Women in South Asia - The Raj and After

Tanika Sarkar examines the evolving position of women in India before 1947 and since independence.

The fiftieth year of Indian independence lends itself to various kinds of stocktaking. It seems almost natural that the history of modern Indian women should be an essential part of this exercise, so when and why did the condition of women become an index to measure the nation's progress?

The nineteenth century started with extensive and anxious debates about the state of gender relations in Indian traditions. The new print culture, journalism and other forms of vernacular prose took up discussions about 'private' family matters and 'intimate' subjects concerning women and the household: suttee or widow immolation, age and forms of marriage, the possibility of divorce, of widow remarriage, education and male polygamy and so on. Social and religious reform associations spent a great deal of time arguing about such matters. Later, with the deepening of popular anti-colonial protest, the possibility of women’s' participation in this widened the area of discussion still further.

All this was very new. Not only were the issues of debate unprecedented, so was the amount of talk expended on them. Prior to this gender relations were frozen in sacred laws and in custom. If they were challenged it was within the context of everyday acts of defiance by women, in their secret transgressions, protest masked as sorrowful dirges and tales indicating a sense of the unfairness of the world. Now a qualitative leap was made away from these oblique expressions to a more open interrogation – not only by women, but also by men of liberal reformist persuasion.

The change has been explained in terms of an exposure to a liberal Western education that taught middle-class Indians to question the subjection of women. However, recent interpretations have been more critical of the gender perspective of these liberal reformers, attributing the changes to a desire to emulate Victorian moral codes and aping a bourgeois form of companionate marriage.

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