principle mode of accommodation, thereby deny-ing feminist historians even the excitement of denunciation, on the lines of the anti-feminism of American historians to which Joan Scott (1989) has referred. I cannot think of a single recent article that takes on and challenges the methods and insights of feminism (apart from one misogynist and generalised diatribe, [Gupta 1995] or critiques among feminists themselves) instead of a sanctioned ignorance or mere citation in longer considerations of new historiography, a point to which I shall return below. In his recent book on the histories of non- brahmanism in the Tamil region, M S S Pandian (2007) acknow-ledges the role played by women in the Dravidian movement without discussing the details of how both Tamil masculinities and feminini-ties were constructed in this period.4 However, feminist scholarship has averred that the very ground of these national/ethnic/linguistic/caste) political identities was gendered, producing a hyper-masculin-ist political practice, on the one hand, and the figure of the woman as the fount of collective identity, requiring male surveillance and control, on the other, with enduring consequences up to the present day. Much feminist scholarship reveals the naturalised gender representations of the language/nation as always female, while its devotees or suppli-cants are largely male [Ramaswamy 2003; Niranjana 2000]. Indeed, as JDevika (2006:294) has demonstrated for the processes of indi-viduation as they unfolded in Kerala, gender, rather than caste identi-ties, may have been the more effective correlate of individualising power. We may therefore well ask why historiographical discussions that identify caste as the basis for dismantling nationalist unities need only briefly allude to the many sophisticated feminist historical ef-forts. Could this not be taken as a further sign of how poorly the paltry political successes of Indian feminism compare with the contempo-rary success of a politics based on caste identities? Engagement with Subaltern StudiesPerhaps most troubling is yet another type of response to feminist history, a politically correct gesturing towards the formidable body of feminist scholarship without engaging with it in any way. In a long and detailed survey of the “history of history” Vinay Lal (2003:189) notes a significant absence in the work of the subal-tern scholars, among others: ...It is a striking feature of the first six volumes of subaltern studies, he saysthat, with the exception of a solitary piece by Tanika Sarkar, the work of no women practitioners of Indian history was on display. This may not be entirely surprising, since the impulse towards feminist critiques in India had emanated from largely literary circles…feminist readings of history were nowhere to be seen, except somewhat tangentially… (ibid; emphasis mine). Apart from making the all too common error that equates all women historians with feminists, Lal only deepens the neglect of feminist history by barely citing the works of feminist scholars (Tanika Sarkar’s impressive contributions to the understanding of Indian history apart). Similarly Saurabh Dube’s (2004:11) selection of representative samples of contemporary Indian history writing, while once more gesturing towards the “holy trinity of liberal left politics” (the inter-play of race, class, and gender), proceeds to leave them severely alone. [It must be noted here that Dipesh Chakrabarty in the same volume does raise the question of the impact of feminism on the practice of history, and furnishes an optimistic answer. (Dube 2004: 230)]. A more generous salute to the work of feminist historians is in Sumit Sarkar’s (1997) volume of Indian social history, though here too, the primary theoretical engagement is with the achievements and failures of subaltern studies.We might rightfully ask: why has there been a very public engagement with subaltern studies, which in turn has generated a cottage industry of its own, while the equally large, empirically rich and infinitely more representative work of Indian feminists, produced over a longer period of time, has not sustained similar engagement? What for instance might account for the continued and growing appeal of the distinctly more schematic formulation of Partha Chatterjee (1989) on the ways in which early cultural reform efforts of the 19th century, of which women were the ground, were “resolved” by the end of the century? (We may note here that Chatterjee’s first influential framing of the nationalist discourse remained silent on the question of gender). This, despite the more detailed feminist challenges to, and refinements of, the formulation [Sarkar 2001; Kodoth 2001, 2004; Rege 2006; Devika 2006; Sinha 2006].
