Interpreting the Relation between Women’s Movement and Nationalist Movement1


Demonstrate the complexity and ambiguity of women’s issue



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Demonstrate the complexity and ambiguity of women’s issue

Some keen historians such as Partha Chatterjee, Tanika Sarkar, Mrinalini Sinha etc., neither participate the debates between nationalist and feminist, nor shift their studies to women’s agency. They explore the interconnection of gender, race, class/caste, nation, or sexuality by digging deep into the past, marshaled concrete evidence to lend respectability to their positions. Their studies help us go beyond the reductive chokes offered in political critiques concerned only with colonialism and nationalism or feminism and nationalism, and demonstrate the complexity of the relation. Unlike the former studies, their studies start from some concrete historical events, rather than certain assumption. A more meaningful way of locating relation of feminism and nationalism is offered in their studies.


Partha Chatterjee started his search within the nationalist ideology itself. He attempt to tell the inner logic of nationalism and women’s question, by looking more closely at the way in which women’s questions were answered. He argued that the relative unimportance of the women’s question in the last decades of the nineteenth century is not the result of it was overshadowed by more priority task, in fact, nationalism had resolved the women’s question in com­plete accordance with its preferred goals.30 According to Chatterjee, nationalist resolution was built around a separation of the domain of culture into two spheres —an “outer” or “material” realm, where it acknowledged the superiority of Euro­pean institutions, and an “inner” or “spiritual” realm, where the autonomy and the true identity of the nation resided. Nationalism, located its own subjectivity in the spiritual domain of culture, where it considered itself superior to the West and hence undominated and sovereign. It could not permit an encroachment by the colonial power into that domain. Women were symbolically identified with the “inner” realm as the essence of the nation and where nationalists claimed autonomy from colonial intervention. Chatterjee demonstrate that “in the entire phase of the national struggle, the crucial need was to protect, preserve and strengthen the inner core of the national culture, its spiritual essence. No encroachments by the colonizer must be allowed in that inner sanctum. In the world, imitation of and adaptation to western norms was a necessity; at home, they were tantamount to annihilation of one’s very identity.”31 Unlike the early reformers, the reform of women’s position was no longer left as a subject of debate with colonial rulers. Instead, the discourse of cultural nationalism now claimed “autonomy” over the women's question and consigned the agency for reforms for women to the internal self-regulation of the community. As Chatterjee argues, nationalism advocated a “New patriarchy” that “conferred women the honor” of new social responsibilities, while binding “them to a new, and yet----legitimate, subordination”.32 Various scholars have demonstrated that independence movement ended up inventing new ideologies of male dominance that identify women with the traditional and men with the modern, women with the home and men with the outside world.
Feminist scholarship has had little trouble in identifying the patriarchal gender system that has sustained in various nationalisms. Yet feminist criticisms of the patriarchal politics of nationalism have only scarcely begun to grasp the full implications of it. Tanika Sarkar is not satisfied with the “parameters of feminist cultural studies which have been reiterating the recast presence of patriarchy within male discourses in the form of very similar images of women across history and geography.”33 In Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation, Sarkar focus upon the development of Hindu cultural nationalism, especially the fundamental transformation in the structures of political-cultural sensibility that occurred in late-nineteenth century. She analyzed the debates around colonial laws relating to women and marriage within early Hindu nationalism, and pointed out the evolution of the discourse from social reformer to Hindu nationalists. She found that in colonial India, the concern with domestic practice initiated much discussion and debate in nationalism. Sarkar demonstrated the rejuvenation of nationalism was through the medium of defence of an unreformed indigenous patriarchy in late nineteenth-century. In the context of the gradual disillusionment of Indian nationalists with the ‘public sphere as an arena for the test of manhood’, ‘Hindu’ conjugality and domestic social arrangements become a highly politicized arena in colonial and nationalist conflicts. According to Sarkar, “In the Indian colonial public sphere, ques­tions of political justice and rights were articulated, and even conceived of, very largely in and through discussions of the intimate sphere, of domestic arrangements, of the nature, virtue and ideals of different kinds of human relationships. These were often a metaphor for the larger questions of the politics of colonialism—whose effects were read and evaluated through the grid of power relations between Indian men and women.34 Nationalists situate their emancipatory project by enclosing a space that was still understood as inviolate, autonomous, that is the “Hindu way of life”. Given this, both the Hindu husband and the Hindu marriage system are generously exempted from blame and criticism. The more crucial point, however, is Sarkar demonstrate that the contribution of nationalism to women’s movement was far more ambiguous: for its rejuvenating through defence of an unreformed indigenous patriarchy, which brought it into closer alignment with the agenda of late nineteenth-century colonial rule.
