Thought Leader: Shilpi Shikha


With upcoming of nationalist movement to free India from British yolk also came a set of social reformers who could visualise the plight of Indian society that was experienced in everyday life. This everydayness was deeply embedded in norms and traditions Indian culture adheres to. In this given environment the question of women was also not lacking behind. Horrible practices such as sati, child marriage, or asceticism for widows were termed as uncivilised by the British. Therefore with effort of social reformist like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and many others the practices such as Sati were banned in the year 1826 and a few remarkable regulation, to mention the Hindu widow re-marriage act (1856) was passed, and likewise age of consent (1891) bill was followed by. These events could be termed in history as one of the pioneering events that stood for women’s right in India. These reforms at the very outset definitely look like an effort to make world a better place for women where they could access their basic freedom to life. This draws attention of many scholars who critically try to argue that although certain social reforms have benefited women of a certain class and caste, but these reforms were not inherently meant for women’s rights, rather it was brought up to defend tradition, caste and community where the questions of women rights were itself marginalised. My paper would look into these debates of recasting women into another set of patriarchy and how the issue of women was taken into account during the process of making a modern Indian nation

Revisiting tradition:

Patriarchy is deeply rooted into our society in one or the other forms. Status of women in India is no doubt changing, but these changes need not be free from the structure of patriarchy. Even during colonial era there were efforts from the administration as well as reformers to bring a change for the betterment of women’s life. Therefore a dialectic relation of feminism and patriarchies, both in the inventions of the colonial state and in the policies of the anti-colonial movements was seen. The lives of women exist at the interface of caste and class inequality, especially since the description and management of gender and female sexuality is involved in the maintenance and reproduction of social inequality.(vaid,sagari,1989). Hence a complex interrelationship could be seen between the British administrative norms and traditional customary norms even in case of land and property. For example the British officers in Haryana region, were granting some rights to widow in the interest of revenue extraction on one hand, but also discouraging them from accessing those very rights on the other, because these colonial administrative officers were also governed by conservatism approach against feminist movement in England that promoted married women’s property rights. Many of these officials thought that given right to women would actually be unjustified for men of that society. Therefore Sangari and Vaid argue that there is a hidden history concealed under the banner of social reform. Because these reforms have been interrogating their class and caste character where the role of redefining gender and patriarchy is largely ignored.

There are junctures where our past is being reshaped by the present or a need is felt in rewriting the past to justify the present. Similar accounts were experienced in India during the 19th century when there was an effort to rewrite the so called golden past of Indian women. This golden past was tried to be defined through the concept of Aryan woman. The Aryan woman is presented as an ideal woman and was the progenitor of Hindu high caste. The Vedic dasis who also represented part of Hindu women was lost in 19th century history.

As for instance Uma Chakrabarty in her essay talks of the process how Vedic dasis were eliminated from the context and were replaced by notion of Aryan women through which the rich history of India could be traced during the period of growing Indian nationalism. This kind of effort Chakrabarty states as reinforcing new kind of patriarchy upon the Indian women. The Aryan woman’s space is at home and she is the carrier of Indian tradition. In this process of sketching golden history of Indian tradition they would take up examples of wise and scholarly women such as Maitreyi- Gargi who were presented in ‘Shahstras’ as women of high status, and possessed higher intelligence.

Lata Mani also argues how through social reforms tradition is reconstituted under colonial rule and in different ways, women and Brahmanic scripture becomes interlocking grounds for establishing this tradition. Women were depicted as deity of traditions, and the reworking of tradition was debated through the rights and status of women in the society. May be because of so much debate on women being symbols of tradition much emphasis was laid on to argue what constitutes authentic cultural tradition rather than emphasising on real problems on women. Therefore Brahmanic scriptures were becoming extremely important in tracing validity of these traditions. As for example the legislative prohibition of sati becomes a question of scriptural interpretation. Those who were against sati would argue on the material aspect that Sati is practised for reasons such as family’s desire to get rid of the burden from financially supporting a widow. On the other hand those who were against abolition of Sati tried to give justifications exerting their arguments from Hindu scriptural texts. The stand of official discourse on Sati was also ambivalent. It approved sati as long as it is a free will, as there operated notions of good sati and bad sati. A Good sati is the one who willingly jump into the pyre of her husband, adhering to official readings of the scriptures and this was the kind of reasoning that produced the 1813 regulations, defining Sati as legal which has to meet certain criteria, central among them is it should be a voluntary act. However colonial officials continued to conceptualize women as subjected, whether they voluntarily jumped into the fire or were forced to do so.

