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Voices and silences in history

By Tanika Sarkar and Sumit Sarkar

Though the social reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries looked at women through the conservative lens of family, chastity and purity, they did make gender and the condition of women a dominant public issue, and set into motion the process of change

Most studies of the 19th and pre-19th century make two general assumptions about Indian women. One, while looking at the limitations of social reforms of those times, the language of women having lost their rights is invariably used. It is presumed that women had definite rights which they lost because of the reformist interventions. Two, there is a complete underestimation of the power of orthodoxy in society. So when we talk about reformers we take them to be conservatives because they were not thinking of women in the way that we feminists now perceive them. They were in favour of the family, in favour of chastity, monogamy and so on, and we take that to be a mark of their conservatism, forgetting that the society of that era -- whether Hindu, Muslim or any other -- was ruled by the orthodoxy. The orthodoxy had remained hegemonic and still is. So if we bring orthodoxy back into the picture, then what the reformers were trying to do and say makes a lot more sense.

Let us start with Raja Rammohan Roy. There are different critiques of Roy, including one that maintains that he infantilised the way of the 'willing satis'. Another saw him as a westernised, deracinated person who stigmatised Indian tradition, scripture and religion as something anti-modern and that this was western reason speaking through a pseudo-Indian.

But we have to remember that throughout the colonial period, the colonial government had promised -- and by and large kept the pledge -- to give complete autonomy to religion for all communities. So the whole change in gender relations had to be spoken about in the language of scripture and, therefore, if Roy had wanted an abolition of sati, he had to prove somehow that sati was non-scriptural.

If we look at the orthodox discourse, whether it was to do with the education of women, sati, widow remarriage or the age of consent, we come across a whole host of scriptural sanctions and prohibitions, especially for upper-caste and sharif (high-born) women. Here one could note that poor, lower-caste women had some mobility and a certain amount of economic independence which their upper-caste and high-born counterparts did not, primarily because they had to go out of the home to earn a living. It may not have been a very pleasant independence because of the hard work entailed, but at least these women did not come under the control of Shastric or Koranic injunctions that women of the more privileged classes came under.

The scriptural argument for sati, for instance, was that the woman wanted to commit sati because then she would gain heaven for her husband for 3 million years; and seven generations of ancestors -- maternal, paternal and matrimonial -- would immediately be freed from all sins, and they too would reach heaven. This was believed in very firmly, and the ritual promise created an incentive for sati. Actually, when the testimonies of the satis began to get collected by the colonial state, they all claimed they were going to heaven and that they could not live without their husbands.

Interestingly, all of these arguments are also arguments against widow remarriage. The Hindu scriptural argument was that a woman of lower caste was less bound by such practices, and that itself constituted a stigma. They were less pure and therefore they were not entitled to such a state, and if they wanted to gain upward social mobility they would have to follow the brahminical model.

The view of marriage, therefore, is that it is a sacrament, and once it is performed it is indissoluble. The death of the husband does not dissolve it. Now this immediately means that no woman can have more than one husband, and even if the husband dies, even if the marriage is not consummated, even if the husband abandons a woman from the beginning of the marriage, the woman is still attached to him and cannot enter any other relationship even after his death because that would constitute adultery. Also, marriage is monogamous for women but not for men. By the early-19th century, men could, and did, have innumerable wives -- and innumerable women were burnt as satis in the process. The traditional argument for child marriage was that the best kind of marriage is the pre-pubertal union, preferably before the girl is eight years of age. However, there is no limit to the bridegroom's age. A man of 90 could, and very often did, marry a child of a few years. The emphasis was on 'purity' and 'integration'.

We need to remember that scriptures don't give reasons; they just lay down the law. This made for a regime of extremely severe injunctions for women. Mobility was not just frowned upon, it was absolutely proscribed. Sometimes education -- a kind of oral education -- was imparted. But as historian Uma Chakravarti points out in 'Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?', if women became too involved in the quest for knowledge, they would invite a backlash. Maitreyi was killed because of her curiosity as a thinking, questioning woman. The woman had to follow her husband and look after his domestic life, and the 'good woman' was to be worshipped. This perspective remained more or less intact throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.

