ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Processes That Rendered Muslim Women Invisible

Women Invisible Women Invisible Processes That Rendered Muslim

july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly30book reviewProcesses That Rendered Muslim Women InvisibleRochona MajumdarVisible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengalby Mahua Sarkar(Durham: Duke University Press), 2008; pp 352, $ 23.95 (paperback). In their 2004 book entitledUnequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India, Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon re-marked on the irony of the fact that while there is no dearth of interest in “Muslim women” in post-colonial India, most studies are so mired in certain preconceived notions about that community as to render their subjects “invisible”.1 Most scholarly endeavours, they argue, are either focused overwhelmingly on the workings of Muslim personal law and its impact on women, or fail to recognise that the category Muslim woman is not monolithic. Mahua Sarkar’s Visible Histories Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal takes the charge levelled by Hasan and Menon seriously as it at-tempts to analyse the processes by which Muslim women “disappeared” from colo-nial and nationalist discourse in India. “Disappearance” refers to the processes by which, despite their being active in the colonial public sphere in different ways, Muslim women are rendered by colonial and nationalist prose into static stereotypes of a backward, depraved, minority commu-nity or are ignored altogether. There is no historical acknowledgement of the diver-sity characteristic of the lives of these women. The actual, lived presence of these women becomes invisible. Sarkar takes Bengali Muslim women during the turn of the 20th century as a case to study this process of disappearance.Her project in this work is to first delin-eate the “discursive mechanisms” at work in “contexts of large-scale social change” that created the stereotype of the Bengali Muslim woman.2 This was a figure of back-wardness, lack, and abjectness. Second, Sarkar queries the impact of such “invisi-bility/victim image” on the understand-ings of a normative, post-colonial, Indian citizen-subject. The third purpose of the book is to map the ways in which Muslim women – through both acceptance and rejection – responded to these stereotypes. And finally, she offers some reflections “on the ways in which taking Muslim women and their work into account affects how the past is thought of and written about in post-colonial India”.3 ‘Writing Difference’ The aforementioned factors are explored in the four chapters of Visible Histories. In addition, the book offers a critical Intro-duction, “Writing Difference”, and a thoughtful conclusion. In the Introduc-tion, Sarkar notes that from the third quarter of the 19th century, a small but highly articulate Bengali Muslim intelli-gentsia – comprising both men and a few women – was making its presence felt in the public sphere. This presence broad-ened by the first quarter of the 20th cen-tury to include a substantial number of female Muslim writers who contributed regularly to a burgeoning world of Mus-lim literary production. Interestingly, many of these women also contributed to periodicals run by Hindus. It is surpris-ing therefore that there is hardly a men-tion of the works and achievements of these Muslim women in Indian nationa-list or post-colonial historiography, with the exception of one or two particularly celebrated authors like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein and Sufia Kamal. “The recorded history of women in pre-partition Bengal”, argues Sarkar, “continues to be over-whelmingly a narrative of reformist ex-periments of a small minority of Hindu/Brahmo women, who actively participated in the modernising projects of the new ‘liberal’ elite.”4 The same tendency, she notes, marks the works by feminist histo-rians, some of whom have actually rea-soned their choice by noting that Muslim women deserve “a separate study” (Meredith Borthwick) or that “the Muslim gender system differed significantly from the Hindu” (Dagmar Engels).5 These stances bespeak for Sarkar an “assumption...that Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent have separate histories that can be, indeed need to be, recorded as discrete, largely self-referential accounts.”6 Sarkar’s effort to see Hindu and Muslim histories in Bengal as intricately linked is indeed laudable and her critique of much existing historiography being focused on Hindu women is true. Nonetheless, works by scholars like Tanika Sarkar, Mrinalini Sinha, Sonia Nishat Amin, to name just a few notable examples, demonstrate that even if the explicit archival focus of these studies has been on one of the communi-ties in question, they also seriously