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Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialized Women: The Contest in India Author(s)

: Partha Chatterjee Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Nov., 1989), p
p. 622-633 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropo
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colonialism, nationalism,and colonialized women: the contest in India
PARTHA CHATTERJEE-Centre for Studies in Social Science, Calcutta
the women's question in "tradition"
Apartfrom the characterization of the political condition of India preceding the
Britishconquest as a state of anarchy, lawlessness and arbitrarydespotism, a ce
ntral element in the ideological justification of Britishcolonial rule was the c
riticism of the "degenerate and barbaric" social customs of the Indian people, s
anctioned, or so it was believed, by their religious tradition. Alongside the pr
oject of institutingorderly, lawful and rational procedures of governance, there
fore, colonialism also saw itself as performing a "civilizing mission." In ident
ifying this tradition as "degenerate and barbaric," colonialist critics invariab
ly repeated a long list of atrocities perpetratedon Indian women, not so much by
men or certain classes of men, but by an entire body of scripturalcanons and ri
tual practices which, they said, by rationalizing such atrocities within a compl
ete frameworkof religious doctrine, made them appear to perpetrators and suffere
rsalike as the necessary marksof rightconduct. By assuming a position of sympath
y with the unfree and oppressed womanhood of India, the colonial mind was able t
o transform this figure of the Indianwoman into a sign of the inherently oppress
ive and unfree nature of the entire cultural tradition of a country. Take, for e
xample, the following account of an early 19th-century traveller in India: Their
at no periodof life, in no conditionof society,shoulda womando anythingat herme
repleasure. but theirsons, are verilycalled her protectors; it is such protectio
n! theirhusbands, Day and fathers, in dependence.A woman,it is affirmed, nightmu
stwomenbe heldbytheirprotectors a stateof absolute to with liberty... theirdeity
hasallotted womena love of or is neverfitforindependence, to be trusted desireof
mischiefandbad theirbed,of theirseat,andof ornaments, wrath,flexibility, impure
appetites, be her conduct.Though husband devoidof all good qualities, such is t
he estimatetheyformof her yet, and that moraldiscrimination sensibilities, they
bindthe wife to reverehim as a god, and to submitto wheneverhe choosesto inflict
,by a cane or a rope,on the backparts... a hiscorporeal chastisements, thanthatw
hich is ordainedfor the and stateof dependencemore strict,contemptuous, humiliat
ing, the weakersex amongthe Hindoos,cannoteasily be conceived:and to consummate
stigma,to fill up as the cup of bitter watersassignedto woman,as if she deserved
to be excludedfromimmortality well as fromjustice,fromhope as well as fromenjoym
ent,it is ruledthata femalehas no businesswiththe textsof the Veda-that havingno
knowledgeof expiatory texts,and no evidenceof law, sinfulwoman to mustbe foul a
s falsehooditself,and incompetent bearwitness.To themthe fountainof wisdom is in
as of are of consolation, promised their sealed,the streams knowledge driedup;t
he springs individual and are anguish; againstwomen in the hourof desolatesorrow
and parching religion, guarded barred rewith her impoverished and of and cast ou
t, as she is, upon the wilderness bereavement affliction, of sources,herwatermay
well be spentin the bottle;and, leftas she is, will it be a matter wonderthat,
Colonial texts condemned the treatmentof women in India by identifying a scriptu
raltradition. The nationalist response was to construct a reformed tradition and
defend it on the grounds of modernity. In the process, it created the image of
a new woman who was superior to Western women, traditional Indian women and lowc
lass women. Thisnew patriarchyinvested women with the dubious honor of represent
ing a distinctively modern national culture. [Colonial discourse, nationalism, g
ender construction, cultural modernity] _mmmmmm .mmmm _m 11 mmm . .
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american ethnologist
in the momentof despair,she should embracethe burningpile and its scorchingflame
s, insteadof of and solitudeanddegradation, darkand humiliating [Massie1839, pp.
suffering sorrow? lengthening 153-1541 An effervescent sympathy for the oppress
ed is combined in this breathless prose with a total moral condemnation of a tra
dition that was seen to produce and sanctify these barbarous customs. And of cou
rse it was suttee that came to provide the most clinching example in this rhetor
ic of condemnation-"the first and most criminal of their customs," as Bentinck,
the Governor General who legislated its abolition, described it. Indeed, the pra
ctical implication of the criticism of Indian tradition was necessarily a projec
t of "civilizing" the Indian people: the entire edifice of colonialist discourse
was fundamentally constituted around this project. Of course, within the discou
rse thus constituted, there was much debate and controversy about the specific w
ays in which to carry out this project. The options ranged from proselytization
by Christianmissionaries to legislative and administrativeaction by the colonial
state to a gradual spread of enlightened Western knowledge. Underlying each opt
ion was the colonial belief that in the end Indians themselves must come to beli
eve in the unworthiness of their traditionalcustoms and embrace the new forms of
a civilized and rational social order. We need not go into the historical detai
ls of how the political strategies of this civilizing mission came to be determi
ned. What we must note is that the so-called women's question in the agenda of I
ndian social reform in the early 19th century was not so much about the specific
condition of women within a determinate set of social relations as it was about
the political encounter between a colonial state and the supposed "tradition" o
f a conquered people-a tradition that, as Lata Mani (1986, 1987) has recently sh
own in her study of the abolition of satiTdha [widow burning], was itself produc
ed by colonialist discourse. It was colonialist discourse that, by assuming the
hegemony of Brahmanical religious texts, the complete submission of all Hindus t
o the dictates of those texts, and the necessary basis of practices such as wido
w burning in the sanctions of the texts, defined the tradition that was to be cr
iticized and reformed. We will now see how Indian nationalism, in demarcating a
political position opposed to colonial rule, took up the women's question as a p
roblem already constituted for it: namely, a problem of Indian tradition.