The first questioning of this treatment of women began from the early-19th century, largely because of the new technologies of communication. Literature, newspapers, the spread of education, the spread of vernacular education, translations of the scriptures, resulted in the unleashing of questions about what was the more authentic perspective, especially with regard to women.

Eighteenth-century etching of sati by Baltazard Solvyns

What we find striking about the reformers was their great sense of guilt and shame. There is Rammohan Roy saying: "When did you test the intelligence of women that you call them foolish?" or that wonderful passage of his where he describes the woman's life from morning to night and shows that her life is actually structured by deprivation, exploitation and humiliation. Then we have Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar questioning why women are born at all in this land. Whether it is Mahadev Govind Ranade in western India or Kandukuri Virasalingam Pantulu of southern India, these reformers were talking about the problems women faced if they wanted to be 'good women'. In the process, they had to face severe lampooning, ostracism and social boycott. They were in a minority. Although it is true that sati was legally abolished, Rammohan had to find some scriptural arguments, or material that he -- even dishonestly -- presented as scriptural arguments. Vidyasagar also managed to present some material extracted from the Parashara Smriti and interpreted it as a "must for Kali Yuga".

In the process, because they had to speak the language of the scriptures, they often ended up tying themselves up in knots. Rammohan states, for example, that since sati is not mentioned by the Manu Smriti, this meant that the Manu Smriti does not approve of sati, and therefore sati is not valid. But when Vidyasagar wants to legalise widow remarriage, he is in a quandary because the Manu Smriti is absolutely against widow remarriage. So Vidyasagar has to very strenuously argue that in Kali Yuga, Parashara is the great authority. But that undermines the argument for the age of consent issue, since Parashara certainly recommended infant marriage for women.

First you invent tradition and, when you cannot do this, you defend tradition. For instance, in the years of nationalism there was a kind of glorification of tradition, with early nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak stoutly maintaining that Indian social conditions were wonderful in an earlier era.

But the reformers did set into motion the process of change because they at least problematised the condition of women and made it a dominant public issue. So if we are saying that for the first time these issues were not restricted to pandits and mullahs but became a general topic of discussion, then it is also true that gender -- beginning with sati -- is the theme of the first public discussions, and those discussions never really stop but carry on to the present day, albeit in a different language.

There were also effective changes. Sati, for instance, was outlawed and there have been very, very few instances of women committing sati en masse, as was the case in an earlier period. It is no use pointing to the 1987 incident at Deorala. After all, when Deorala happened it was seen to be against the law and there was a public outcry, with the women's movement responding strongly against it.

Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule

The campaign for widow remarriage, however, was on the whole a failure. In a sense, it continues to be a failure. Child marriage, amazingly, is a failure among the poor, but not among those for whom it was once mandatory -- the educated, the privileged, the brahmin, and so on. It is a strange inversion that seems to have happened here. While it shows the power of sanskritisation, there is also the argument that because the lower castes were made vulnerable by the circumstances of their lives, parents preferred to marry their children early for purposes of security.

Dowry came into practice possibly in the late-19th century, but the new element was cash dowry. Some scholars equate its emergence with the new educational degrees of eligible men and that 'suitable' grooms with education were attracted through the disbursal of cash and goods. Initially it was not seen as a concern, although we have a case in Bengal where a young girl, Snehalata, committed suicide in 1914 because she was afraid that her middle class parents would not be able to afford dowry. You could say that the anti-dowry movement began from that point onward, at least in Bengal, because the case created quite an outrage, with people like Rabindranath Tagore writing strongly against the practice. It is always difficult to trace the beginning of new social practices because they are not reported until they provoke protests. The Snehalata suicide was one such moment.