Even for Rammohan Roy like the official discourse his arguments against Sati were heavily drawn from the scriptures to prove that Hindu tradition never had an idea of burning their widows on their husband’s pyre. Drawing from the Vedas and Smritis whose authority he seems to be paramount Rammohan says no where it is mentioned in the holy books to destroy a life; rather at best what Vedas recommend is ascetic widowhood. He and other petitioners against Sati argued that Sati was introduced by some jealous princes who to ensure the faithfulness of their widow inferred some passages from the Holy Scriptures misrepresented them and introduced the practice of burning widows. Again elsewhere in some writing he mentioned the material aspects of Sati that because Dayabhaga law entitles a woman with some property therefore family gets a good way to get over it through Sati. But there seemed to be ambivalence even in works of Rammohan Roy. On one hand he talks of women who commit Sati as brave, and on the other hand he highlights how vulnerable a woman is. (Sangari, Vaid. 1989). Therefore Lata Mani argue that even for a staunchest abolitionist, the idea of Sati continue to provoke ambivalence, ambivalence that either represented women as Supreme Being or as a victim. Rammohan Roy indeed developed a critical analysis of Indian women in a secular basis, but his focus remained constrained to Sati itself. Even Roy did not directly base his arguments against sati as an act cruel to women; rather he argued that Sati was not based on scriptures. As Lata Mani argues ‘they are denied any agency. Women are neither the objects nor the subjects, but rather the ground of the discourse on Sati’. Women in this discourse are themselves marginalised to the debate. This debates such as Sati, purdah, widow remarriage etc were not merely about women, but this were the instances where the moral challenge of colonial rule was confronted and negotiated. For British rescuing women becomes part of civilisation whereas for indigenous male elite protection of their status or reforms becomes important. One important point Lata Mani makes here is that tradition is not the ground on which a woman was contested, rather women became the site in which tradition was debated and reformulated. Therefore what was at stake was not woman but tradition.

Questions of women in framing of national identity:

Partha Chatterjee in his essay The nationalist resolution of the women’s question claims that nationalist struggle was not only something that was fought for political power, but it also related the political independence of the nation to virtually every aspect of spiritual and material life of the people. The material life would be identified with the public i.e the world and private would be with the home or ghar. Hence public is the domain for men and private for women. If analysed deeply the public or world would be the space where the European has dominated the non-European people by virtue of its material power but was unable to challenge the spiritual or private space that is the home where lies the tradition and women are epitome of tradition. Therefore no matter what ever the external conditions that would bring change to a women’s life but the internal spiritual feminine virtues of a woman should be uphold by her. Hence the needed part was to protect, preserve and strengthen the inner core of nationalist spiritual culture, where women take a central place.

Therefore here a new sort of ideology was seen to be centring cultural nationalism. For example in Bengal the upsurge of Bengali Bhadramahila was mark of this new nationalist identity. Education became inevitable part for Bengali high caste women. Because education was the medium through which the new woman would be inculcated with virtues of modern form of femininity. She is a woman who has disciplining of orderliness, cleanliness, responsible, and possesses the abilities to adjust her households according to the new physical and economic conditions set by the new world. To meet this criterion she may for instance also need to venture the outside world but without letting affect her ‘femininity’. Although to some extend this kind of liberal attitude showed a little flexibility in practices such as ‘purdah’, but culturally they were differentiated by socially approved male and female conduct. The signs of spirituality was now marked even by her new dressing forms, as for example the new dress a Bengali Bhadramahila needed to wear(brahmika sari) went through a whole set of experimentation to be approved as a standard form of dress to be worn by middle class. This kind of cultural nationalism in Bengal could be also be seen in works of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, which highlighted selected versions of Hindu past, including pure Aryan and Khstriyan value and exclude non-pure lower castes and converted Muslims.