the women's question in nationalism
I have elaborated elsewhere (Chatterjee 1986) a framework for analyzing the cont
radictory pulls on nationalist ideology in its struggle against the dominance of
colonialism and the resolution it offered to those contradictions. Briefly, thi
s resolution was built around a separation of the domain of culture into two sph
eres-the material and the spiritual. Itwas in the material sphere that the claim
s of Western civilization were the most powerful. Science, technology, rational
forms of economic organization, modern methods of statecraft-these had given the
European countries the strength to subjugate the non-European people and to imp
ose their dominance over the whole world. To overcome this domination, the colon
ized people had to learn those superior techniques of organizing material life a
nd incorporate them within their own cultures. This was one aspect of the nation
alist project of rationalizing and reformingthe traditional culture of their peo
ple. But this could not mean the imitation of the West in every aspect of life,
for then the very distinction between the West and the Eastwould vanish-the self
-identity of national culture would itself be threatened. In fact, as Indian nat
ionalists in the late 19th century argued, not only was it undesirable to imitat
e the West in anything other than the material aspects of life, it was even unne
cessary to do so, because in the spiritual domain the Eastwas superior to the We
st. What was necessary was to cultivate the material techniques of modern Wester
n civilization while retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essen
ce of the national culture. This completed the formulation of the nationalist pr
oject, and as
colonialized women: the contest in India
623
an ideological justification for the selective appropriationof Western modernity
it continues to hold sway to this day. The specific ways in which this ideologi
cal framework shaped the course of nationalist politics constitute the principal
subject matter of modern Indian historiography. For our present purposes it is
necessary only to point out that nationalism was not simply about a political st
rugglefor power: it related the question of the political independence of the na
tion to virtually every aspect of the material and spiritual life of the people.
In every case, there was a problem of selecting what to take from the West and
what to reject. And in every case, the questions were asked: is it desirable? is
it necessary? The answers to these questions were the material of the debates a
bout social reform in the 19th century. To understand the self-identity of natio
nalist ideology in concrete terms, we must look closely at how these questions w
ere answered. The discourse of nationalism shows that the material/spiritualdist
inction was condensed into an analogous, but ideologically far more powerful, di
chotomy: that between the outer and the inner. The material domain, argued natio
nalist writers, lies outside us-a mere external, which influences us, conditions
us, and to which we are forced to adjust. But ultimately it is unimportant. It
is the spiritual, which lies within, that is our true self; it is that which is
genuinely essential. It followed that as long as India took care to retain the s
piritual distinctiveness of its culture, it could make all the compromises and a
djustments necessary to adapt itself to the requirementsof a modern material wor
ld without losing its true identity. This was the key that nationalism supplied
for resolving the ticklish problems posed by issues of social reform in the 19th
century. Applying the inner/outerdistinction to the matterof concrete day-to-da
y living separates the social space into ghar and bahir, the home and the world.
The world is the external, the domain of the material; the home represents one'
s inner spiritual self, one's true identity. The world is a treacherous terrain
of the pursuit of material interests, where practical considerations reign supre
me. It is also typically the domain of the male. The home in its essence must re
main unaffected by the profane activities of the material world-and woman is its
representation. And so one gets an identification of social roles by gender to
correspond with the separation of the social space into ghar and bahir. Thusfarw
e have not obtained anything that is differentfrom the typical conception of gen
der roles in any traditional patriarchy. If we now find continuities in these so
cial attitudes in the phase of social reform in the 19th century, we are tempted
to label this, as indeed the liberal historiographyof India has done, as "conse
rvatism," a mere defense of traditional norms (for example, Murshid 1983). But t
his would be a mistake. The colonial situation, and the ideological response of
nationalism to the critique of Indian tradition, introduced an entirely new subs
tance to these terms and effected their transformation. The material/spiritualdi
chotomy, to which the terms world and home corresponded, had acquired, as we hav
e noted before, a very special significance in the nationalist mind. The world w
as where the European power had challenged the non-European peoples and, by virt
ue of its superior material culture, had subjugated them. But, the nationalists
asserted, it had failed to colonize the inner, essential, identity of the Eastwh
ich lay in its distinctive, and superior, spiritualculture. That is where the Ea
stwas undominated, sovereign, master of its own fate. For a colonized people, th
e world was a distressing constraint, forced upon it by the fact of its material
weakness. Itwas a place of oppression and daily humiliation, a place where the
norms of the colonizer had perforce to be accepted. It was also the place, as na
tionalists were soon to argue, where the battle would be waged for national inde
pendence. This required that the subjugated learn from the West the modern scien
ces and arts of the material world. Then their strengths would be matched and ul
timatelythe colonizer overthrown. But in the entire phase of the national strugg
le, the crucial need was to protect, preserve and strengthen the inner core of t
he national culture, its spiritual essence. No encroachments by the colonizer mu
st be allowed in that inner sanctum. In the
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american ethnologist
world, imitation of and adaptation to Western norms was a necessity: at home, th
ey were tantamount to annihilation of one's very identity. Once we match this ne
w meaning of the home/world dichotomy with the identification of social roles by
gender, we get the ideological framework within which nationalism answered the
women's question. It would be a grave error to see in this, as liberals are apt
to in their despair at the many marksof social conservatism in nationalist pract
ice, a total rejection of the West. Quite the contrary: the nationalist paradigm
in fact supplied an ideological principle of selection. It was not a dismissal
of modernity; the attempt was ratherto make modernity consistent with the nation
alist project.