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW oCTOBER 25, 200861There are at least three frames that have called the formulation by Chatterjee into question. For one, the “resolution” he identifies occurs at the end of the 19th century, (and here the touch of irony in the use of quotation marks has usually been overlooked, even by feminists) by which time large numbers of women themselves, in different parts of the country, not only engage in public debate and discussion, as so much feminist scholarship has shown, but showed no hesitation in inviting the state into the realm of the family. Secondly, histories of the struggles over family forms and gender identities in 19th and 20th century Kerala/south Canara/Tamil region, the emergence of the dalit “counterpublics” in late 19th century Maharashtra, and the revaluations of the women’s movement in the early 20th century have all seriously queried the notion of any “resolution” (even of the limited kind suggested by the quotation marks) of the women’s question. If anything, as many scholars have shown, questions of gender in some regions, such as southern or western India, were central to the ways in which caste and region were being reconfigured in the late colonial period, to which nationalism itself was only a marginal concern. Indeed, as has been noted in other contexts, the depth and range of new histo-rical work in all regions of India, and feminist scholarship in particu-lar, has pointed to the absurdity of posing one regional history as relevant to a multi-national “continent” like India. This scholarship points to the very different playing out of the “rule of colonial differ-ence” as for instance in the Kerala debates on matriliny, where appeals were made to actively reconstitute the family and recast the male as the head of the family on the line of the Roman ‘patria potestas’ a western model par excellence [Arunima 2003]. In Mysore, where nationalist ideologies were slow to take root, and campaigns around women’s issues were sluggish or non-existent, the far more vigorous demand for state intervention in developing a system of caste based reserva-tions by the turn of the 20th century had important and entirelyun-antitipated consequences for the education of women [Rao 2008: 40].Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as Mary John (2000) points out, far from the public political sphere becoming “degendered” following the “resolution” of the women’s question, the glorified femininity of women became the ground on which to render their political demands illegitimate. There was a clear softening of women’s demands for suffrage and reservations in politics in the first three decades of the 20th century, when “conflicts over the relationship between ‘social’ issues and the abstract language of political rights ‘irrespective of caste creed, race or sex,’ took concrete form in the protracted problem of reserved seats”. Womens’ claims to unity there-fore had to be maintained by effectively disavowing the distinct polit-ical rights of “untouchables” or Muslims, leading to a new “constitu-tional resolution” of the women’s question at the time of the Constitu-ent Assembly’s discussions [ibid: WS 24]. Despite these serious challenges to Chatterjee’s formulation, insightful and elegant though it is, it has achieved the emblematic status of speaking for the Indian nation, and serving as a useful shorthand for a wide range of scholars who wish to signal their engagement with “the women’s question” in ways that do not demand knowledge of or engagement with rich veins of feminist historiography. It is likely that feminist history figures only as an absence within the larger realm since its theoretical insights are more diffuse, and far more difficult to harvest, rarely appearing under the signature of a programmatic statement. The closest to such a statement appeared in the volume Recasting Women [Sangari and Vaid 1989], and its continuing visibility and the many attestations of its trans-formatory effect on the practice of young feminist historians have been unmatched by any subsequent work. If the engagement with feminist history within the larger field of history is at best uneven, there is a greater deal of comfort with the easier to appropriate “women’s history” which can form at least one chapter in a book or a dissertation, or one course in the university curriculum. This raises the question of method, and of what in fact constitutes the subject of feminist history. 4 The Subject of Feminist HistoryIs all history that turns its attention to women necessarily feminist history? Conversely, is there a feminist history that may not focus on women? And further, to echo the more difficult question posed by Joan Scott (1999b: 211), is gender the appropriate category of analy-sis in all instances where women are present? If at one time, only exceptional women were talked about in our standard histories, certainly one of the earliest tasks was to give more ordinary women a voice, “make them visible” bring women in “from the seams of history” [Ray 1995] or, as Suruchi Thapar Bjorkert (2006) has done most recently, bring in “unseen faces and unheard voices” and perma-nently remove them from the large list of people without history. But more striking, the burgeoning of social history as a genre opened up newer questions for feminist historians, questions which allowed them to go beyond the exceptional, and into the structure of the social formation itself. We may well be, as Kumkum Roy and Uma Chakravarti (1988) reminded us, further away from answering the question, “what was the real position of women in early India?” but what we have instead are many answers and even more questions: there are rich accounts today of Buddhist nuns, medieval saints, rebels and warriors, courtesans, Bible women, travellers, and those who simply survived with no male support at all. Much of this form of history writing remains