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Retrieving the Role and Contribution of Women in State Formation

An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal by Poulomi Saha, New York: Columbia Asia Press, 2019; pp 319, `699, (paperback).

Poulomi Saha proffers a scholarly treatise which eloquently pens an account of the political labour of the women of East Bengal. An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal asserts that women have manifested their desires in their own terms through writing, in political acti­ons, and also in stitching. Through her arguments, Saha tried to explain not just what a body is capable of doing or creating, but the host of social relations and somatic practices that communicate by the way of touch. The author drifts from the familiar trend of historical nati­onalist iconography of Bango/Bha­rat Mata and focuses on “unconventional” feminine subjects like virgins, spinsters, childless, widows, unwed mothers and factory workers. The voices of these women have been relegated to the peri­phery, which Saha tried to emancipate through her commendable scholarly ende­avour. The author also attempts to showcase the role of women’s labour in the journey of the state-building endeavours of three countries, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. However, she explains a methodological dilemma of postcolonial studies where, despite the centrality of women’s labour in the anti-colonial protest and postcolonial state building, there is a conspicuous silence about the role of women in this framework. Resulting to the stern demarcation between the outer masculine worlds of politics in general and veiled feminine world of culture, the domestic life of kinship, feminised East Bengal and women’s participation in political labour are virtually omitted. The book intervenes in this sphere and tries to retrieve the role and contribution of women in state formation.

Unearthing the narratives of literary texts, archival documents, and other historical and contemporary sources, Saha brought to light the history of East Bengal that later transitioned to Pakistan and finally became the sovereign state of Bangladesh. Postcolonial studies exerted substantial influence on Saha’s work. However, she contemplated the aspect of postcolonial studies, such as the absence of the depiction of the Muslim experience and the domineering use of development. Saha’s work asserts the limitations of archives, and in order to do justice to her research work, she borrowed facts extensively from autobio­graphies, historians, literatures, songs, performances, religious tracts, and other historical as well as cultural artefacts. In order to justify that women’s desire is “potent, legible, political force in East Bengal” (Saha 2019), the author has amalgamated objects, bodies which manifests a holistic history of the women’s struggle, in the aforementioned place.

Chapter 1 of the book, “Virgin Suicides,” begins with a pen picture of a body of a young woman, lying dead outside of a colonial club on which she has launched an attack. The identity of the woman, whose body has been reinterpreted by the author eloquently, was the well-known freedom fighter Pritilata Waddedar, a young 20-year-old schoolteacher and member of the Indian Repu­blican Army. Waddedar was hailed to be the first Indian woman assigned to the commission of the anti-­colonial attack, who gave her life to the cause by opting for suicide to avoid ­arrest by the British police. In her work, Saha brings to our notice that Waddedar dressed herself as a non-Bengali male when she went for the attack and eventually died by suicide. Saha argues that it was a conscious decision of Waddedar to dress herself the way she did to put a statement. The body actually signified her protest: “a disruptive agrammatical iteration of resistance.” Through her body, she not only rewrote the social text of “sati” but also articulated a form of political protest. In her case, the performance of sati was different from the conventional point. She was not a wife or a widow who was set ablaze; on the contrary, her action was considered as the reiteration of sati that has a difference in its constituent parts, disengaging it from the pyre and employs it as a form of political protest. Saha enumerates this unique narrative to manifest how the allegory of sati was changing with time. In this context, Saha responds to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s canonical question of whether the voice of the subaltern women could be heard. Saha argues that Waddedar left her body dressed in the cotton garb of a man as a manifestation of political protest. Hence, she proclaimed herself as a resistant ­female subject and made way for circuit of intimate political exchange.

Chapter 2, “The Fetish Touch,” starts with Rabindranath Tagore’s definition of the “nation” where the poet emphasises the ubiquity of its form and the hollowness of its character. Tagore expresses his concern, as according to his perception, the empire and the anti-colonial nationalism were two sides of the same coin. The chapter also highlights several deliberations and disagreements between M K Gandhi and Tagore. While Gandhi symbolised spinning thread at the charkha and khadi with India as a whole, Tagore, on the other hand, condemned Gandhi for the practice of spinning cotton thread as it produces a “fetish” which threatens the sovereignty of its maker. Thus, Tagore, in the words of the author, vehemently criticised the “fetish” with nationalistic labour as it strips workers of their humanity.