difference as a principle of selection
It is striking how much of the literatureon women in the 19th century concerns t
he threatened Westernization of Bengali women. This theme was taken up in virtua
lly every form of written, oral and visual communication-from the ponderous essa
ys of 19th-century moralists, to novels, farces, skits and jingles, to the paint
ings of the patua. Social parody was the most popular and effective medium of th
is ideological propagation. From Iswarchandra Gupta (1812-59) and the kabiyal of
the early 19th century to the celebrated pioneers of modern Bengali theater-Mic
hael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73), Dinabandhu Mitra (1830-73), Jyotirindranath Tago
re (1849-1925), Upendranath Das (1848-95), Amritalal Bose (1853-1929)everyone pi
cked up the theme. To ridicule the idea of a Bengali woman trying to imitate the
ways of a memsaheb (and it was very much an idea, for it is hard to find histor
ical evidence that even in the most Westernized families of Calcutta in the mid-
19th century there were actually any women who even remotely resembled these gro
ss caricatures) was a sure recipe calculated to evoke raucous laughter and moral
condemnation in both male and female audiences. It was, of course, a criticism
of manners, of new items of clothing such as the blouse, the petticoat and shoes
(all, curiously, considered vulgar, although they clothed the body far better t
han the single length of sari for Bengali women, irrespective of wealth and soci
al status, untilthe middle of the 19th century), of the use of Western cosmetics
and jewelry, of the reading of novels, of needlework (considered a useless and
expensive pastime), of riding in open carriages. What made the ridicule stronger
was the constant suggestion that the Westernized woman was fond of useless luxu
ry and cared little for the well-being of the home. One can hardly miss in all t
his a criticism-reproach mixed with envy-of the wealth and luxury of the new soc
ial elite emerging around the institutions of colonial administration and trade.
This literatureof parody and satire in the firsthalf of the 19th century clearl
y contained much that was prompted by a straightforwarddefense of tradition and
outright rejection of the new. The nationalist paradigm had still not emerged in
clear outline. In hindsight, this appears as a period of great social turmoil a
nd ideological confusion among the literati-the period from Rammohun (1772-1833)
to Vidyasagar (1820-91). And then a new discourse, drawing from various sources
, began to form in the second half of the century-the discourse of nationalism.
This new approach attempted to define the social and moral principles for locati
ng the position of women in the "modern" world of the nation. Let us take as an
example one of the most clearly formulated tracts on the subject: Bhudev Mukhopa
dhyay's Paribarik prabandha [Essays on the Family] published in 1882. Bhudev (18
27-94) states the problem in his characteristic matter-of-factstyle: Becauseof o
ur hankering the externalglitterand ostentation the English for of way of life .
.. an upheavalis underway withinour homes.The men learnEnglish become sahibs.The
women do not and learnEnglish nevertheless to becomebibis.Inhouseholds but which
managean incomeof a hundred try is rupees,the women no longercook, sweep or make
the bed ... everything done by servantsand maids;[thewomen] only readbooks, sew
carpetsand play cards.Whatis the result? house and The furniture untidy,the meal
s poor,the healthof every memberof the familyis ruined;childrenare get bornweaka
nd rickety, constantly plaguedby illness-they die early.
colonialized women: the contest in India
625
are movements beingconductedtoday;the educationof women, in particular, conis Ma
nyreform talked about.Butwe rarely of thosegreatartsin whichwomenwereonce traine
d-a training hear stantly which if it hadstill been in vogue would have enabledu
s to tide overthis crisiscausedby injudicious I imitation. supposewe will neverh
earof thistraining in again.[Grhakaryer vyavastha Mukhopadhyay,
1969, p. 480].
The problem is put here in the empirical terms of a positive sociology, a genre
much favored by serious Bengali writers of Bhudev's time. But the sense of crisi
s that he expresses was very much a reality. Bhudev is voicing the feelings of l
arge sections of the newly emergent middle class of Bengal when he says that the
very institutions of home and family were threatened under the peculiar conditi
ons of colonial rule. A quite unprecedented external condition had been thrust u
pon the Bengali: they were being forced to adjust to those conditions, for which
a certain degree of imitation of alien ways was unavoidable. But could this wav
e of imitation be allowed to enter their homes? Would that not destroy their inn
er identity? Yet it was clear that a mere restatement of the old norms of family
life would not suffice; they were breaking down because of the inexorable force
of circumstance. New norms were needed, which would be more appropriateto the e
xternal conditions of the modern world and yet not a mere imitation of the West.
