Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India

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Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India. By Eliza F. Kent. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xii + 322 pp. $49.95 (cloth).

At a time when Hindu nationalism has erupted into violence against Christian missionaries, converts, and others considered "un-Indian," Eliza F. Kent's Converting Women provides a particularly enlightening historiography of the complexities of Indian conversion to Christianity. Hers is an analysis particularly interested in agency-namely, the manner in which Hindus of nineteenth and early twentieth century South India participated as agents in their own conversion, not merely as passive recipients or victims of colonialism. In Kent's telling, Protestant Christianity rarely rolled like a tank down a one-way street. Rather, it interacted multi-directionally with various specific modes of "Indian-ness," as Indians-as well as Americans and Europeans who arrived on Indian shores to proselytize-sought new identities, opportunities, and channels of authority through which they attempted to forward their lot.

Kent's focus is women on both sides of the conversion equation. She investigates the experiences of British and American female missionaries as well as of Indian female converts to argue, quite convincingly, that "a 'discourse of respectability' among the Christian communities in the south of the Madras Presidency during the British Raj . . . radically transformed the style of femininity to which Indian Christian women were expected to conform" (p. 4). Most notably, she underscores that this discourse evolved out of a dialogue, albeit an often tense one, between indigenous and imported realms.

Her book is divided into two parts. The first, "Caste, Christianity and Conversion," lays the groundwork for the second, "The Conversion of Gender," by presenting the social, religious, ideological, and historical background of south Indian, Tamil-speaking converts and of the missionaries who converted them to Christianity. Chapter 1 begins "at the beginning" of Protestant Christianity in south India-with the Lutheran mission that arrived in Tranquebar in 1706 under the protection of the Danish East India Company and, later, King George of England. It goes on to review the mass conversions of low-caste Tamils that followed the Lutherans' arrival, and the British colonial administration's attempt to regulate sexuality through such tools as advice manuals for British East India Company workers wanting to maintain Indian mistresses.

Chapter 2 provides more detailed descriptions of the lives of low-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity en masse. Kent critically examines colonial administrators' and Protestant missionaries' accounts of these "natives," written in an attempt to understand and then to rule India through indigenous institutions. She juxtaposes these colonial accounts-which fueled the creation of rigid census categories and legislation that relied on them-to the "back-talk" of caste representatives who sought to counter false representations with their own mythic stories of origin. Seizing the chance to improve their castes "untouchable" social status, toddy-tapping Shanars claimed they were members of the once-noble Kshatriya class of Nadars, fallen from a lineage of kings. In so doing, they appropriated colonial misunderstandings of the varna system described in Sanskrit texts and re-deployed them in the creation of a new, respectable identity. As far as women's improved caste status and daily freedoms were concerned, however, higher did not always mean better-and the question of "whether the urge to create and inhabit more respectable identities . . . entailed more oppressive forms of gender relations" (p. 78) is one to which Kent later turns. …