factor in the presence of the other community in drawing their conclusions about the development of Hindu or Muslim identi-ties.7 That said, however, Mahua Sarkar’s project of “materialising a series of dis-cursive sites or contexts” where Bengali Muslim women “appear and disappear in particular ways” marks indeed a wel-come and important intervention in post-colonial Indian historiography.8 Making InvisibleThe first chapter of the book, “Colonial Casts” offers an argument about disap-pearance of women, and Muslim women in particular, as a general feature of coloni-al histories. Drawing upon some colonial accounts, the works of historians, popular writers in Bengali like Sripantha, scholar-ship on other imperial sites by scholars like Ann Stoler, and art historical readings of company era paintings by TapatiGuha-Thakurta and Ratnabali Chattopadhyay, Sarkar discusses how colonial com-panionships between Englishmen and native women in late 18th century Indiapro-vide us with examples of her thesis of “disappearance”. These relationships, aswe know from works by Ghosh, Dalrymple,
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 2831and I Chatterjee, ranged from marriage, concubinage, to forms of household slav-ery. Yet, archival records often neglect to mention these native female companions by their proper names. The first task fac-ing the historian is often that of recon-structing, painstakingly, the history of co-lonial relationships from other archival traces – wills, birth, baptism, and death records, and visual evidence such as paint-ings, letters, and so on. Sarkar reads the aforementioned re-search to draw out a continuum between the late 18th century elision of women’s presence in colonial accounts and the ren-dering invisible of Bengali Muslim women from late-colonial, nationalist, and post-colonial narratives. Her project therefore is not so much about the retrieval of his-torical record. She writes, the marginalisation, if not disappearance, of colonial companions – many of whom were Muslim and hence of particular interest to the current project – within the existing his-toriography of colonial India should not be treated as an oversight that simply awaits correction but as symptomatic of a tendency to present sexual relationships as epiphe-nomenal to (colonial) history, ... that system-atically devalues the sexual and domestic labour of native women and the significance of these relationships as constitutive of the social fabric of colonial India.9 To the extent that Europeans spoke atall about Indian women in the 18th century they were depicted as “housekeepers, serv-ants, companions, ...common law wives, or bibis”. The 19th century witnessed a trans-formation in colonialmodes of acknow-ledgement of the presence of native women in their private lives. These later day accounts talked about Indianwomen as victimised or debased by the barbarity of a masculinist, Indian culture. This shift was necessitated in order to justify the paternalist role of the colonial state. These insights lead to the second chapter where Sarkar discusses how the Bengali Hindu intelligentsia appropriated certain features of colonial descriptions about the Indian people and rejected others. While Bengali Hindu men and women inter-nalised colonial stereotypes about Muslims as depraved, foreign, backward, and de-based, they ignored depictions of Hindu women by the English as sensuous and seductive. Through an analysis of articles from Bengali periodicals and newspa-pers, Sarkar demonstrates how the Indian (Hindu) woman as an epitome of chastity, maternal love, and purity came to be fore-grounded by male and female Hindu/Brahmo writers spurred by nationalist im-pulses. This vision provided the normative ideal of the future Indian citizen subject. It privileged an essentially Hindu male pro-jection of an ideal type onto Hindu women while marginalising the figure of (even the literate) Muslim woman. Countering these representations, chap-ter three entitled “Negotiating Modernity” offers an overview of writings by middle class Muslim men and women which ap-peared in journals run by Muslim editors such asSaogat, Naoroz, Shikha, Al-Eslam, Bangiya MusalmanSahitya Patrika as well as in some run by Hindus, such asBama-bodhini Patrika, Mahila, and Antahpur. These writings display a multiplicity of views about Muslim identity in early 20th century Bengal that according to Sarkar “rarely enter into normative historical ac-counts of colonial Bengal produced in post-independence India, which privilege the story of the Partition and hence, im-plicitly reinforce popular notions of the Muslim as “separatist” and “conservative”.10 It is not entirely clear to me which post- independence historians Sarkar is refer-encing here. But in light of books such as Bengal Divided (1994), or Carving Blocs (1999) to take two