A couple of decades ago, History was more than mostly about narratives of men. At that period of time, historians focused mainly on the achievements of the elite men in war, diplomacy, administration, et al. Although there were some exceptions, women were absent in majority of those narratives. The Patriarchy pushed the women into the corner of the households, setting the domestic affairs as their only periphery. Perhaps, time stands still in this situation… whatever happens is trivial, insignificant. Hence, narratives of households and women find no place in history. In other words, History becomes His Story. Once, Sheila Rowbotham, the British Socialist Feminist Theorist and Historian, said that women were “hidden from history”.
The study of women-centric history began in the Western academic field as part of the second wave of Feminism in the 1960s. The purpose of this movement was to rescue women from oblivion and to establish them in the pages of history books. Historians, like Rowbotham, made a serious attempt to expose the seemingly insignificant aspects of women’s lives in the private sphere and to highlight their important roles in the public sphere, thus, rebuilding the knowledge of history on the basis of gender equality.
This practice began in India in 1975, following the publication of the Towards Equality Report. This report revealed the harsh reality, as it showed the clear decline in the status of Indian women in the post-Independence decades, focussing mainly on the unfulfilled constitutional promise of gender equality! Apart from helping the Indian Society feel the pain of disillusionment, the Report also made the Indians familiar with Western Feminist Thoughts. With this, a new form of the Women’s Movement was born in the South Asian Nation. At the same time, the Report stimulated thoughtful researches into various aspects of women’s lives. Attempts were also made to identify the Patriarchal Characteristics hidden in the world of knowledge and to deal with it, properly. With the emergence of women-centric history as a field of interdisciplinary knowledge, efforts had been made to eliminate the inherent gender inequalities, and to end the androcentric characters of the subject by reconstructing them.
The study of women-centric history (or Human History in a true sense) in India is part of that initiative. Unfortunately, conservative historians still neglect and ridicule women-centric history. Hence, the subject has failed to secure its place in Undergraduate and Postgraduate curricula. A sense of denial still haunts the Women-Centric History. Although the scope of women’s history has expanded in recent times, it is not enough. The study of women-centric history must be spread by using Feminist Theories as a tool. The erased history of women needs to be restored on the basis of unconventional elements, like autobiographies, letters, diaries, etc. That is why the move of the Centre for Advanced Studies, Department of History, University of Calcutta (India) to publish a book, titled Writing Women in History: Glimpses from India’s Colonial Past, is so important. The book has been edited by Professor Suparna Gooptu.
Credit goes to Professor Gooptu for fluently presenting the History of Women, its theoretical basis, purpose of the subject, and its problems, while introducing the subject. The first two chapters stress mainly on the limitations of study of conventional history. Here, Madhumita Majumder narrates how feminist intervention in Science and Technology exposes the masculine characters of the study of Nationalist Science and Technology. According to the author, women’s sexuality and its reflection in literature, films and other artistic forms is still neglected in history.
Subsequent chapters shed light on the process of women’s education and socialisation in India in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Rachna Chakraborty, in her demeanour, discusses the education of Muslim women in the context of Colonial Bengal (in eastern part of India). She argues that limitations of women’s education projects prevented Muslim women from becoming self-reliant. It also created a psychological barrier that very few Muslim women were able to break. The 19th Century Bengali Society emphasised on culinary skills of women in order to encourage them to become good housewives! In her article, Utsa Roy shows how an attempt was made to mould women in Colonial Bengal to meet the demands of the Patriarchal System.
The articles, included in the Third Section, make an attempt to explore the past of the Indian women. The subject of the first two articles is a novel written by an Assamese female author in the Colonial Era. Based on two novels, Sheila Bora depicts the revolutionary essence in the writings of Indian women. Meanwhile, Manorama Sharma narrates the history of thought process of women in the Assamese print media during the British Colonial Rule.
It is a very important part of the study of women-centric history to explore various aspects of a person’s life through unconventional elements, such as autobiographies, letters, diaries, etc. In fact, individual life is determined by the Larger Social Structure, and it reflects in Collective Life. Five chapters in this section give a special emphasise on the personal life of some Indian women. While Reba Som discusses the achievements of Sister Nivedita, Hasi Banerjee sheds light on Miraben‘s life. History remembers Nivedita and Miraben as disciples of Swami Vivekananda and M K Gandhi, respectively. The fact is they did not always follow the path shown by their mentors! Both Nivedita and Miraben left an impression of individuality in their actions. Som and Banerjee have made an attempt to understand the life and thought process of these two White ladies in the context of the cultural exchange between the West and the East. In another chapter, Nirban Basu discusses the conflict-ridden psyche of Manikuntala Sen! For Sen, Politics was a path to explore her self and a way to find a deeper meaning of life.
With the spread of women’s education, many Indian women started their career in the 19th Century. Initially, teaching was the preferred profession of them. Chandramukhi Basu and Tatini Das were Foremothers in this regard. In her essay, Sarada Ghosh shows how these two women had successfully balanced their personal and professional lives, despite facing various challenges. Revolutionary Leela Nag founded two organisations, called Dipali Sangh and Shri Sangh. Palash Mandal traces Nag’s revolutionary life through the activities of these two organisations.
Chapters in the final section of the book raise some important questions about the binary of conventional history. In her essay, Anindita Mukherjee reveals the complex equation and conflict of personal and public connections of Amiya Chowdhurani and Vijayalakshmi Pandit. After going through the autobiography of a Dalit woman, Viramma, in depth; Rajshekhar Basu narrates the conflict between Gender Identity and the Nation. Aishika Chakraborty draws attention to class, race, gender and intersectional conflicts while writing the History of Dance in Western, as well as Indian, context. She also shows how dance had broken the established notions of Femininity and Masculinity.
This publication, edited by Suparna Gooptu, will certainly boost the trend of studying women-centric history. Although the title of the book speaks of Colonial India, some chapters deal with the lives of Indian women in Post-Independence Period. In Colonial India, Tarabai Shinde, Ramabai, Rukhmabai, Savitribai Phule and other Marathi women had strongly criticised the Patriarchy through their writings and activities. It would be nice, had the book discussed about some of them. Still, this publication is a valuable addition to the field of women’s history.
It may be noted that Dr Vina Mazumdar (March 28, 1927 – May 30, 2013) – an Indian academic, left-wing activist and feminist – was a pioneer in Women’s Studies in India. Dr Mazumdar was not only a leading figure of the Indian Women’s Movement, but was also amongst the first women academics to combine activism with scholarly research in Women’s Studies. She was the founding Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), an autonomous organisation established in 1980, under the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR).
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