Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader

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Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar
Indiana University Press, 2008 - History - 550 pages
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Social reforms aimed at changing the social, political, or economic status of women in India were important both to British colonial rule and to nascent nationalist movements. Debates over practices such as widow immolation, widow remarriage, and child marriage, as well as those governing marriage and property within different religious communities, continued to exert profound influence on Indian society and politics throughout the 20th century. In this collection, eminent historians Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar bring together some of the most important scholarly articles and primary source documents from the 19th and early 20th centuries.


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Women and Social Reform in Modern India is a two-part book that contains twenty-eight essays. The first part presents research in the field of social reform with twenty-three essays; the second part allows five texts from the period to speak. The introduction discusses the common lopsided textbook view of social reform and questions this view while pointing to work that shows another approach. Reform in the textbook view, the editors write, has always been about upper castes, women, and customs but never about lower castes, Muslims, or the limitations law places on reform.
The introduction raises many questions and emphasizes the need for more research. Some of its questions are made possible by the work that is to be found in the book while others are proposed by the editors. The introduction’s open-endedness allows readers to access the essays on their own terms. Its balanced view comes across in the following statement: “The vast majority of girls--like their male counterparts--were deprived of literacy because of dire poverty” (p. 4). I see this statement as balanced because much of the social sciences in India invariably carry an assumption that precolonial India was necessarily patriarchal, both intentionally and effectually; and ironically almost exactly patriarchal in the way the British deemed us to be, nothing more, nothing less.
The introduction, however, is not fully informative or facilitative and carries assumptions. For instance, the editors write: “We need to know ... what exactly was written about reforms in the newspapers, novels, and tracts, how the matter was performed in public theatre, how public opinion was formed, pluralized, made contradictory and fractured, swerving people away, finally, from the rule of prescriptive texts and commands that may have been diverse but which, certainly, were authoritative and compelling” (p. 2). There is a loose notion of “performance” involved here that is unexplained, and a student of social reform will be puzzled at the hinting of an idea of reality and representation that is not fully spelled out. The above sentence also subscribes to a version of social constructionism that sees the “social” as though it were an agent separate from the phenomenon talked about, but also as simply unidentifiable or too intricately connected to the phenomena. Then again, the role of prescriptive texts and commands is seen as authoritative and compelling while this role is actually seriously contested by an increasing number of scholars who wonder what exact effects and roles texts played in precolonial India. But instead of presenting this as a debate, and as a problem for history, wherein competing theories are placed alongside each other for comparison and discussion, the book simply avoids the debate. What one finds here is simply many interesting questions and then a quick resolution of what is still an ongoing debate. There is an evident apathy toward identifying scholars with different views and theories and setting up a conversation among them.
This glossing over historical debates occurs when the authors discuss women’s writing of the period. While current debates have struggled to find out if women’s writings of the social reform period can be considered agentic at all, the book simply presents them as agentic. Our debates have considered possibilities of submissiveness or coercion in these writings and have asked if the subaltern can speak, but here they are simply agentic without the struggle to know “how we can tell.” It quotes Tarabai Shinde and sees the job as done. How do we know Tarabai Shinde’s questions were not an integral part of indigenous culture? Do we know enough to say that her ideas cannot be a part of indigenous ways of thinking and being?
Unfortunately, the difference in the characterization of the nineteenth century between Tanika Sarkar’s and Partha Chatterjee’s work is not set up adequately for the student/reader to see, think, and discuss, despite the fact that the difference is acknowledged in some


Whose Sati? Widow Burning in EarlyNineteenthCentury India
Production of an Official Discourse on Sati in EarlyNineteenth
Education for Women
The Hindu Widows
Caste WidowRemarriage and the Reform of Popular Culture
Vidyasagar and Brahmanical Society
Women in Colonial Haryana
A Study of Five Urdu Books Written in Response
Womens Rights in Islam
The Movement for Womens Reform
Womens Question in the Dravidian Movement c 19251948
Changing Conceptions of Matrilineal Kinship
Women and Gender in the Study of Tribes in India
The Second Womens War and the Emergence of Democratic

Silencing Heresy
The Daughters of Aryavarta
Viresalingam and the Ideology of Social Change in Andhra
Resisting Colonial Reason
Indian Womens
Punjab and the NorthWest
Muslim Women and the Control of Property in North India
A Victory of Symbol over
Tracts against Sati
The Woeful Plight of Hindu Women
From Stripurusha Tulana
From Miscellaneous Writings
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About the author (2008)

Sumit Sarkar is Retired Professor of History at the University of Delhi. His books include Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History (IUP, 2002) and Writing Social History.

Tanika Sarkar is Professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is author of Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism (IUP, 2001) and co-editor of Women and Right-Wing Movements.

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