What were the principles by which these new norms could be constructed? Bhudev
supplies the characteristic nationalist answer. In an essay entitled "Modesty" (
Lajjasilata in Mukhopadhyay 1969, pp. 445-448), he talks of the naturaland socia
l principles which provide the basis for the feminine virtues. Modesty, or decor
um in manner and conduct, he says, is a specifically human trait; it does not ex
ist in animal nature. It is human aversion to the purely animal traitsthat gives
rise to virtues such as modesty. In this aspect, human beings seek to cultivate
in themselves, and in their civilization, spiritual or god-like qualities wholl
y opposed to forms of behavior which prevail in animal nature. Further,within th
e human species, women cultivate and cherish these god-like qualities far more t
han men. Protected to a certain extent from the purely material pursuits of secu
ring a livelihood in the external world, women express in their appearance and b
ehavior the spiritual qualities that are characteristic of civilized and refined
human society. The relevant dichotomies and analogies are all here. The materia
l/spiritualdichotomy corresponds to that between animal/god-like qualities, whic
h in turn corresponds to masculine/ feminine virtues. Bhudev then invests this i
deological form with its specifically nationalist content: at conversetogether a
ll times,eat anddrink Ina societywheremenandwomenmeettogether, together, of the
traveltogether, manners women are likelyto be somewhatcoarse,devoid of spiritual
qualities in For andrelatively prominent animaltraits. thisreason,Ido notthinkt
he customsof sucha societyare of with women,the characters freefromall defect.So
mearguethatbecauseof such close association menacquire tenderandspiritual certai
n qualities.Letme concede the point.Butcan the loss causedby of be in coarseness
and degeneration the femalecharacter compensated the acquisition a certain by in
in 1969, p. 446]. degreeof tenderness the male?['Lajjasilata' Mukhopadhyay The
point is then hammered home: whichresideswithineven the the codes discovered inn
erspirituality Thosewho laiddownourreligious and which humansmustperform, thus r
emovedthe animalqualitiesfromthose mostanimalpursuits life. actions.Thishas not
happenedin Europe. Religionthere is completelydivorcedfrom [material] of all do
theycondemn Europeans notfeel inclinedto regulate aspectsof theirlifeby the norm
s religion; it as clericalism.... Inthe Aryasystem,the wife is a goddess.Inthe E
uropean system,she is a partner in Mukhopadhyay andcompanion['LajjasTlata' 1969,
p. 447]. The new norm for organizing family life and determining the rightcondu
ct for women in the conditions of the modern world could now be deduced with eas
e. Adjustments would have to be made in the external world of material activity,
and men would bear the brunt of this task. To the extent that the family was it
self entangled in wider social relations, it, too, could not be insulated from t
he influence of changes in the outside world. Consequently, the organization and
ways of life at home would also have to be changed. But the crucial requirement
was to retain the inner spirituality of indigenous social life. The home was th
e principal site for ex-
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american ethnologist
pressing the spiritual quality of the national culture, and women must take the
main responsibility for protecting and nurturingthis quality. No matterwhat the
changes in the external conditions of life for women, they must not lose their e
ssentially spiritual (that is, feminine) virtues; they must not, in other words,
become essentially Westernized. It followed, as a simple criterion for judging
the desirability of reform, that the essential distinction between the social ro
les of men and women in terms of material and spiritual virtues must at all time
s be maintained. There would have to be a marked difference in the degree and ma
nner of Westernization of women, as distinct from men, in the modern world of th
e nation.