Interestingly, in Maharashtra, women began to actually seize control of the social reform agenda much earlier than was the case in Bengal or the south. Jyotiba Phule, his wife Savitri, as well as Pandita Ramabai are some of the great representatives of this trend. It is really amazing to see how someone like Jyotiba could bring the gender dimension into his assessment of the problems of the lower castes. He saw caste and gender as analogous and as legacies of an unequal brahminical society. That tradition was continued by B R Ambedkar, and E V Ramasamy in the south. All of them combined gender reform with caste reform, and this made them different from the 19th century reformers.

Social scientists like Partha Chatterjee argue that the home returned to women because the public world was reserved for men. This just does not apply because men also wanted to exercise control within the home -- over education, over creating the ideal companionate housewife. The home becomes a sphere of male interest, with social reform. For instance, with the Brahmo movement we find that since the Brahmo community found itself socially ostracised, they clubbed together and had nothing but their families on which to exercise influence.

Earlier, there was a kind of social taboo against women being educated, and educated women were stereotyped as necessarily licentious. The customary threat in fact was that she would be widowed if she was educated. Apart from that, when Vidyasagar founded his school for instance, there was an enormous disinclination to have women go through public spaces to school and spend their days within it. Going to school meant unleashing a new dynamic that could not be controlled by the family with the woman now acquiring her own identity.

This was something that held good for all categories, including Muslims, although sharif Muslim women were allowed to read the Koran by rote, without really comprehending very much. Some of the women from that era actually tried to teach themselves in secret. Husbands would teach their wives in the bedroom after everyone in the household had gone to sleep.

These are interesting stories about change, and what looks to us as very moderate change created great scandals in those times. By the late-19th century, women in Maharashtra were doing devastating things like conversion. Not only did Pandita Ramabai convert, several women from the Ramabai ashram also converted and there was fear of a backlash against them. By the 1910s, you find women forming themselves into associations, asking for maternity benefits, adult franchise and the right to work.

There are also interesting departures. For instance, Begum Rokeya, from a very aristocratic background, visited women in slums -- something that was absolutely taboo in that period. Among the early trade unionists in Bengal, we see a lot of women from very upper-class and upper-caste backgrounds. The national movement created a sympathy wave for the poor, because they were perceived to be the worst victims of colonial rule. Also, women joined the Gandhian movement because they wanted to be part of the national movement. They took part in large numbers in public action like satyagrahas, and M K Gandhi accepted their involvement. The Gandhian movement was such that anything was possible. Women went to jail, they went on demonstrations, they committed acts of civil disobedience and took to spinning khadi on charkhas. This was also because the national movement was seen as 'religious activity'. This both legitimised and sanctified such activity.

The question is, did Gandhi go beyond what the social reformers were doing? Scholars like Sujata Patel argue that he did not -- because what the social reformers were doing was far more scandalous and by the time Gandhi arrived on the scene, middle class women had become educated and mobile, so asking them to join a non-violent movement was not such a great departure. And perhaps Bose, Nehru, Ambedkar and Periyar did more in making women a part of their political vision.

But at the same time, just being involved in the national movement had its own impact on women. I personally interviewed a very old and very poor child widow who had joined the Gandhian movement and then went back to domesticity. I asked her what she got from the movement since nothing seemed to have really changed for her. She looked at me with complete contempt and said: "Was it the same woman who went, who came back home?" She went on: "Look, you are an educated and more prosperous person than I am and yet you ask me these questions. Why? Because you were not making history, I was." The very act of making history was extremely empowering.

What was the connection between the social reformers and the making of the Indian Constitution? The connection was that the social reformers, for the first time in Indian history, actually stated that women in Indian society were in a disgraceful situation and that the men were guilty of creating this situation, and that it needed to be corrected.

The Constituent Assembly debates took place under very fraught circumstances, under the shadow of the holocaust of Partition. Partition actually re-imposed a lot of control over women, yet women got the right to vote painlessly in this country, unlike many of their counterparts elsewhere, through the mediation of the Constituent Assembly. This may not have come about if there was no awareness that women's lives had to change.

(Tanika Sarkar and Sumit Sarkar are eminent historians of modern India. The former is presently Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the latter is a retired Professor of History, University of Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012