The rich material of the sari

Indian Journal of Gender Studies
February 24, 1995

The publication in 1974 of the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India: Towards Equality, with its devastating combination of low-key objectivity and precise analyses of the inequalities facing contemporary Indian women, was a shock to the urban middle class. Details included the declining sex ratio, the dual or triple burden of work and the lack of access to education, law and politics.

The result was a major research programme on women sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research. By the 1980s, women's studies was established in India.

One consequence of this increased interest in the position of Indian women was the creation in 1980 of the Centre for Women's Development Studies in Delhi. In 1983, the CWDS founded Samya Shakti: A Journal of Women's Studies.

Samya Shakti has now been relaunched as the Indian Journal of Gender Studies. Its associate editors, Leela Kasturi and Meena Mukherjee, are members of the CWDS, as are four members of the editorial advisory board. The other 23 are drawn from major centres in India or relevant institutions abroad: a declaration of intent as well as of academic and activist credentials.

The intention of the journal is to publish "contributions from academics, activists, students and all those concerned with issues relating to gender", in particular articles, book reviews, reports on conferences and workshops, brief discussion papers and research notes, and first-person narratives (ranging "from newly discovered autobiographical tracts, letters and diaries to notes from the field and experiences of activists, teachers, lawyers and so on''). This is an exciting brief, and one to be applauded by all those interested in the study of women and in gender analysis.

Volume one, number one, with five full-length articles, one personal narrative and eight book reviews, makes a spirited start.

Meera Kosambi offers a comparison of three Maharashtrian women in terms of their perceptions of British rule, their ideological positions and the implications of these views on the cause of women's emancipation in India. All three travelled abroad, two to train as doctors. Western education brought with it western ideas and Christian religious values that inevitably clashed with traditional Hindu beliefs and practices, notably concerning widowhood, child marriage, and women's education.

Dr Anandibai Joshi (1865-1887) came from an aristocratic and orthodox Chitavan Brahmin family. Her public image (and, to a large extent, her private self-image) as "the conventional husband-worshipping wife" both reinforced the patriarchal ideal that even an educated women should not break with convention and enabled her "to carve out a new space for women within the patriarchal framework".

The more westernised Dr Rakhmabai (1864-1955) was famous for refusing, at 19, to live with the man she was married to at the age of 11. This act of defiance culminated in the first court case for divorce in India and contributed to the passing of the age of consent legislation of 1891, yet her rebellion made it impossible for her to be accepted professionally as a doctor.

Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) came from a pious Brahmin family, "totally conventional except in the matter of educating women (but only in the Sanskrit texts)". Hailed as a scholar ("Pandita") in Calcutta, she was exposed to the social ideas of the Brahmo Samaj, and later converted to Christianity as her own solution to the oppression of Hindu women. She was described as "the sole female champion of the women's cause within the reform movement", but Ramabai's radical perspective had little effect on Maharashtrian society because of her conversion and the suspicion of missionary activity.

Jeanne Frances I. Illo draws on the life histories of ten women and their families in the fishing and farming village of Bantigue in the southern province of Quezon in the Luzon Islands. She focuses on the internal dynamics of these rural Filipino families, the decision-making processes as perceived by the women and their attitudes to work and education. Not surprisingly, prevailing cultural ideals define women's work as "that destined to be done for and within the home", while men's work involves activities outside it.

Illo concludes that the women's association with multiple roles, and the resulting ambiguity regarding their economic worth, seriously undermines their autonomy. Only women with independent enterprises are able to negotiate effectively for what they want.

Ratna Ghosh explores the experiences of South Asian Canadian women after the passing of the Multicultural Act in 1988. After a summary of the theoretical issues of gender, race, ethnicity and class, a discussion of the multicultural policy and a description of the group, the piece concludes with an analysis of their experience of integration: the identity issues, conflicts and occupational opportunities encountered by South Asian Canadian women. The process of identity construction for these women is evidently difficult and often stressful.

Lotika Sarkar's starting point in "Rape: a human rights versus a patriarchal interpretation" is that rape is not primarily a sexual offence but, in the words of a judge of the Pune High Court in 1993, "a criminal and violent attack on the body, mind and the fundamental human rights of a woman". In 1980, however, the sub-heading "Rape'' in the Indian Penal Code (1860) was changed to "Sexual Offence". This backward step underlines the patriarchal view of rape and results in the primary focus being on the character and consent (or lack of it) of the victim.

Focusing on the contemporary situation in India, Sarkar discusses in turn the increase in custodial rapes (rape by men in uniform, often in the police station itself), the notion of consent ("the antithesis of rape''), the increase in reports of rape versus the paucity of convictions and the issue of marital rape. Sarkar proposes an amendment to Article 5 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights to equate rape with violent crime and extend it to the private as well as the public sphere.

"Learning to 'adjust': conjugal relations in Indian popular fiction" by Amita Tyagi Singh and Patricia Uberoi is based on 20 romantic short stories published in India's largest-selling English-language women's magazine, Women's Era, during 1988-1989. In the context of Indian society, where arranged marriages are still the norm and the idea of love is focused on the subsequent path to marital bliss amid the constraints of the joint family, these tales function as cautionary fables. Advocating compromise, they chronicle the wife's loss of autonomy, reinforcing her traditional subordination within marriage. The alternative, divorce or separation, is constructed as the ultimate disaster and her personal failure.

Finally, the first-person narrative from Mrinalini Saran ("Letter from a Chinese village") is an evocative essay relating the stories and views of women encountered on her visit to a village in the southern province of Zhejiang during the Chinese Spring Festival in 1993.

The journal is well produced and the articles are refreshingly readable with helpful notes and lists of references for further reading. It will be a valuable source for those interested in women's studies, gender issues and development issues, especially in the context of contemporary India.

Julia Leslie is a lecturer in Hindu studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Indian Journal of Gender Studies

Editor - Malavika Karlekar
ISBN - ISSN 0 971 5215
Publisher - Sage
Price - £25.00 (indiv.), £55.00 (inst.)

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