within the additive or contributory mode. Opportunities are continually being found for making visible yet another group of women condemned to historical silence by archival absence. Thapar-Bjorkert’s book on women in the national movement, a well trawled field in Indian historiography, builds on the richly documented and closely argued thesis of nationalism’s success in harnessing maternal and familial ideologies to its cause, revealing the twin processes by which a safely domesticated public sphere and a simul-taneous politicised domestic sphere appeared. Yet it remains, like some other works, an additive enterprise that values the separate worlds of women without questioning the field of power itself. About this kind of historiographical enterprise, Christine Faure (1981: 81) remarked: A certain kind of women’s history is typified by a historian’s searching, card index or notebook in hand, for texts or daily practices that come from the depths of social experience which most of the time reflects only mutilations. The cook, the hat maker, the dressmaker in the 17th and 18th centuries and so on – the mine will undoubtedly be a rich one, but in thus following the straight path of ghettoised female space, what remains of that freedom so long and so loudly demanded? Only the illusion of conquest where there is, in fact, mere docility.Revolutionary MovementsThe work of many feminist scholars showed that even in those instances where scrupulous attention was paid to the role of women
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoCTOBER 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly62in movements for political change, new questions brought other elements into focus, and even questioned narratives which routinely emphasised the empowerment of women [Custers, 1987]. The troubling question of sexuality and the burdens of chastity placed on women alone, for instance, cast a different light on revolutionary movements. What, moreover, was striking was that while the public record of the struggle may have acknowledged the role of women, it did much to depoliticise and marginalise it. The collection of inter-views entitled ‘We Were Making History…’, by bringing audibility to the women who participated in the Telangana armed struggle signifi-cantly transformed the celebratory narratives of how the communist party functioned in those crucial years between 1948 and 1951. ‘We Were Making History…’ produced an account which gave a well known struggle a whole new meaning. The interviews of women who had participated in this struggle were all the more poignant and revealing since many of them spoke of the ephemeral gains of their political participation, as women were thrust back into families and homes, or even behind sewing machines as one of them put it, after the movement had retreated. But the deeply moving and insightful interviews of women who had participated in the Telangana movement, full of the bitterness that springs from betrayed promises, has left few traces on the way in which women’s narratives continue to be constructed. It is still possible for the work of the Stree Shakti Sanghatana to be studiously ignored by writers who may return to interview the same people and retain the safer realms of supplementary accounts. Moturi Udayam and Mallu Swarajyam, for instance, displayed sparkling humour in their vivid memories of a time of revolution, recalling nevertheless a confusing though magic time, particularly for women. This is what Moturi Udayam said of one of her experiences of organising ‘mahila sanghams’:Then under Chandra Rajeshwar Rao’s leadership they raised the slogan of Ideal Housewives: this meant that we had brought the movement to a stage, so they wanted each of us to take charge of one village and work there. In three months, we had to teach the villagers everything – to cook vegetables without peeling them, to read and write, to sing songs. And so we would gather the women in the village together and sit and talk [Stree Shakti Sanghatana 1989: 190]. And this is how Mallu Swarajyam remembers her years in the party: Certain sacrifices have to be made [for the Telangana movement]. But the question came up of why it was always the women who had to make the sacrifices. The reply was ‘if you consider this struggle as a whole though it is a struggle of the working classes, the peasantry is also involved and they are making sacrifices that will ultimately benefit the proletariat. That is how the women should also regard this sacrifice.’ It was difficult to swallow this. What are they saying, we wondered. What did we fight for all these days? …we created a bit of a stir. But gradually it became necessary for us to give it up. We never got the freedom we wanted. And later …we should stay a step behind. That was the only conclusion. It is the same to this day. There has been no change [Stree Shakti Sanghatana 1989: 240]. The harsh critique of the patriarchal demands of the party, even when it was one committed to a thoroughgoing democratic, and not just modernising, change, and the sharpness of these participants’ insights, not to mention humour, disappears in a set of more recent official life histories of communist women leaders. In Breaking Barri-ers, Parvathi Menon (2005) claims some of her interviews, including the one with Mallu Swarajyam, to be “the most comprehensive that they have ever given” (ibid: vii). In her interviews with Moturu (sic) Udayam and Swarajyam, which intend to highlight their role in the Telangana movement, these colourful figures appear as shadows of “that magic time”. Speaking in a far less reflexive tone, their voices are subordinated to the imperatives of writing a heroic account of their achievements. No signs emerge of Mallu Swarajyam’s tortured reflections on the relation between women and the (male dominated) party leadership. Instead, we are told: “Through the 1950s, Swara-jyam remained politically active although