examples from the 1990s (both of which she cites in different contexts), it would appear that Sarkar is painting all critical academic production with the same brush.11 While Sarkar’s originality lies in focusing attention on Muslim women, it would be inaccurate to argue that there are no critical historical works in post-independence India, or Bengal that analyse the pernicious impact of Hindu communalism and critically query colonial or nationalist accounts that portray Muslims as demonic. Rendered Marginal In the last chapter, “Difference in Memory,” Sarkar examines carefully – and in much depth – oral testimonies she collected over interviews with eight Muslim and seven Hindu women. This probably is the book’s most powerful section. Her analysis of these conversations demonstrates her self-reflexivity as a sociologist, and her close and attentive reading of women’s narratives in an effort to draw out the im-plications of that which remained un-spoken or was rapidly glossed over is laudable. Notable particularly is Sarkar’s account of a minor but charged difference of opinion that occurred when Jahan Ara (b 1939) invited Sarkar and several of her Hindu female friends over to her house in Park Circus. Likewise, her reading of the ways in which Jahan Ara, Nusrat Begum, or Mumtaz Waheeda spoke about their memories of being Muslim in pre-and post-Partition Calcutta and Dhaka, respec-tively, bring out the extreme disappoint-ment, sadness, and anger that were con-stitutive of the feeling of being rendered into a marginal population. The three themes that organise this chapter are: Muslim women’s reactions to their community being stereotyped as for-eigners and traitors; as retrograde and backward in comparison to their Hindu brethren; and Bengali Muslims depicted as low caste-converts from Hinduism. Space does not permit me to go into the details of each of these conversations. But, Sarkar’s analysis of these oral histories demonstrates, on the one hand, how over-whelmingly the stories narrated by indi-vidual women are “framed by the larger stories of the nation, the conflict between Muslims and Hindus, and/or a narrative of progress, presumably towards an al-ready defined goal of modernity.”12 On the other hand, the details which emerge over the course of these conversations – about Calcutta neighbourhoods and neighbour-liness, about mothers, grandmothers, and other women from previous generations, her interviewees’ experiences of being the first Muslim girl in school – prove Sarkar’s contention about the invisibility of Muslim women in historical narratives of the EPW AddressLetters, articles, and subscription cheques continue to be sent to EPW at its former address at Hitkari House, Mumbai.To minimise non-delivery, all communication should be addressed to:Economic and Political Weekly320-321 A to Z Industrial EstateGanpat Rao Kadam MargLower Parel, Mumabi 400 013Phone: 022-40638282
BOOK REVIEWjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32nation state. Taken together, the oral accounts eloquently testify to these women’s desire to present themselves against the backdrop of an unfolding national history. As well they draw attention to the inadequacy of that history to fully represent these women’s everyday lived experiences. Sarkar’s aim is not simply to understand the processes or contexts in which such marginalisation occurred. It also has to do with establishing a “linkage” between these earlier discourses and present day social inequality and injustice. In the con-clusion to Visible Histories, she turns to two moments from contemporary Indian politics – the Shah Bano case and the atrocities against Muslim women during the 2002 riots in Gujarat – to elaborate on this point. The Hindu right, Indian femi-nist groups, the Supreme Court of India, and the Muslim personal law board were all variously involved in the process of ad-judicating whether or not an elderly Mus-lim lady, Shah Bano, could claim alimony from her husband of 40 years. The long and public controversy that ensued, argues Sarkar, brings to light “the inadequacy of the set of choices available to her (Shah Bano), choices that pit her location as a woman against her identification as a Muslim in contemporary India or, worse yet, bring the two together in the compos-ite figures of the hapless victim.” This proc-ess she concludes “has been consistently the case since the late 19th century”.13 Like-wise, the Gujarat violence draws attention to “the liminality of certain women vis-à-vis the state and the law” and shows them as both minor and dispensable figures in debates on Indian citizenship.14 No Community Is Monolithic Sarkar writes from the standpoint of a post-colonial feminist scholar seeking a link between present-day practices of discrimination against Muslim women with the trajectory of Muslim women’s lives