This essay examines women’s writing in the 19th century on the oppression of widows, focusing on voices that writer Uma Chakravarti believes have been invisibilized over the years. Stating that the history of social reforms and widowhood has been predominantly understood from a knowledge-based male perspective, Chakravarti proposes balancing the discourse with several female perspectives based on experiencing widowhood first-hand.
The essay is divided into three parts – the first section focuses on women’s works on widowhood, examining the writing of Sushila Devi, Tarabai Shinde and Rakhmabai. The second section looks at widows from Poona Widows’ Home writing about their own experiences, and the third at writers like Pandita Ramabai and Parvati Athavale who were actively involved in providing support to other widows. From scathing criticism to personal experiences, the works criticize the then existing male-dominant Reformist movement, which focused only on widow remarriage, and outline the problems faced by widows, such as deprivation of basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, and the enforcement of unpaid and unacknowledged labour.
Chakravarti thus claims that these works were responsible for expanding the boundaries of the discourse around widowhood, making widows the subject of the issue than mere lifeless objects. She critiques these works, analysing the ideologies and influences of each writer. Through the topic of widowhood, Chakravarti demonstrates how women writers went on to discuss issues of female agency and autonomy, and critique larger patriarchal structures such as religion and family, which reinforced oppressive practices against women.Continue reading
This essay discusses caste, gender and the state, and the relationship between the three in the context of militarization under Peshwa rule in eighteenth century Maharashtra. Analysing materials available in the Peshwa daftar, Uma Chakravarti illustrates the different ways in which the state played a decisive role in upholding the caste system and in installing social codes to legitimize women’s sexuality.
Chakravarti points out how the Peshwa state upheld Brahmanical social order by prohibiting ‘untouchables’ from approaching the temple of Vithoba (which also housed a shrine for Chokhamela, a saint belonging to the Mahar community who were historically considered ‘untouchable’, was associated with the regional Varkari movement), threatening punishment if they failed to conform. Chakravarti casts doubt on whether this traditional practice helped bridge the gap between the upper and lower castes by looking at the effects of the development of other religious practices with the consolidation of the Peshwai.
The institution of marriage and other codes that legitimized women’s sexuality, additionally, were major elements at play in the Peshwai’s organising of gender relations. Chakravarti explores ideological structures of enforced widowhood, the difference in punishment that women and men who committed adultery faced, and the role of the state in arranging marriage for girls between ages seven and ten. Connecting caste with women’s sexuality, the essay gestures towards Brahmanya’s investment in the undiluted purity of its women.
Uma Chakravarti’s introduction to Fault Lines of History: The India Papers 2 uses a brief history of protest in the north-eastern states of India to illustrate the contract between the state, the army and the rule of law. Detailing the spread of AFSPA as a result and a feature of this contract, Chakravarti points to particular building blocks in the story of resistance in the area — the case of Manorama, Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike, the naked protest by imas in Manipur among others — and castigates mainstream state theorists’ neglect of AFSPA’s existence and growing application as a tool of oppressive state-building. She explains how the postcolonial state’s painting of AFSPA and militarisation, and the accompanying conflicts, as ‘states of exception’ is key to the contract, which is characterised by the tension between the rule of law and the state’s avowal of sovereign emergency.
The chapter provides a valuable cross-section of the volume, summarising each author’s argument while drawing connections between them and larger themes of impunity, militarisation, conflict, revolution, state (un)accountability, ‘security’ and feminist scholarship. She interweaves material on militarised regions in the north-east of India, Kashmir and Chhattisgarh with work on caste-based structures of violence built on and around Dalit bodies, as well as on stripping and parading of women’s bodies as ritual humiliation, to highlight the implications of an aberrant state wielding its impunity as a precise and wide-ranging weapon.Continue reading
Chakravarti’s essay counters the claim that in the pre-colonial period, a ‘fixed’ Hindu law didn’t exist because of multiple caste laws, by arguing instead that even those separate caste laws were bound by a broader rational framework, enforced as such by the Peshwai.
Chakravarti analyses the three legal issues of widow remarriage, conjugality and the age of consent to explore how the colonial laws affected women; the relationship between the caste panchayat and the larger legal culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, and whether the textual law was more or less repressive than customary law.
Women came under the purview of the colonial law because of a weakening of the caste panchayats, and the new British administration gave men a choice of forum through which to enforce patriarchy.
They were also brought under the colonial state through criminal cases against them, such as those for prostitution and abortion. The colonial state was able to do this effectively because the patriarchal Indian community also had the same goals. Despite the inherently patriarchal nature of colonial laws, women also sought the system out for cases of adoption and rights over their parents’ property.
The essay also points to how cultural nationalism unified ‘Hindus’, placing a Brahmanical patriarchal notion of womanhood instead of caste and regional differences, raising important questions about the relationship among the colonial state, law, family, caste panchayats and gender in the nineteenth century.
The Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia research project (coordinated by Zubaan and supported by the International Development Research Centre) brings together, for the first time in the region, a vast body of knowledge on this important – yet silenced – subject. Six country volumes (one each on Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and two on India) comprising over fifty research papers and two book-length studies detail the histories of sexual violence and look at the systemic, institutional, societal, individual and community structures that work together to perpetuate impunity for perpetrators.
This volume, the second on India, addresses the question of state impunity, suggesting that on the issue of the violation of human and civil rights, and particularly in relation to the question of sexual violence, the state has been an active and collusive partner in creating states of exception, where its own laws can be suspended and the rights of its citizens violated. Drawing on patterns of sexual violence in Kashmir, the Northeast of India, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Rajasthan, the essays together focus on the long histories of militarization and regions of conflict, as well as the ‘normalized’ histories of caste violence which are rendered invisible because it is convenient to pretend they do not exist. Even as the writers note how heavily the odds are stacked against the victims and survivors of sexual violence, they turn their attention to recent histories of popular protest that have enabled speech. They stress that while this is both crucial and important, it is also necessary to note the absence of sufficient attention to the range of locations where sexual violence is endemic and often ignored. Resistance, speech, the breaking of silence, the surfacing of memory: these, as the writers powerfully argue, are the new weapons in the fight to destroy impunity and hold accountable the perpetrators of sexual violence.Continue reading
This study of Pandita Ramabai’s life, one of India’s earliest feminists, is now available in a brand new paperback edition as part of the Zubaan Classics series to celebrate Zubaan’s 10th anniversary. (Now with a new Afterword)
This book outlines the reconstitution of patriarchies in nineteenth century Maharashtra through an exploration of the life, work and times of Pandita Ramabai, one of India’s earliest feminists. It examines the manner in which the colonial state’s new institutional structures, caste contestations, class formation and nationalism transformed and reorganized gender relations. It also explores the nature of the new agendas being set for women, how these were received by them and in what ways and to what extent their consent to these reconstructed patriarchies was produced.
Uma Chakravarti is a historian who has worked and written on issues of caste, labour and gender and is active in the democratic rights and women’s movements. Among her published works are The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation (co-authored) and Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism.Continue reading
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