the demands of the home and children did not allow her as much time for political work as she would have liked” (ibid: 64). In this case clearly, there is an obligation to recover the public face of the leaders of the Indian women’s movement, suppress some of the dilemmas they faced, and ignore the constant deferral of their visions to a party that conceptualised a new moral ethical horizon in other spheres. The critical insights enabled by feminist historiography’s interrogation of patriarchy, even within the party, are here reduced to women’s history that is easier to absorb within the official narratives, as the celebration of female participa-tion in a major political event. There is another aspect to the ‘We Were Making History’… project that must be grasped. Though women were massively present in the Telangana movement, gender was not its mobilis-ing focus. Large collectivities of women who acted together with men did not necessarily recognise the political relevance of gender difference. Rather, the post hoc feminist interrogation produced a feminist recollection of that magic time, a reconstruc-tion of the movement understood through the lens of gender. Memoirs and AutobiographiesThe large and ever burgeoning realm of women’s autobiographies and memoirs are revealing of such contradictions. If there are striking and unusual collections of women’s writing in the early 20th century, as in J Devika’s ‘In Her Own Write’, there is a wide range of accounts that are impervious to the scholarship of the last three decades. The recently published memoirs of Vidya Munsi (2006) make this point quite forcefully. Munsi’s politicisation occurred largely through initia-tives from above, through participation in the communist youth festi-vals, international congresses, and women’s commissions while still a student in London. There is an unselfconscious assumption of privi-lege in Munsi’s writings and only a belated and brief recognition of the tenacity of Indian patriarchy. In contrast, Ashoka Gupta’s (2005) autobiography is relatively untouched by ideology, and yet is a deep and touching reflection on the transformations in her own conception of the women’s question, primarily through an engagement with social work. Gupta employs no large theoretical categories, whether of class or ideology, yet is penetrating in her insights about the upper class background of the AIWC women (ibid: 84), the inequities in the distribution of central aid between Punjab and Bengal (ibid: 146) and the reasons for Hindu migration away from East Pakistan (ibid: 126). These accounts point not just to the very uneven quality of women’s memoirs or personal histories, but to the uneven impact of feminism within the genre of historiography/writing by women.
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW oCTOBER 25, 200863Can feminist scholars engage with historical issues even when there is a likelihood that historical scrutiny may cause discomfort to, or even undermine, cherished goals of female solidarity? Is there a lesson to be learned from the unanticipated historical conjunctures that have temporarily revealed the possibility of a new politics, before compromise once more shuts that door? In her recent re-reading of the career of Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India (written in 1927), the text that touched off the well known phase of nationalist outrage in India, Mrinalini Sinha (2006) describes it as a “social epidemic comparable in its ramifications to the South Sea bubble”. She deploys the totalising ambitions of imperial history, without losing the narra-tive tensions of recounting the singular event. Gender is thus not the only category that is relevant to an understanding of an event that had such wide reaching impact, even when women were both the princi-pal agents and the subjects of this historical event. Mayo thus emerges as a figure whose extraordinary political power was derived from her imperialist location and intent, rather than her gender identity. Moreover, Mother India had the effect of revealing a new way of conceptualising the relationship between woman, community and the state, during discussions of the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. Though an opportunity arose for women to see through the complicity of British imperial and Indian patriarchal protocols as well as propose a new vocabulary of rights, nationalist and feminists alike closed their ranks against the possibility of a (religious) communal division.Indeed, the nationalist women’s organisations were relatively willing accomplices in this sealing of the ranks, which Sinha sees as a lost opportunity to de-naturalise woman and create a rights- bearing subject. This is in direct contrast to recent arguments about the impossibility of a unified female subject in Indian history, and the kinds of issues it has deliberately concealed, particularly those relating to the meaning of caste. Can one retrieve a historical unity that has been thoroughly problematised even discredited in con-temporary Indian feminist discourse? With what consequences, if the imperative of maintaining a relationship between the political and the intellectual realms are clear? An important formulation about the dangers of using gender as the exclusive category of analysis for situations and processes that may in fact have to do with other inequalities, is Nivedita Menon’s discussion of the bitter contests about the Women’s Reservation Bill (1996). She says: “We are forced to see the creation of ‘women-as-subject’ as the end of goal of feminist politics, not the starting point.” In order to accept that the category of woman is not readily available for feminist mobi-lisation, and in order to do a feminist reading of historical conjunc-tures, feminists may have to acknowledge that the category of women is often deployed as in the south Asian context, to keep the aspira-tions of backward castes at bay, even though it is framed as an interest in the position of women [Menon 2000: WS 39; see also Nair 1997]. 