Monday, 24 February 2020

Transcending Boundaries

Updated: May 23, 2015 2:33 pm

Gender has been a central ‘issue’ in India since the colonial encounter. An overwhelming preoccupation with the “woman’s question” arose from the 19th century social reform movement, crucially informed anti-colonial nationalism, and remains a point of crisis in India’s cultural, social, and political space. The recognition of gender as an issue forms the basis for India’s women’s movement. The women’s movement in India took off in the 1920s, building on the 19th century social reform movement. The women’s movement progressed during the period of high nationalism and the freedom struggle, both of which shaped its contours. Among the many achievements of the movement, the most significant were the constitutional guarantees of equal rights for women and universal adult suffrage in independent India. However, these guarantees did little to bring about social and material change in the lives of most Indian women. A New Women’s movement, articulated to mass and popular politics, emerged in the 1970s. Despite the longstanding and vigorous women’s movement, patriarchy remains deeply entrenched in India, influencing the structure of its political and social institutions and determining the opportunities open to women and men. The negotiation and conflict between patriarchy and the women’s movement are central to the constitution of the nation-state. Exploration of the middle class nineteenth century social reform movement and of the nationalist movement help one understand the making of the dominant ideas of independent India—both those undergoing a change and those which are not.

What one did not anticipate in the exploration however was the encounter with the compelling similarities in the dominant gender discourse of the colonial past and the contemporary present.

An understanding of the women’s question in modern India has to entail taking into account two critical social particulars: one, its emergence in a colonially mediated modernity: two, its location in an inherently unequal and diverse society. This book which is primarily about the dominant gender discourse in India’s colonial past seeks to show how these two facts have impinged upon the making of the women’s question which even in contemporary India appears almost invariably linked to questions about caste and community, religion and region, class and tribe, nation and state. Contestations between vying communities for dominance and straightforward patriarchal opposition to gender justice are so densely intermeshed that it is not easy to discern one from the other. This book is primarily about the women’s question but one contends, aided by a preface that address the disquieting wrangle over the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) and the recent spate of ‘ honour killings,’ that it offers avery fruitful entry to the story of India’s modernity.

By Nilabh Krishna

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