Chapter 3 of this book, “The Oceanic Feelings,” argues that the enco­unter between psychoanalysis and colonialism in Bengal extends beyond the clinic into a literary imagination and onto the public stage of politics. Borrowing from Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, the author elucidated how motherhood ­became politicised in colonial Bengal. Saha also discusses about the character of Bimala, the young housewife of Tagore’s novel The Home and the World. A new form
of feminine labour of the Swadeshi movement comes to the forefront when Bimala, in the novel, ­asserts herself as the motherland despite being childless, having no militant male heir to defend or rescue her in despair. The first three chapters of the book enumerate the historio-literary world of pre-partitioned Bengal. The last two chapters, however, showcase the lives and ­labour of postcolonial Bengal.

Chapter 4, “Archive Asylum,” delves into studying the case history of the rape victims, designated as birangonas or war victims, and it also discusses the duty of the state in providing them rehabilitation to reincorporate them into the mainstream body of the newly formed nation. Saha argues that the bir­angonas was a political term coined by the Government of Bangladesh, without being particular about naming sexual violence, specifically to convert the violence against women into an act of her­oism.

The author further scrutinises the “Bangladesh’s archive fever” centred on the women who were raped during the war of 1971, and in her own words, “it was tracing the lives of the rumour of fire.” The valuable documents about the data of rape during wartime has been burned down to ashes repeatedly, Saha mentioned here the words of Foucault “an incitement to discourse,” although it has been unattested. The academic resear­chers have termed the rape cases, which took place during the 1971 war, as a “public secret,” which was almost forbidden to pronounce, especially those which had a connection with the place of occurrence and details of how those victims were placed in the “national memory.” The fundamental idea of Bangladesh has been discussed in this chapter by the author, where the spontaneous augmentation of pontification of wartime rape and of birangonas laid the foundation. It is obvious that although the victims were termed as war heroes, the humiliation that was involved with these kinds of actions made the birangonas keep themselves hidden in spite of the national effort to bring out the violence during and after the war. Hence, it is self-evident that the birangona remai­ned a vacant category socially, if not poli­tically. This chapter is dedicated to emphasise that there is no secret invol­ved for these unfortunate war victims as there is no cosy space for them to remain.

Chapter 5, “Machine Made,” rev­olves around how the handicraft works repositioned these distressed women to come back to Bangladesh to the bodies it both “valorised and hoped to disappear.” Economic independence, which was ess­ential for these women to come back to the mainstream of the society, was provided by the arrival of the sewing machine, financed and promoted by the Grameen Bank. In this chapter, the author critically discusses how the non-governmental organisations of Bangladesh played the role of mediators between the state-based citizen services and private mechanisms for the poor and peripheral women of Bangladesh.

The book took Bangladesh as a rese­arch field to exhibit the situation of textile-bound people and body. It opened with the importance and magni­ficence of Bengal Muslin. It is a truism that Bangladesh commercialised kantha but how this was integrated in the larger historical narrative of the book is sometimes not clear. Chapter 3 of the book might have shed more light on the specific need of the Bengalis of constructing an image of Bharat Mata. Alt­hough, the book is packed with information, the chapters would have been more comprehensive if it had taken into acc­ount the nuances of the deplorable infant mortality rate in 20th-century Bengal.

The body of the mothers of the subsequent Bengalis towards whom the sexual desires were proscribed were exp­ected to be educated and healthy to reproduce healthy sons. They were considered to be the procreators of the future Bengalis. Consequently, motherhood and nation-building were pronounced in the same breath during the colonial period. This further developed the bond between the mother and the son. The books talk about the rape victims of the 1971 Bangladesh war but remains silence about the other victims of molestations in colonial Bengal and post partition. How were they treated? Several contemporary news­papers published from Bengal highlighted the fact that the number of outlaws and their operations were escalating steadily in Bengal from 1910 (Basu 2017). To combat such problems, the women voiced their own inclination to regain their vitality and organise their own clubs. Deepali Sangha established by Leela Roy was one among many. The book talks about history and symbols. Hence, it would have been more interesting if she studied the establishment of clubs by the women in Bengal. The establishment of the clubs by the women can also be seen as a symbol through which women articulated their political desires.

However, the book can be an example for its unique methodology to take up textile, texts, and arts as plots to critically ana­lyse the political expressions. This eloquent feminist account of women of East Bengal draws parallels and contrasts with sati and suicide of female nationalists, kantha and women’s voice in family heirloom versus those made for fair trade movement. The elaborate chapters brought in complex analysis of Freud, Jacques Derrida in different contexts which makes it a valuable asset to many interdisciplinary fields of studies. It is a must read for the votaries of women’s studies.


Basu, Basudhita (2017): “Gendering Sports in Colonial Bengal,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 35, pp 32–36.

Saha, Poulomi (2019): An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal, New York: Columbia University Press, p 244.


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Updated On : 19th Jun, 2022
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