In Colonial Masculinity, Mrinalini Sinha demonstrate that nationalist align with, rather than challenge, colonial politics. “For, on the one hand, the colonial authorities had conceded the indigenous domestic realm as an ‘autonomous’ site for native masculinity; and, on the other, this con­struction of the domestic realm also fostered nationalist skepticism toward the reform of the domestic realm as a threat to Indian autonomy.35 In Specters of Mother India, Sinha start her study not from the purity of abstract concepts but the messiness of a historical event. Sinha displays a remarkable capacity to explore larger historical processes through a small point. By tracing the process of Mother India as a event, she demonstrate the core question of Indian women’s movement is how to construct a political identity for women: “The central tension of this political formation, therefore, was between women qua women versus women insofar as they belonged to, and “symbolized,” competing communities.”36 The fragile political formation of women as subjects in their own right was created against the identification of women as symbols of discrete communal identities. Therefore most intractable choice of all in the debate on Indian women’s suffrage was between the rights of women and the rights of minorities.37 During the Mayo controversy, women were prized from the tight embrace of communities, and constructed as political identity, which legitimated a new lan­guage of individual rights (beyond simply the collective rights of communities). This is the contribution of women. Because “The particular convergence of social forces in the controversy over Mother India had produced a precarious validation for a revised understanding of the re­lationship between women, community, and the state in the name of universal individual lights. This was the rhetorical context in which separate personal laws governing marriage for different religious communities gave way, at least tem­porarily, for the passage of the first uniform law directly regulating marriage for all communities.”38 Yet, the abstraction of women from their impli­cation in other social identities is very short lived, women were assign once again to the “inside’ of communities, they could not be kept out of the maelstrom swirling around the framework of religious communities. As a result, bounded religious communities were once again reaffirmed as the ground for political identity in India.
From different perspectives, Uma Chakravarti, Partha Chatterjee, Tanika Sarkar and Mrinalini Sinha have examined the formation of nationalism and its relation with women’s issues. Their insightful studies are good examples of what careful, historically focused, concrete analyses can accomplish. Indian scholars have dismantled the dominant ideologies of colonialism, nationalism and imperialism by discourse analyzing. They not only challenge the former dominant arguments, but also construct new interpretations of history. Firstly, these historians have demonstrated the tremendous importance attached to women’s issues in the construction of the Indian nation. They have not only demonstrated the central position of women’s issue in nationalism, but also highlighted that “the status of Indian women was made the site for competing political agendas, none of the opposing sides were interested in going beyond a narrow and self-serving model of female emancipation.”39
Secondly, these historians have taken much further to the understanding of Indian womanhood, by demonstrating that the “superwomen” image of Indian womanhood and its panacea role, were invented in nineteenth century. Since then, the task of saving the nation: politically and spiritually has been commissioned to women. According to cultural nationalism, Indian identity lay in the culture and more specifically in its womanhood. It was the women, their commitment, their purity, their sacrifice, who were to ensure the moral, even spiritual power of the nation and hold it together. But for women in particular this heritage, the Indian womanhood and its panacea role, is almost a burden. Because it not only rarely admited the real oppression of Indian women, but also failed to attack the patriarchy system. Moreover, “it has led to a narrow and limiting circle in which the image of Indian womanhood has become both a shackle and a rhetorical device that nevertheless functions as a historical truth.” 40
Thirdly, they have transcended the simple and linear historical assumptions, which regard Indian women’s issue were impelled by advanced ideas imported from Europe, through highlighting the complexity and ambiguity of women’s questions and its relation with colonialism and nationalism. It is generally known that the women’s question was closely associated with the issue of India’s subordination as a British colony, and with the problem of how Indians could regain control of their own country. The so called influence from the West, is not in a kind of give and take atmosphere, but in a situation which teemed with humiliation and struggle. From the early years of 19th century women’s issues were used by colonialist as a means of humiliating Indians and justify British rule; later, nationalists “solve it” by refusing to talk women’s issue with colonial government. This and the fact that women’s issues initially came from British humiliation has a long-term implication for the articulation of women’s issue as well as the strategy of women’s liberation. The evolution of women’s issue and women’s movement can-not be understood apart from this origin. Women’s issue burst upon the scene at a critical moment of India falling into the colony of the British, the evolution of women’s issue in India was contingent upon the colonial policy and the construction of India as a new Nation, women’s issue was never distinct from national question.




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