a geneology of the resolution
This was the central principle by which nationalism resolved the women's questio
n in terms of its own historical project. The details were not, of course, worke
d out immediately. In fact, from the middle of the 19th century right up to the
present day, there have been many controversies about the precise application of
the home/world, spiritual/material,feminine/masculine dichotomies in various ma
tters concerning the everyday life of the "modern" woman-her dress, food, manner
s, education, her role in organizing life at home, her role outside the home. Th
e concrete problems arose out of the rapidly changing situation-both external an
d internal-in which the new middle-class family found itself; the specific solut
ions were drawn from a variety of sources-a reconstructed "classical" tradition,
modernized folk forms, the utilitarian logic of bureaucratic and industrial pra
ctices, the legal idea of equality in a liberal democratic state. The content of
the resolution was neither predetermined nor unchanging, but its form had to be
consistent with the system of dichotomies that shaped and contained the nationa
list project. The new woman defined in this way was subjected to a new patriarch
y. In fact, the social order connecting the home and the world in which national
ists placed the new woman was contrasted not only with that of modern Western so
ciety; it was explicitly distinguished from the patriarchy of indigenous traditi
on, the same tradition that had been put on the dock by colonial interrogators.S
ure enough, nationalism adopted several elements from tradition as marksof its n
ative cultural identity, but this was now a "classicized" tradition-reformed, re
constructed, fortified against charges of barbarism and irrationality. Even Gand
hi said of the patriarchalrules laid down by the scriptures: it is sadto thinkth
atthe Smritis containtextswhichcan commandno respect frommenwho cherishthe of of
her liberty womanas theirown and who regard as the mother the race.... Thequest
ionarisesas to whatto do withthe Smritis containtexts... thatarerepugnant the mo
ralsense. I havealready that to ... need not be takenas the wordof God or sugges
ted thatall that is printedin the nameof scripture the inspired word [Gandhi1970
, p. 85]. The new patriarchywas also sharply distinguished from the immediate so
cial and cultural condition in which the majorityof the people lived, for the "n
ew" woman was quite the reverse of the "common"woman, who was coarse, vulgar, lo
ud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous, subjected
to brutal physical oppression by males. Alongside the parody of the Westernized
woman, this other construct is repeatedly emphasized in the literature of the 1
9th century through a host of lower-class female characters who make their appea
rance in the social milieu of the new middle class-maidservants, washing women,
barbers, peddlers, procuresses, prostitutes. It was precisely this degenerate co
ndition of women which nationalism claimed it would reform, and it was through t
hese contrasts that the new woman of nationalist ideology was accorded a status
of cultural superiorityto the Westernized women of the wealthy parvenu families
spawned by the colonial connection as well as the common women of the lower clas
ses. Attainment by her own efforts of a superior national culture was the markof
woman's newly acquired freedom. This was the central ideological strength of th
e nationalist resolution of the women's question.
colonialized women: the contest in India
627
We can follow the form of this resolution in several specific aspects in which t
he life and condition of middle-class women have changed over the last 100 years
or so. Take the case of female education, that contentious subject that engaged
so much of the attention of social reformersin the 19th century.' Some of the e
arly opposition to the opening of schools for women was backed by an appeal to t
radition, which supposedly prohibited women from being introduced to bookish lea
rning, but this argument hardly gained much support. The real threat was seen to
lie in the fact that the early schools, and arrangements for teaching women at
home, were organized by Christian missionaries; there was thus the fear of both
proselytization and the exposure of women to harmful Western influences (Laird19
72, pp. 137-139). The threat was removed when in the 1850s Indiansthemselves beg
an to open schools for girls. The spread of formal education among middle-class
women in Bengal in the second half of the 19th century was remarkable. From 95 g
irls' schools with an attendance of 2500 in 1863, the figures went up to 2238 sc
hools in 1890 with a total of more than 80,000 students (Murshid 1983, p. 43). I
nthe area of higher education, ChandramukhiBose (1860-1944) and KadambiniGanguli
(1861-1923) were celebrated as examples of what Bengali women could achieve in
formal learning: they took their B.A. degrees from the University of Calcutta in
1883, before most Britishuniversities agreed to accept women on their examinati
on rolls. Kadambini then went on to medical college and became the first profess
ionally schooled woman doctor. The development of an educative literatureand tea
ching materials in the Bengali language undoubtedly made possible the quite gene
ral acceptance of formal education among middleclass women. The long debates of
the 19th century on a proper "feminine curriculum" now seem to us somewhat quain
t, but it is not difficult to identify the real point of concern. Much of the co
ntent of the modern school education was seen as importantfor the "new" woman, b
ut to administer it in the English language was difficult in practical terms, ir
relevant because the central place of the educated woman was still at home, and
threatening because it might devalue and displace that central site where the so
cial position of women was located. The problem was resolved through the efforts
of the intelligentsia who made it a fundamental task of the national project to
create a modern language and literaturesuitable for a widening readership that
would include newly educated women. Through text books, periodicals and creative
works, an importantforce which shaped the new literatureof Bengal was the urge
to make it accessible to women who could read only one language-their mother ton
gue. Formaleducation became not only acceptable, but, in fact, a requirementfor
the new bhadramahila [respectable woman], when it was demonstrated that it was p
ossible for a woman to acquire the cultural refinements afforded by modern educa
tion without jeopardizing her place at home, that is, without becoming a memsahe
b. Indeed, the nationalist construct of the new woman derived its ideological st
rength by making the goal of cultural refinement through education a personal ch
allenge for every woman, thus opening up a domain where woman was an autonomous
subject. This explains to a large extent the remarkable degree of enthusiasm amo
ng middle-class women themselves to acquire and use for themselves the benefits
of formal learning. It was a goal that they set for themselves in their personal
lives and as the objects of their will; to achieve it was to achieve freedom.2
Indeed, the achievement was marked by claims of cultural superiority in several
different aspects: superiorityover the Western woman for whom, it was believed,
education meant only the acquisition of material skills to compete with men in t
he outside world and hence a loss of feminine (spiritual)virtues; superiority ov
er the preceding generation of women in their own homes who had been denied the
opportunity of freedom by an oppressive and degenerate social tradition; and sup
eriority over women of the lower classes who were culturally incapable of apprec
iating the virtues of freedom. It is this particularnationalist construction of
reform as a project of both emancipation and self-emancipation of women (and hen
ce a project in which both men and women must participate) that also explains wh
y the early generation of educated women themselves so keenly propagated the nat
ionalist idea of the "new woman." Recent historians of a liberal persuasion
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american ethnologist
have often been somewhat embarrassed by the profuse evidence of women writers of
the 19th century, including those at the forefront of the reform movements in m
iddle-class homes, justifying the importance of the so-called "feminine virtues.
