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The Tamil text Nīlakeci, dated around the 5th century CE (debated), is an unusual literary creation. It retrieves a violent, vengeful pēy (female possessing spirit) of Palayanur, transforming her into a Jaina philosopher. It was a profoundly subversive idea of its time, using the female persona and voice (for a hitherto disembodied being) to debate with preceptors of different schools of thought/religions of the time, all male, barring the Buddhist nun, Kuṇṭalakeci. Nīlakeci’s debates focus on questions of non-violence, existence of the soul, authorship and caste, among others.
However, in order to truly appreciate this alter-texting, one has to unravel layers of other texts and traditions: the lesser known villuppāttu (bow-song) and nātakam (theatrical) versions of the pēy Nīli stories, as well as the story of Kuṇṭalakeci’s own transformative journey. Umamaheshwari situates these in a comparative context, while maintaining the centrality of the debates within Nīlakeci, using translation of selected excerpts.
R. UMAMAHESHWARI did her doctorate in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been an independent journalist and historian for some years. She was Fellow at the Institut d’Études Avancées de Nantes (Nantes Institute for Advanced Study), France (2017-18), and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (2014-16). She is author of Reading History with the Tamil Jainas: A Study on Identity, Memory and Marginalisation, 2017 and When Godavari Comes: People’s History of a River (A Journey in the Zone of the Dispossessed), 2014.
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.
Kalpana Sharma's essay explores the multiple roles that women came to occupy in the riots that took place in Mumbai post the Babri Masjid demolition. As the news of this destruction – carried out on 6th December 1992 – was broadcast across the country, it triggered communal violence, resulting in two phases of riots between the Muslim and the Hindu communities. The essay looks at the people who were some of the most affected by the carnage in the city, the urban poor, and highlights how their specific spatial and economic locations had a great bearing on their lives in this period. By studying the chawl dwellers, the slum inhabitants, and the people who resided on the pavements and analysing how each group had varying responses to the riots, Sharma's study explores what degree of significance their religious identity held during this time.
Sharma argues in her essay that the role of the women during these riots was not defined by their gender identity alone, or even their religious affiliation, but also by their class and their location in the metropolis. Her essay is an attempt to understand why and how these factors held the importance that they did, as her study spans areas of Mumbai which were all affected directly by the chaos. She adopts and reinforces a perspective that is broad, in that it explores women's roles during the riots not only as victims, but also as active participants, ready to fight for survival, and as peacemakers who played key roles in bringing communities together in difficult times.
This essay addresses the role that religion plays in sociopolitical processes in Mizoram by attempting to gauge the impact that churches have had in mediating conflicts and brokering peace in the state since the 1960s. It also examines the role of women (and lack thereof) in peacebuilding processes and explores gendered critiques of the same.
As Sawmveli and Tellis write, churches in Mizoram are centralized bodies that hold immense power, thus enabling church leaders to aid Mizo ‘militants’ in negotiating with the Indian government as early as 1966, when insurgency first broke out. However, women did not have much of a decision-making role, neither within the clergy nor during negotiations. The lack of women’s participation can be explained, according to the authors, by the entrenched patriarchy and misogyny in Mizo society. In fact, interviews with Mizo women reveal that they acknowledge the crucial role the church played in mediation, but did not see their exclusion from the process as an issue.
The essay further states that since most political parties in the region are aligned with churches, patriarchy in politics overlaps with patriarchal church culture to marginalize women. However, they also discuss the many women’s organizations that have come up over the years to facilitate women’s entry into the public sphere. Women are also reclaiming traditional proverbs that were used to oppress and belittle them—the essay cites Lalrinawmi Ralte’s rewriting of a popular saying that devalues women as crab meat in the form of what she calls ‘Crab Theology’.
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