in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. This scholarly subject position contributes to her book’s strength and perhaps to its shortcomings as well. In her impassioned commitment to understand the processes that rendered Muslim women invisible, Sarkar ends up present-ing a homogeneous picture of the group that throughout the book she refers to as the Hindu/Brahmo middle classes. This group emerges from her account as one unified by their hatred and condescension towards Muslims, irrespective of their economic and social location, gender, and caste differences. On what historical grounds can we attribute this manner of unity to Bengali Hindus and Brahmos when part of what drives Sarkar’s critique is the assumption (and one that I entirely agree with) that no community is monolithic? Indeed, looking back to the colonial period one finds evidence of Brahmos like Debendranath Tagore (and Rammohun Roy before him) who were learned in Farsi; Girish Chandra Sen (Bhai Girish) who completed the first Bengali transla-tion of the Quran; Rabindranath Tagore who was deeply critical of certain swadeshi attitudes towards the Muslim Bengali peasantry; or even a saintly figure like Ramakrishna who carried out various mystical experiments involving Tantric and Islamic rites. This is not to say that Hindus and Brahmos did not display bigotry. But just as the figure of the Muslim woman disappeared from academic studies that viewed them as a homoge-neous, monolithic community, the political passion motivating this study runs the risk of producing the same effect on Hindus and Brahmos. Indeed it prevents an appreciation of figures like Dvijendralal Ray, noted playwright and author, who wrote plays like Jahanara which revolves around the pain experienced by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan when he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. Incidentally, Jahanara was Aurangzeb’s oldersisterand not his daughter as Sarkar writes.15Sarkar’s project could have been further nuanced if she had widened the scope of her analysis to include works of fiction which are teeming with issues such as romantic love (in some instances between an unmarried girl and a married man as in Akhtar Mahal’sNiyantrita), the “new woman”, and other issues of the day. Many of these were, in fact, first serialised in the journals that are part of Sarkar’s archives.16 In other words, Sarkar’s post-colonial stance – in this case implying a position where the scholar reads the past through the lens of the present – overdetermines her analysis of the past. It leaves unclear the nature of the overlap she posits be-tween accounts on “colonial companions” and her own subject of study, the Bengali Muslim woman from the turn of the 20th century. It also imputes to a large number of Hindu men and women the same feel-ings of vengefulness and disdain towards their Muslim counterparts without fully establishing the claim. And finally, it forgoes a closer look at Bengali Muslim women’s varied literary production during the said period. At the same time, the book’s strength and contribution is evident in its passionate and bold attempt to begin the process of contextualising the present by returning to a comparatively under- researched aspect of the past. Email: rochonam@yahoo.comNotes1 Ritu Menon and Zoya Hasan, cited in Mahua Sarkar, Visible Histories Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal(Durham: Duke University Press), 2008, p 198. 2 Ibid: p 196. 3 Ibid: p 197. 4 Ibid: p 4. 5 Ibid: p 5. 6 Ibid. 7 Thus T Sarkar’s account of revivalist Hindu nation-alism in the late 19th century has as its referents both the British rulers and the Bengali Muslim; Amin’s work on the Muslim bhadramahila between 1876 and 1939 is in active conversation with the histories of their Hindu counterparts; and Sinha’s analysis of colonial masculinity charts conceptions of Bengali manhood within an expansive “imperial social formation” that includes the British, Anglo-Indians, Muslims, and Hindus. The choice of con-ducting research on a community need not always reflect a prejudice on the historian’s part. 8 Ibid: p 20. 9 Ibid: p 29.10 Ibid: p 25.11 JoyaChatterji,Bengal Divided: Hindu Communal-ism and Partition, 1932-1947 (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press), 1994; P K Datta,Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth Century Bengal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1999.12 Sarkar: p 195.13 Ibid: p 202.14 Ibid: p 203.15 Ibid: p 73.16 The only fiction she mentions briefly is by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein.Subscription NumbersSubscribers are requested to note their S ubscription Numbers mentioned on the wrappers and quote these numbers when corresponding with the circulation department.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top