Purity & Communal Boundaries: Women & Social Change in a Bangladeshi Village // Review

By Rozario, Santi | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall/Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Purity & Communal Boundaries: Women & Social Change in a Bangladeshi Village // Review


Rozario, Santi, Resources for Feminist Research


As feminists attempt to integrate race, ethnicity and religion into their understanding of how gender is constructed and experienced, one of the most difficult tasks has been in understanding the relationship between gender oppression and the politics of marginalized groups or communities. In 1985, at the Nairobi Conference for the United Nations Decade for Women, Third World feminists raised the importance of anti - racist political struggles for women in the Third World. In particular, Palestinian women and South African women asked how they could press for gender equality amid racial discrimination. Similarly in Canada, Britain and the United States, women of colour have struggled with the difficulties in raising issues of family violence in their communities in the context of the racist imagery of men of colour.

Underlying the dilemma for women in marginalized communities is the tension between competing goals. On the one hand, women in these communities suffer the consequences of economic, political and social marginality faced by all members of their communities, and thus are integrally linked to any struggle which challenges such marginalization. On the other hand, women in these communities face daily forms of gender oppression in their private, political and work lives, and often find that these issues are excluded from ethnic movements.

For decades feminists in minority communities have struggled with ways in which to resolve the dilemmas posed by such tensions. For the most part, they have analyzed the kinds of roles women play in ethnic struggles and the potentiality of these movements for gender equality. Often overlooked in this debate, however, is that ethnic and communal movements may themselves promote particular kinds of gender ideologies and oppression. The two books that are reviewed here make an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between ethnic movements and gender oppression as they both investigate the ways in which communal movements in South Asia have shaped the character of gender roles and ideologies. Moreover, these two books are extremely timely as the recent wave of ethnic and religious mobilization in South Asia as well as many other areas of the world, which often are associated with repressive gender practices, has placed a new urgency to understanding the relationship between communal mobilization andgender equality.

In this light the reader can appreciate the contributions of Shahida Lateef's Muslim Women In India: Political And Private Realities and Santi Rozario's Purity And Communal Boundaries: Women And Social Change In A Bangladeshi Village. The authors of these books both set out to examine the influence of social and economic marginalization on the ways in which gender relations and ideologies have been constructed in "minority" South Asian communities. Lateef focusses on Muslim communities in India, while Rozario examines Christian villagers in Bangladesh. In their investigations into the experience of marginalization, both writers identify the use of religion to construct a group identity as raising significant implications for how gender relations are experienced by women in these communities. Although the two books differ in many respects, both analyses demonstrate that in these communities gender ideologies and relations play a central role in maintaining group boundaries, especially as symbols of difference and identity. Taken together both books begin to provide key pieces to the picture of how communalism has shaped gender relations, ideologies and practices in South Asia.

In Muslim Women In India: Political And Private Realities, Shahida Lateef seeks to explore gender relations in Muslim communities in India. Her central thesis is that the status and role of women in Muslim communities has been shaped by the community's perception of themselves as a minority. In this context, she argues that for Muslim Indians religious customs and traditions, such as Muslim Personal Law, have come to serve as symbols of community unity. …

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