Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

The Case of the "Unchaste" Widow: Constructing Gender in 19th-Century Bengal (Kery Kolitany V Moniram Kolita Case)

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

The Case of the "Unchaste" Widow: Constructing Gender in 19th-Century Bengal (Kery Kolitany V Moniram Kolita Case)

Article excerpt

In this article I focus, through the medium of a legal case, on how women were at the intersections of contested space in a colonial situation of domination and subordination. Their female - ness and sexuality were elements that were debated and constructed by men, both colonizers and colonized, to fit their varied needs. I shall also dwell in a more limited way on a concern related to such work, namely that women were regarded as objects and portrayed either as victims or passive beings in processes of male agency.

Recent historical writing on women in India has focussed on the legacies of colonialism and nationalism, particularly their constructions of women with respect to tradition, as well as female sexuality.(f.2) For example, it has been demonstrated that the creation of an idyllic "golden age" for women in the Vedic era (c. 1500 - 600 BC) was a response by Indian men to the colonial critique of the subordinate status of Indian women (ironically derived from the Orientalist work of Europeans of the late 18th century on).(f.3)

The nationalist handling of "the woman question" has also received vigorous scrutiny in the new historical writing. The women's question had been the focal point of very controversial reform debates for most of the nineteenth century in Bengal. However, it disappeared as a result of a "resolution" of sorts when the middle - classes which had fuelled and fanned these debates appeared to accept dichotomized lifestyle distinctions, i.e., home/world, spiritual/material, feminine/masculine. While these opposites afforded recognition for difference with equality, in reality they worked to strengthen traditional gender divisions to the disadvantage of women. Thus, in essence what occurred was the promotion and preservation of separate spheres.(f.4)

It is now indisputable that gender issues were intrinsic to the colonizing process and concomitantly indigenous constructions of gender in colonized countries changed under colonialism. Unsurprisingly, therefore, when Indian nationalists challenged colonialism, they were of necessity forced to address gender questions(f.5) in various phases of the movement. However, their articulations in this area tended to reinforce patriarchal traditions, as was all too apparent for example, in the social reform movement in Bengal in the nineteenth century. The tendencies here illustrated quite clearly how for male reformers, femaleness emanated from the fulfilment of traditional roles of wife and mother within social systems under male control.(f.6)

Unsurprisingly, all the major players in these constructions of women were male. Women were debated, discussed, acted on and constructed by men with very little input from women themselves. Colonialism stripped the economy and altered social structures. The resultant adjustments by colonized males had an impact on women to the extent that among the elites, a certain type of reform activity was embarked on and the circumscribed autonomy of many women, both among the elite and popular classes was further curbed, denigrated and made socially unacceptable.(f.7) The reforms had focussed on education and "improvement" of women to enable them to become more suitable companions and partners for husbands whose expectations of the conjugal relationship were changing. Self - perceptions and gender relations among other sections of Hindu society were also evolving partly in response to colonial interventions.

Situated in a colonial situation, Indian women were subjected to Indian men's efforts on their behalf. What was women's agency in this context? What role did women play in influencing their own lives? We have extensive and growing studies on the bhadramahila(f.8) in colonial Bengal.(f.9) Some women from these elite sections of society did experience changes that altered the course of their lives and caused them to become active agents on their own behalf. However, the majority of their sisters remain anonymous and we know very little about their consciousness or their efforts to make changes in their lives. …

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