Similarly a careful reading of Tarabai Shinde’s text A comparison between women and men highlights the point that seclusion of women in Maharashtra and west- India gained momentum only from nineteenth century onwards. In the introduction to her text by Rosalind O’hanlon refers to writers such as Richard Jenkins and Thomas Broughton who acknowledged the fact that Martha women are under little personal strain and they appear unveiled in public. Tarabai expresses her dismay about being feeling secluded at her home despite coming from a so called liberal family. Her father was himself a social reformer and an anti Brahmin which might be the reason she had some liberty to read and write, but the family was also not free from practicing some form of seclusion for women. Some traditional Martahas like Kahalatkar Deshmukh who were also against the idea of women being kept in seclusion from the family, were also trying to define a new kind of feminine virtues that women should follow which is a mixture of Brahmanical and Victorial morality. He says women’s seclusion in home brings hardship for the family. Therefore although women should not be secluded from the family but they can be in purdah from the outside world, they should not giggle, talk much, or make jokes around. (O’hanlon.1994). Tarabai was strongly critical about concepts such as pativrata nari which was taking a new form in 19th century. She said where everything is changing in the world for men from English education to food; women are still expected to hide inside the house even denied of their basic rights.

Reconstitution of patriarchy in agrarian class:

Patriarchy in India is enmeshed in every sphere of life. As we have seen above how patriarchy worked in construction of new nationalist identity by revisiting the past as well as borrowing from Victorian morality, here I would also like to see how the idea of patriarchy is regulated in agrarian societies of India during colonial times. Prem Choudhry in his essay Customs in peasant economy: women in colonial Haryana highlights the contradictory idea of how on one hand women there is general acceptance about high status of women such as bride price, widow remarriage, full economic participation in agricultural activities and on the other hand the region also has indices of female infanticide, total neglect of female education, ghunghat(veil) and many more as such. During British Raj Haryana was highly neglected and was largely affected by famines. Therefore the hardship of agrarian life welcomed women to come out of their homes and work in the field. This demand of women in agriculture led to a wide acceptance of the prevalent customs of sale and purchase of wives among economically hard up peasants, and it gained popularity mostly in first part of the twentieth century. However bride price did not help in anyways to raise the status of women. They were always blamed for either brought by paying higher bride price or for giving high amount of dowry by their natal family. As mentioned by Prem Chowdhry there was a practice prevalent among the peasant caste of Haryana called Karewa or widow remarriage. However this does not signify freedom and higher status of woman. Her right to remarry was totally decided by her deceased husband’s family. This is done to control her right to property and sexuality. Mostly she would be married within the family to one of her brother in laws so that the family can keep her husband’s property within themselves without letting it transfer to the widow. Likewise given the adverse problem of sex ratio there appeared a concept of woman being married to a family rather than to an individual, who means the brothers and at worst even the father in law would share the bride. Thus it could be seen that factors like widow remarriage, polyandry, bride price which otherwise seemed to be characteristics of liberal society, here this was no where related to women’s high status. Those practices were welcomed only on behalf of society’s need. Women still had to work on ghunghat, had no right on any decision or property and education was only limited to boys.


Patriarchy is always re casted upon women in one or the other forms. In 21st century women may have greater access to their personal rights such as education, property rights, marriage, divorce and so on. But the structure and functioning of patriarchy remains same. Taking instances from everyday experiences of women from workplace to TV serials at home women with virtues of femininity are always glorified; the roots of which could be traced from Brahminical scriptures or from Victorian morality that played a crucial role in framing the idea of modern India woman. In recent JNU incident we could see how the idea of nationality is tried to be defined based on glorified Indian past, tracing evidences from freedom struggle, religious scriptures and through the icon of ‘Bharat Mata’. So this again flags of the question of how the image of a woman is to be seen in constructing the idea of Indian nation.


  • O’hanlon, Rosalind.1994. A comparison between women and men: Tarabai Shinde and critique of gender relations in colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford University PressSangari;
  • Kumkum and Vaid, Suresh.1989. Recasting women: Essays in Colonial History. NewDelhi: Kali For Women.

Wall Image Source: Internet

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