" Radharanilahiri, for instance, wrote in 1875: Of all the subjectsthatwomen mig
htlearn,housework the mostimportant... whateverknowledge is she mayacquire,she c
annotclaimany reputation unlessshe is proficient housework[Citedin Murin shid 19
83, p. 601. Others spoke of the need for an educated woman to develop such woman
ly virtues as chastity, self-sacrifice, submission, devotion, kindness, patience
and the labors of love. The ideological point of view from which such protestat
ions of "femininity" (and hence the acceptance of a new patriarchalorder) were m
ade inevitable was given precisely by the nationalist resolution of the problem,
and Kundamala Debi, writing in 1870, expressed this well when she advised other
women: Ifyou haveacquired knowledge, real thengive no place inyourheart memsahe
b-like to behaviour. That is not becomingin a Bengalihousewife.See how an educat
edwomancan do housework thoughtfully andsystematically a way unknown an ignorant
, in to uneducated woman.Andsee how if God hadnot us a appointed to this place i
n the home, how unhappy place the worldwould be [citedin Borthwick 1984, p. 105]
. Educationthen was meant to inculcate in women the virtues-the typically bourge
ois virtues characteristicof the new social forms of "disciplining"-of orderline
ss, thrift,cleanliness, and a personal sense of responsibility, the practical sk
ills of literacy, accounting and hygiene and the ability to run the household ac
cording to the new physical and economic conditions set by the outside world. Fo
r this, she would also need to have some idea of the world outside the home into
which she could even venture as long as it did not threaten her femininity. It
is this lattercriterion, now invested with a characteristically nationalist cont
ent, which made possible the displacement of the boundaries of the home from the
physical confines earlier defined by the rules of purdah to a more flexible, bu
t culturally nonetheless determinate, domain set by the differences between soci
ally approved male and female conduct. Once the essential femininity of women wa
s fixed in terms of certain culturally visible spiritual qualities, they could g
o to schools, travel in public conveyances, watch public entertainment programs,
and in time even take up employment outside the home. But the spiritual signs o
f her feminity were now clearly marked-in her dress, her eating habits, her soci
al demeanor, her religiosity. The specific markers were obtained from diverse so
urces, and in terms of their origins each had its specific history. The dress of
the bhadramahila, for instance, went through a whole phase of experimentation b
efore what was known as the brahmika sari (a form of wearing the sari in combina
tion with blouse, petticoat and shoes made fashionable in Brahmo households) bec
ame accepted as standardfor middle-class women (see Borthwick 1984, pp. 245-256)
. Here too, the necessary differences were signified in terms of national identi
ty, social emancipation and cultural refinement-differences, that is to say, wit
h the memsaheb, with women of earlier generations and with women of the lower cl
asses. Further,in this as in other aspects of her life, the spiritualityof her c
haracter had also to be stressed in contrast with the innumerable surrenders tha
t men were having to make to the pressures of the material world. The need to ad
just to the new conditions outside the home had forced upon men a whole series o
f changes in their dress, food habits, religious observances and social relation
s. Each of these capitulations now had to be compensated by an assertion of spir
itual purityon the part of women. They must not eat, drink or smoke in the same
way as men; they must continue the observance of religious ritualswhich men were
finding difficult to carry out; they must maintain the cohesiveness of family l
ife and solidarity with the kin to which men could not now devote much attention
. The new patriarchyadvocated by nationalism conferred upon women the honor of a
new social responsibility, and by associating the task of female emancipation w
ith the historical goal of sovereign nationhood, bound them to a new, and yet en
tirely legitimate, subordination.
colonialized women: the contest in India
629
As with all hegemonic forms of exercise of dominance, this patriarchycombined co
ercive authoritywith the subtle force of persuasion. This was expressed most gen
erally in the inverted ideological form of the relation of power between the sex
es; the adulation of woman as goddess or as mother. Whatever its sources in the
classical religions of India or in medieval religious practices, it is undeniabl
e that the specific ideological form in which we know the "Indian woman" constru
ct in the modern literatureand arts of India today is wholly a product of the de
velopment of a dominant middle-class culture coeval with the era of nationalism.
