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Towards Becoming 'The Mothers of the Nation'

This chapter from The History of Doing focuses on the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when social reform movements in India were beginning to show results and women were becoming more visibly present in the public sphere. Kumar provides a thematic history of the women’s movement before independence, beginning with focusing on the 1889 session of the Indian National Congress in Bombay where ten women delegates attended the assembly for the first time.

Using photographs and a wide variety of print sources from books to newspapers, Kumar looks at how women’s issues were raised and how women were involved in addressing these. Prostitution was one of the first such issues, referred to by the Indian National Congress at their 1888 session. The essay discusses at length the steps taken to regulate prostitution by the British in India and the level of support this received from reformers and moderate nationalists. The turn of the century saw a proliferation of homes for widows, with schemes to train widows as teachers. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal during this time period marked the beginning of women’s participation in national activities on a larger scale.

Kumar offers detailed portraits on the lives of some of the women involved in the above movements and reforms like Swarnakumari Debi, her daughter Sarala Debi Ghosal and Bhikaiji Cama. Kumar also observes that for some of these women, the bid for personal independence grew to be subsumed in a quest for national independence, but that they also returned to their homes without regret when the moment of crisis passed. A large number of the women written about in the essay were writers, both reformists and revolutionaries.

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The Campaign Against Dowry

Radha Kumar's chapter tracks the history of protests against dowry in the contemporary women's movement, starting from the first demonstrations at Hyderabad in 1975 and leading up to significant legal amendments in the early 1980s. Interspersed with historic photographs of the movement in its crucial stages, the essay captures the wave of protests that spread across the country, bringing disparate groups together to revolt against dowry-related crimes.

As stories of torture were brought to attention in public discourse, feminists challenged the dominant ideological mode that rendered violence against women a private, family matter. This violence was not only physical, but also mental, often leading to incidents of bride-burning and abetted suicide. Kumar's essay delves into the way such incidents garnered public outrage – particularly in Delhi, where the campaign was more sustained – and how, over time, feminists expanded their methods of seeking redress. The campaign, as it gained traction, sought action not only through legal investigation, which had been negligible in dowry crimes, but also through social pressure on the perpetrators.

Kumar's essay finally covers the consequences of the prolonged campaign, in particular those of changing legal attitudes. There had been a marked shift from an indifference regarding practices of dowry harassment and bride-burning to a series of amendments that set in place several protective as well as investigative measures for cases concerning dowry victims. The movement had then achieved, after initial setbacks, some important victories, and Kumar's essay captures this not only through its text but also through a range of photographs from the period. Continue reading

Personal Law and Communal Identities

Feminist movements in India have, both pre- and post-Independence, seen the family and home as the nexus of organizing women’s lives. By the early 1980s, attempts to analyse this nexus had led to examining the codification of women’s rights in marriage and property. It is in this vein that this essay considers the history of the 1985 Shah Bano case and the feminist debates on personal law that it gave rise to.
The call for a common civil code that emerged from the case was extensively critiqued by feminists, liberals and secularists, as well as Muslim religious leaders. The essay traces how the sociopolitical context led to the quick descent of the issue into communal agitation, with a demand that Muslims be exempt from Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code that had been cited in granting Shah Bano maintenance from her husband. It describes how Hindu communalism had been acquiring legitimacy in the eyes of the state, and the contribution of this factor to the national fervour surrounding Shah Bano’s case.
Kumar then traces the opposition by various women’s groups to the 1986 Bill, which was introduced in parliament with an aim to exclude divorced Muslim women from the purview of the hotly debated Section 125. She explores the ‘bitter lessons’ that Indian feminists learnt from the public and state responses to Shah Bano’s case, which then posed certain questions that would become increasingly important to feminists in the years to follow. She concludes with questions of secularism–its definition and its practice–and of representation, both of which are brought to the forefront by Shah Bano’s case. Continue reading

The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990

A thematic history of the women's movement in India both before and after independence, this book covers the period from the nineteenth century to the present day. It looks at how women's issues were raised, initially by men and as part of the movements for social reform, and then with the involvement of women in the nationalist movement, by women themselves. Using photographs, old and new documents, excerpts from letters, books and informal writings, the author documents the growing involvement of women and the formation of the early women's organizations, she examines the foregrounding of the `women's issue' during the reform and nationalist movements and its subsequent disappearance from the agenda of public debate until the post independence period of the sixties and seventies when it surfaces again.

Radha Kumar is Senior Fellow and Director of the project on Ethnic Conflict, Partition and Post-Conflict Reconstruction at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. She is author of Divide and Fall: Bosnia in the Annals of Partition. She was formerly Executive Director, Helsinki Citizen's Assembly. Continue reading

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