Forging Identities: Gender, Communities, and the State

By Zoya Hasan | Go to book overview

Reading and Writing about Muslim
Women in British India

Barbara D. Metcalf

Many Indian writers and activists in nineteenth century British India made the subject of women a central topic in their programmes of cultural reform and redefinition, expressing this concern, above all, through the newly available medium of print. Hence the story of reformist movements related to women is, in a fundamental sense, a story of the writing and circulation of vernacular pamphlets and books. The network of those who shared reading materials comes to constitute distinctive groups, defined in part by the very act of what they read. This process was true for all kinds of groups, but was particularly striking in the case of women among whom many, for example, did not go to public meetings or schools. The emphasis on reading also suggests the extent to which these were primarily movements of elites.

Why did issues related to women become so important? Recently scholars have insisted that the emphasis on women cannot be explained simply as the old colonial historical narrative would suggest. That story goes like this: the British came; they recognised the depravity of purdah, widow burning, child marriage and female infanticide; sensible Indians immediately recognized a superior culture when they saw one, and, thanks to British tutelage, they began the "regeneration" their society needed. Historians like Lata Mani, looking closely at the key issue of sati among Hindus in Bengal—where the colonial narrative was primarily forged—have convincingly demonstrated that the British used certain customs (including sati which involved only the tiniest fraction of the population) as the site to at once legitimise their rule and also to identify an Indian "tradition" that was in fact of limited provenance and importance. 1

An emphasis on issues related to women established, at least

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