5 Political and Intellectual Missions of Feminism At least two recent books, and it must be noted, both by socio-logists, reveal the uses of history as a bridge between contempo-rary political and intellectual missions. How real and imagined female historical figures get summoned to perform the thoroughly instrumentalist role of providing contemporary female politicians with a genealogy is the concern of Badri Narayan’s (2006) unusual investigation. The invocation of figures from history became crucial in cohering the new identity of dalits in Uttar Pradesh. Badri Narayan suggests that the search for historical figures such as Jalkaribai (ibid: 113-32) or the invention of figures such as Udadevi (ibid: 133-49) was driven entirely by pure political calcu-lations. The dividends too, as Narayan’s account demonstrates, have been rich, with the scripted mythohistories of the “heroes” of the first major subaltern revolt that shook the foundations of the British empire, the revolt of 1857, turning into historical memory among the largely illiterate peasant supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) (ibid: 62), a form of “secondary orality” in which the printed text constructs the memory of sometimes illiter-ate peasants (ibid: 73 ff). The choice of the female “heroes”, or masculinised and resolutely anti-feminine women, to enter the public political world dominated by men is in clear contrast to the nationalist modes of mobilising women that have been discussed by Thapar, among others. Still, the women “heroes” discussed in both accounts reveal no programmatic commitment to the trans-formation of gender relations within the family/community. Nor is that the intention of their historians/creators.What then of women who represent themselves, as in the dalit testimonios that have been “re-rendered” by Sharmila Rege (2006)? Rege’s choice of the term testimonios as opposed to autobiographies for the eight Maharashtrian women’s “life narratives”, written from about the 1920s to the present day, is in order to assert that the dalit woman’s subjectivity is subordinated to the authority of the commu-nity and its needs, and therefore cannot be equated with a bourgeois individual subject and her story. But there is a further task that Rege takes on: to mount a critique of the blindness to caste in early post independence Indian feminism. Her re-renderings, her attention to the specific experience of dalit oppression, and her striving to highlight the emergence of dalit “counterpublics” are in order to challenge the historiographical orthodoxies that shut caste out of thepublic sphere to render it a social, and not a political issue (ibid: 24 ff). InMaharashtra at least, Rege asserts that “the Satyashodhak, non-brahman, and Ambedkarite counterpublics [the three phases of dominated caste assertion in the Maharashtra context]” contested nationalist attempts to relegate caste to the private; the “nationalist resolution” that relegated the women’s question to the folds of the middle class family also did not go uncontested. These are serious challenges to the purported stranglehold that the upper castes had over the cultural/social reform movements, and to their historians. Yet how differently were gender hierar-chies conceptualised and addressed, often by women themselves, in the activities of the Satyashodak Samaj (ibid: 36-37)? Not always in unambiguous ways. If the task of politics – and feminist politics is no exception – is to produce new collectivities and refashioned subjects, we might ask why the dalit community is evoked as one that needs to be preserved, as already gender-just or non-hierarchical. Indeed, while the testimonios contain power-ful insights into the social and cultural deprivations of the dalits, and recount the labours of women such as Mukta Sarvagod or Shantabai Kamble or Kumud Pawade in alleviating these condi-tions, they are also replete with instances of beliefs and practices that these women yearn to leave behind, rather than preserve. Both Badri Narayan and Sharmila Rege adopt methodologically provocative approaches. Badri Narayan shows that the creation of
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoCTOBER 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly64contemporary myths, often unfounded in documentary evidence, serves as a crucial tool in constructing a new community memory, and as such must be accorded the attention of historical figures. Sharmila Rege’s re-rendering of dalit women’s testimonios is in effect a program-matic intervention, a rewriting that frames the narratives to make them address a set of similar themes. What are the consequences of these approaches for the protocols of historical research and writing? In both instances, the intellectual and political missions have been intertwined in ways that seriously challenge the historian’s investment in the “sovereignty of the sources” on the one hand, while expressing political hope rather than critique on the other. What are the risks that the feminist historian must take in order to lend plausibility to her subjects and her method, and thereby indirectly to her politics?In her discussion of scholarly understandings of dowry in contem-porary India, Mary John (2001) points to a congruence between the tactics of the women’s movement in its campaigns against dowry and the way in which sociologists have emphasised the economic functions and dimensions of dowry alone. That congruence, she suggests, has not necessarily yielded intellectual insights that are considerably more nuanced than the campaign against dowry, ignor-ing for instance the importance of the social and cultural dimensions to the problem (ibid: 248). Clearly, feminist historiography must strike out on a path that need not intersect with the goals and strate-gies of the movement, if it is to