It served to emphasize with all the force of mythological inspiration what had
in any case become a dominant characteristic of femininity in the new construct
of "woman" standing as a sign for "nation," namely, the spiritual qualities of s
elf-sacrifice, benevolence, devotion, religiosity, and so on. This spiritualityd
id not, as we have seen, impede the chances of the woman moving out of the physi
cal confines of the home; on the contrary, it facilitated it, making it possible
for her to go out into the world under conditions that would not threaten her f
emininity. In fact, the image of woman as goddess or mother served to erase her
sexuality in the world outside the home. There are many important implications o
f this construct. To take one example, consider an observation often made-the re
lative absence of gender discrimination in middle-class occupations in India, an
area that has been at the center of demands for women's rights in the capitalis
t West. Without denying the possibility that there are many complexities that li
e behind this rather superficial observation, it is certainly paradoxical that,
whereas middle-class employment has been an area of bitter competition between c
ultural groups distinguished by caste, religion, language, and so on, in the ent
ire period of nationalist and postcolonial politics in India, gender has never b
een an issue of public contention. Similarly, the new constitution of independen
t Indiagave women the vote without any majordebate on the question and without t
here ever having been a movement for women's suffrage at any period of nationali
st politics in India. The fact that everyone assumed that women would naturally
have the vote indicates a complete transposition of the terms in which the old p
atriarchyof tradition was constituted. One approach to the study of this problem
is suggested by our present framework: the fixing by nationalist ideology of ma
sculine/feminine qualities in terms of the material/spiritual dichotomy does not
make women who have entered professional occupations competitors to male job se
ekers, because in this construct there are no specific cultural signs that disti
nguish women from men in the material world. In fact, the distinctions that ofte
n become significant are those that operate between women in the world outside t
he home. They can markout women by their dress, eating habits (drinking/ smoking
), adherence or otherwise to religious marksof feminine status, behavior toward
men, and so on, and classify them as "Westernized," "traditional,""low-class" (o
r subtler variations on those distinctions)-all signifying a deviation from the
acceptable norm. A woman identified as "Westernized", for instance, would invite
the ascription of all that the "normal" woman (mother/sister/wife/daughter)is n
ot-brazen, avaricious, irreligious, sexually promiscuousand this not only from m
ales but also from women who see themselves as conforming to the legitimate norm
, which is precisely an indicator of the hegemonic status of the ideological con
struct.An analogous set of distinctions would markout the "low-class" or "common
" woman from the "normal." (Perhaps the most extreme object of contempt for the
nationalist is the stereotype of the Anglo-lndian-Westernized and common at the
same time.) Not surprisingly, deviation from the norm also carries with it the p
ossibility of a variety of ambiguous meaningssigns of illegitimacy become the sa
nction for behavior not permitted with those who are "normal"-and these are the
sorts of meaning exploited to the full by, for instance, the commercial media of
film, advertising and fashion. Here is one more instance of the displacement in
nationalist ideology of the construct of woman as a sex object in Western patri
archy:the nationalist male thinks of his own wife/sister/daughter as "normal" pr
ecisely because she is not a "sex object," while those who could be "sex objects
" are not "normal."
630
american ethnologist
elements of a critique of the resolution
I conclude this essay by pointing out another significant feature of the way in
which nationalism sought to resolve the women's question in accordance with its
historical project. This has to do with the one aspect of the question that was
directly political, concerning relations with the state. Nationalism, as I have
said before, located its own subjectivity in the spiritualdomain of culture, whe
re it considered itself superior to the West and hence undominated and sovereign
. It could not permit an encroachment by the colonial power in that domain. This
determined the characteristically nationalist response to proposals for effecti
ng social reform through the legislative enactments of the colonial state. Unlik
e the early reformersfrom Rammohun to Vidyasagar, nationalists of the late 19th
century were in general opposed to such proposals, for such a method of reform s
eemed to deny the ability of the nation to act for itself even in a domain where
it was sovereign. In the specific case of reformingthe lives of women, conseque
ntly, the nationalist position was firmly based on the premise that this was an
area where the nation was acting on its own, outside the purview of the guidance
and intervention of the colonial state. We can now raise and answer another que
stion that has troubled historians of social reform in India. In the early 19th
century, not only were issues of social reformthe most emotive and controversial
items in the newly emergent politics, those issues were also quite centrally co
ncerned with the position of women. Widow burning, child marriage, polygamy, rem
arriageof widows, education of women-these were the most keenly debated question
s until the middle of the century, and the matter, as we have seen, became one o
f defining an essential core of the culturaltraditionof the nation which could b
e defended against the criticism leveled by the new rationalistideology imported
from the West. With the rise of nationalist politics in the last decades of the
19th century, however, issues of social reform and the question of women are no
longer items of political debate. We can now see that this was not because the
earlier liberalism was suddenly censored out of the political agenda by a backwa
rd-looking conservatism that sought to reject modernity, nor was it because it w
as overtaken by the more emotive issues concerning political power. Rather, the
reason lies in the refusal of nationalism to make the women's question an issue
of political negotiation with the colonial state. The simple historical fact is
that the lives of middle-class women, coming from that demographic section that
effectively constituted the "nation" in late colonial India, changed most rapidl
y precisely during the period of the nationalist movement-indeed, so rapidly tha
