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Nationalist resolution of women’s question.

Gender has been a central issue in India. ‘Women’s question’ arose from the 19 th
ce social reform movement and was a central issue in some of the most
controversial debates in 19th ce Bengal. One prominent gender concern was status
that accrued to women on India’s journey to self-determination, democracy,
modernity, development. The state- both colonial state and independent state
has a dual and paradoxical attitude towards the women’s question. An early
report states status/position of women in India had declined, not improved since
1911. This was a period of vociferous discussion about things like sati, widow
remarriage, female education and the question of women’s emancipation in
general from both men and women activists and thinkers.
Between 1820s and 50s reformers who favored a wider program of female
emancipations set up organizations like Brahmo Samaj in east India, Prarthana
Samaj in West , Arya Samaj in North and Theosophical in South India. Women
were drawn into public spheres eventually into political participation,
employment etc.
Partha Chatterjee questions the idea of whether the women’s questions were
resolved but counters that people today think they are far from resolved. He also
ponders on the idea the relation between nationalist ideology and women’s
question became problematic. Ghulam Murshid states the problems in a
straightforward form that 19thce due to western ideologies reaching Indian minds
led to raise of women’s question but later nationalist attitude became
conservative and started rejecting modernization. ‘Modernization’ of women’s
positions was popular at first. However, new politics of nationalism quickly
hardened against any attempt to alter ‘India’s glorified past’. Modernization thus
stalled by nationalist politics. Partha Chatterjee criticizes this argument that
Murshid assumes modernization only happened because of western ideologies.
He criticizes his, saying his assumptions of history rely on progressive ideas being
imported from Europe. He also says this is similar to Neo-Imperialist argument
who argue that Indian Nationalism was nothing but a scramble for sharing
political power with colonial rulers. According to Sumit Sarkar, we must look
outside traditional concepts of modernization. Chatterjee goes to lay out that
nationalism had in fact resolved the women’s question in complete accordance
with its preferred goals.
As per D. Chakrabarty Women, Modernity and Nation became essential and
inseparable elements in the civilization. The women’s question not only came to
dominate public, it also became the touchstone of colonial-nationalist encounter.
Chatterjee bring up nationalist ideology in its struggle against the dominance of
colonialism and the ‘resolution’ it offered to these contradictions and brings up
the idea of division in culture between East and West on two basis-material and
spiritual. Material world took over the colonizers, modern sciences, technology,
modern methods etc. To overcome domination colonized people must learn
these techniques and incorporate them within their own culture. In Spiritual
domain east was superior to west. This was the key which nationalism supplied
for resolving the ticklish problems posed by issues of social reform in 19 th ce. He
then applies the idea of material being external world and spiritual being inner
which got embedded into the bahir and ghar ideology and bahir is a treacherous
material place, domain of man and ghar, being home and domain of women has
to be preserved. Home/world dichotomy with identification of social roles by
gender, we get ideological framework within which nationalism answered the
women’s question. Chatterjee applies women’s question to his existing
framework: Material Spiritual

World Home

Baihr Ghar
Outer Inner

Male Female

In the 19thce literature on women was concerned with the theme of threatened
westernization of Bengali women. Which led to ridicule western women how they
were influenced and lived in material world and discouraged western methods
and westernization of women. Latter half of 19thce men took title of sahib it
became necessary to look at women’s position in modern society. Bhudev
Mukhopdhyay’s Parbarik Prabandhan talks about how women should preserve
their homes and not depend on household workers but he talks about how
women are losing training of household. Chatterjee points out that Mukhpodhyay
seems to addressing problems of how women’s education did not entail training.
The new women began to speak in 1880s, questioning elements of their
subordination. Chatterjee talks about emergence of modern “new” women who
became part of new patriarchal society. They were often depicted as loud, vulgar,
devoid of moral sense, quarrelsome etc and were more active. Attainment by her
own efforts was the marks of woman’s newly acquired freedom. This was the
central principle and ideological strength of nationalist resolution of women’s
question in terms of its own historical project. The idea of female education was
only seen in terms of preservation of spiritual culture, they were taught at home
arranged by Christin missionaries. Later opened schools for girls and spread of
formal education among middle class women in Bengal in mid19th ce was
remarkable. Formal education became not only acceptable also requirement for
new bhadramahila. Idea of feminine virtues changed too it became visible traits-
dress, talk, eat and behave. Women still had to practice religious texts, follow the
concept of spirituality in modern way. ‘New Women’ would share sensibilities of
men in the family and be able to sustain their new class roles.
Partha also states that the problem lies with the idea that women’s question
wasn’t made a part of political question with the colonial state as the idea of
women’s life in existing state was one of a preserver, they were expected to
continue that role in beginning of the new era of India and expected to remain of
the same role. Female emancipation disappear from public agenda of nationalist
agitation in late 19th ce because nationalism refused to make the women’s
question an issue in political negotiation with colonial state.

- Chaterjee, Partha; Nationalist Resolution to Women’s Question.
- Sen, Samita; ‘Towards a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women’s Movement
in Historical Perspective’.