address the twin objectives of challeng-ing the practice of history itself, while serving the movement sometimes uncomfortable truths. Feminist historiography must move away from the certainties of early modes of history writing, while maintaining a strong claim to plausibility through establishing what Sandra Harding has elsewhere called parameters of dissonance. In other words, the disciplinary gatekeeper’s hostility to the methods of feminist historiography (with which the presentation began) must be countered not only by asserting the relevance of new methods to uncover new historical subjects, but by enhancing the capacity for generating knowledge that may be politically incoherent to cite the words once more of Wendy Brown (2005: 120). In her brief history of the challenges to the field of women’s studies that are posed by its very own successes, and the impossibility of simultaneously retaining a critique of the unified subject and a commitment to foregrounding the category of gender, Brown suggests that such political incoher-ence is vital, even if it places the project of women’s studies under some risk: “…any field organised by social identity rather than by genre of inquiry…is especially vulnerable to losing its raison d’etre when the coherence or boundedness of its object of study is challenged” (ibid: 122). What is gained by bringing together these fragments in a historical narrative may not be a politically coherent account, but one that is less partial, and more objective.We are only too aware that in the Indian case, the steady chipping away of the unitary category of “Indian woman” has occurred as a result of challenges thrown up by political movements [see John 2000; Menon 2000; Tharu and Niranjana 1996]. But the response to these challenges need not reduce the feminist historians’ task to one of merely echoing the slogans of the movement, no matter how empirically well grounded that explication may be. Some of the finest works of Indian feminist historians have been those that disturb ahistorical constructions of a unified female subject. The lapse into any kind of “moralism” within the academy could itself undermine the seriousness of the feminist project to reconstitute the categories of the discipline. Feminist historiography must, in other words, be unafraid to develop critiques and produce knowledges that are at odds with its politically coherent goals, if the substantial gains of the last few decades are not trivialised by two kinds of anti-feminist positions: those who find feminist historiography methodologically unsound, or those who confine their acknowledgement of its insights to the occasional raising of a slogan. At the same time, it must be admitted that Indian feminism’s capacity for self-critique, and its ability to take on and address new challenges to the unitary subject may find few parallels among its counterparts. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, every effort must be made to re-enter the practice of the discipline armed with new questions, and disturb the new boundaries that have been placed around feminist historiography. This re-entry could occur at some risk to the hard won privileges of the enclave, and may require dismantling some of the privileges of the “separate sphere” in order to insist on the reframing of disciplines. In their survey of women’s studies programmes offered in the universities of Tamil Nadu, Padmini Swaminathan and S Anandhi (2006: 4450) reveal the severely counterproductive effects of reckless proliferation, with little or no intellectual effect. While women’s history is offered as an option in 13 out of 18 institutions in Madras University, the low enrol-ments of students often encouraged an easy “conversion” of these courses into offerings on human rights, or group rights, with women’s studies transmuting into smaller units on women’s duties. Those of us who have taught in women’s studies refresher courses across the country are only painfully aware of how the large numbers who opted for these courses do so out of an expectation of light intellectual fare (though this is largely not what is offered). It is to the credit of the feminist scholars who teach such programmes that such light fare is not dished out in most places, contrary to what has been stated by Andre Beteille. Feminist scholars have been unprepared for the distortions and indeed subversions that such subtle forms of anti-feminism have made possible. It is as if the exist-ence of a more pernicious patriarchy that does not reveal itself and the absence of entrenched critique have made the feminists more vulnerable. I am by no means arguing that the achievements of women’s studies programmes has been slight or inconsequential. To demand that this work be taken on board and addressed seriously, however, may require a persistent attempt to occupy a critical space within the disciplines, and to refuse the tokenism that plagues current engagements with feminist historiography.Notes1 The open hostility of historians based in the US to feminist history is discussed in Joan Scott (1989). 2 In her article entitled ‘Moralism as Anti-Politics’, Brown confronts feminists (and others) with some uncomfortable truths about the way in which feminism’s gains within the US academy have led to a degree of complacency, and to a new and formulaic “political correctness”. Brown (2005). 3 More recently, Tanika Sarkar has also critiqued Lata Mani for overlooking Bengali sources on Rammo-hun Roy which reveal that he used different modes of address to different audiences. Sarkar, ‘Colonial Laws and Indian Debates’ [Sarkar 2007: 126]. However, it must be pointed out that Mani has in fact acknowledged such layers of meaning in her analysis of Rammohun’s discourse. See Mani, Contentious Traditions, p 72. 4 In their thoroughgoing survey of the same movement, Geetha and Rajadurai (1998) address
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