t women from each generation in the last hundred years could say quite truthfull
ythat their lives were strikinglydifferent from those led by women of the preced
ing generation. These changes took place in the colonial period mostly outside t
he arena of political agitation, in a domain where the nation thought of itself
as already free. It was after independence, when the nation had acquired politic
al sovereignty, that it became legitimate to embody the ideas of reform in legis
lative enactments about marriage rules, property rights, suffrage, equal pay, eq
uality of opportunity, and so on. Now, of course, the women's question has once
again become a political issue in the life of the nation-state. Another problem
on which we can now obtain a clearer perspective is that of the seeming absence
of any autonomous struggle by women themselves for equality and freedom. We woul
d be mistaken to look for evidence of such struggle in the public archives of po
litical affairs, for unlike the women's movement in 19th- and 20th-century Europ
e, the battle for the new idea of womanhood in the era of nationalism was waged
in the home. We already know from the evidence left behind in autobiographies, f
amily histories, religious tracts, literature, theater, songs, paintings and suc
h other cultural artifacts,that it was the home that became the principal site o
f the struggle through which the hegemonic construct of the new nationalist patr
iarchyhad to be normalized. This is the real history of the women's question who
se terrain our genealogical investigation into the nationalist idea of "woman" h
as identified but not ex-
colonialized women: the contest in India
631
plored. The nationalist discourse we have heard so far is a discourse about wome
n; women do not speak here. It is a discourse which assigns to women a place, a
sign, an objectified value; women here are not subjects with a will and a consci
ousness. We now have to ask very different questions to allow women in recent In
dian history to speak for themselves. The location of the state in the nationali
st resolution of the women's question in the colonial period has yet another imp
lication. For sections of the middle class that felt themselves culturally exclu
ded from the formation of the nation and which then organized themselves as poli
tically distinct groups, the relative exclusion from the new nation-state would
act as a further means of displacement of the legitimate agency of reform. In th
e case of Muslims in Bengal, for instance, the formation of a middle class lagge
d, for reasons which we need not go into here. Exactlythe same sorts of ideologi
cal concerns typical of a nationalist response to issues of social reformin a co
lonial situation can be seen to operate among Muslims as well, with a difference
in chronological time (see Murshid 1983, passim). Nationalist reformsdo not, ho
wever, reach political fruition in the case of Muslims in independent India, bec
ause to the extent that the dominant cultural formation among them considers the
community excluded from the state, a new colonial relation is brought into bein
g. The system of dichotomies of inner/outer, home/ world, feminine/masculine are
once again activated. Reformswhich touch upon the inner essence of the identity
of the community can only be carried out by the community itself, not by the st
ate. It is instructive to note here how little institutional change has been all
owed in the civil life of Indian Muslims since independence and compare it with
Muslim countries where nationalist cultural reform was a part of the successful
formation of an independent nationstate. The contrast is striking if one compare
s the position of middle-class Muslim women in West Bengal today with that of ne
ighboring Bangladesh. The continuance of a distinct cultural "problem" of the mi
norities is an index of the failure of the Indian nation to effectively include
within its body the whole of the demographic mass that it claims to represent. T
he failure becomes evident when we note that the formation of a hegemonic "natio
nal culture" was necessarily built upon the privileging of an "essential traditi
on," which in turn was defined by a system of exclusions. Ideas of freedom, equa
lity and cultural refinement went hand in hand with a set of dichotomies that sy
stematically excluded from the new life of the nation the vast masses of people
whom the dominant elite would represent and lead, but who could never be cultura
lly integrated with their leaders. Both colonial rulers and their nationalist op
ponents conspired to displace in the colonial world the original structureof mea
nings associated with Western liberal notions of right, freedom, equality, and s
o on. The inaugurationof the national state in India could not mean a universali
zation of the bourgeois notion of "man." Indeed, in setting up its new patriarch
yas a hegemonic construct, nationalist discourse not only demarcated its cultura
l essence as distinct from that of the West, but also from the mass of the peopl
e. Ithas generalized itself among the new middle class, admittedly a widening cl
ass and large enough in absolute numbers to be self-reproducing, but is irreleva
ntto the large mass of subordinate classes. Our analysis of the nationalist cons
truction of woman once again shows how, in the confrontation between colonialist
and nationalist discourses, the dichotomies of spiritual/material,home/world, f
eminine/masculine, while enabling the production of a nationalist discourse that
is different from that of colonialism, nonetheless remain trapped within its fr
ameworkof false essentialisms.
notes
Monat of I havediscussedthe argument this paperin meetings Berkeley, Calcutta, A
cknowledgments. I to CruzandStanford.amgrateful all thosewho havehelpedme withth
eir Santa treal,Oxford, Pittsburgh, to I criticisms suggestions. am also gratefu
l DipeshChakrabarty, and Guha,AsokSen and Susie Ranajit at for Tharu theircommen
tson an earlierversionof this paper.Thisversionwas presented the Wenner-
632
american ethnologist
Gren Foundation symposium in Mijas, Spain: my thanks to all the participantsand
to the three anonymous readerswho read the paper for the American Ethnologist. S
ome sections of this paper form partsof a longer essay to appear in a collection
edited by Sudesh Vaid and KumkumSangari. 'See the surveys of these debates in M
urshid 1983, pp. 19-62; Borthwick 1984, pp. 60-108; Karlekar 1986. 2The large nu
mber of autobiographies of the early generation of educated middle-class women a
re infused with this spirit of achievement. For an introductoryaccount in Englis
h, see Ghosh 1986.
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submitted 8 March 1989 accepted 7 July 1989
colonialized women: the contest in India 633