Feminist discourse
Kanchan Mehta

Towards Gender History: Images, Identities and Roles of North Indian Women
by Kamlesh Mohan. Aakar Books.
Pages 272. Rs 595.

The book is a collection of articles on women’s history in India. Though the book does not purport to be "a chorological account and analysis of gender history," the writer, Kamlesh Mohan, a professor at Panjab University, successfully captures the critical transitions in women’s movement in India, particularly North India. Apart form its proclaimed feministic intent of acquainting the readers with the "changing images, identities and roles of "Indian Women," the book also contributes to the history of India.

Women’s movement in India is integrated with the national struggle for freedom. It was not in the first place driven by the desires and wishes of women themselves, but was impelled by the colonial critique of the degrading status of Indian, particularly women. Hence to prove the virtues of Indian culture, the Indian intelligentsia and national leaders were obliged to cast a "new woman."

The first section, Reforming Women, critically focuses on the conceptualisation in colonial Punjab and the male-launched reform projects. It shows how the male perceptions of women, their attitude to gender-relations and their idea of sex were fashioned by the misogynistic attitudes of Sikh religious traditions and folklores. Notwithstanding the emancipatory steps from Guru Nanak and his successors, the Sikh woman was and is still subjected to diverse patriarchies.

The male reformers of the 19th century in colonial Punjab, believing in the doctrine of diverse spheres for men and women, marked the spiritual role played by the Indian woman and glorified man as the ‘bread winner’ and thus ‘superior’ to woman. To regulate women’s lives and bodies, chastity was extolled as the supreme virtue of woman, and motherhood as the ideal mission of her life

The second portion, New Images, Identities and Roles, pursues women as active agents in refashioning their own images, identities and roles. The case study of a Hindi journal, Stree Darpan, undertaken by the writer, reveal how women, particularly Hindi educated, under the supervision and guidance of its founder editor, Rameshwari Nehru, used print media to sensitise the patriarchal society to women’s oppression. The journal worked as a forum for dialogue between die-hard traditionalists and liberal thinkers. The women contributors to the journal altered male perceptions of the women up to some extent, which led to the rise of a new patriarchy which "accommodated mobility without damaging structural changes."

One article looks at Jallianwala Bagh tragedy as being a catalyst of woman’s consciousness. The massacre perforced Sikh women’s entry into public arena. Through their writings they expressed their pain for their kith and kin, victims of Dyerism, and their wrath against the British Raj. The writer daringly says: "The emotional scars left by the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy had a positive result in one sense `85 The ‘muted groups’ recovered their voice, language and dignified presence as well as identity."

One major difference between Western feminism and women’s movement in India lies in the fact that unlike their European counterparts, Hindu and Sikh women fighter’s resistance, coupled with accommodation, did not arouse male hostility. Hence, Indian women’s crusade for their rights received support and encouragement of national leaders.

The writer also points out that the women crusaders did not emulate the western ways for improving their status, as the influence of western feminist discourse was marginal in north India.

Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru made a very positive contribution to women’s movement. Contrary to male-reformers of the 19th century, who treated women as mere object of reform, Gandhi and Nehru actively empowered women and gave them confidence in themselves. By involving them in the political struggle of India, they shattered the long-held unreasonable belief that women were less intelligent, less responsible—so undermined the foundational pillar of the subjugation of women.

Religion, discriminatory codes for men and women and lack of economic freedom for women were strongly condemned by Nehru. His long crusade to ameliorate women ended in the legislation of the Hindu Code Bill.

The ritical examination of the devastating effects of globalisation on Indian culture and status and empowerment of women, is of paramount importance for its contemporary relevance.

The writer argues against globalisation, notwithstanding its economic gains, "as a serious threat to cultural autonomy." She condemns electronic media, otherwise a forum of communication, for disseminating consumerist culture, a culture of materialism and ostentation. The plausible reason behind the mass appeal of TV is that, unlike books, it requires no mental labour on the part of viewer, the writer contends.

The book is an ambitious attempt to map the rich territory of north Indian women’s history much for the benefit of teachers, students and the large number of general readers who account for the popularity of gender studies in modern times.