After reviewing the recent feminist historiography, it is worth to note that, “West” used to be unavoidable term in India, the academic questions which concern Indian historians are always response to the West, agree or disagree, the audience always is imagined as the West. While compared with the West, “absence” is a particular issue bothering Indian historians. As a result, in much of the recent feminist historiography in India, the women’s movement was described by many absences and voids – the absence of an independent movement and women’s agency. Most of historians attempt to divorce the “marriage” between women’s movement and nationalist movement in India, and attempt to return women’s movement to feminism, to build continuity between women’s movement in the earlier twentieth century and the one since 1970s. In India, it is generally called the women’s movement in the earlier twentieth century as the ‘first wave’, and the women’s movement since 1970s as the ‘second wave’. It is arguable both dismantling the dominant nationalist discourse and focusing on the agency of women, is taking the West as the criterion. If I could say the former regard Indian women’s movement as a kind of anomalies of the ‘pure’ feminist movement, then the latter try to demonstrate the Indian women’s capability of rebellion like the Western women, through the existence of indigenous feminism in India before encountering the West. Such kind of historiography concern itself is a problem, because it is based on some unwarranted assumption: there is a kind of “pure” women’s movement or “pure” feminism.
The result of taking the West as the only comparative object is that most studies show insensitivity towards actual Indian history, thereby not only leaves considerable areas in darkness but also offers only a partial and perhaps distorted understanding of women’s history, which all but submerged the real problems confronting women. I suggest that historians can ask why women’s movement allied with nationalist movement, but should not ask why there was no independent women’s movement, which imply that the alliance is a kind of inherent shortcoming; historians can explore the concrete women’s history, but the goal of such kind of study should not be demonstrating the agency of Indian women. In one words, the relation between women’s movement and nationalist movement cannot be assumed on the basis of various “isms”, it must be viewed on its own terms.
Indian historians have had more concrete historical studies on India than before, and recent Indian history scholarship has great achievement in this regard. In my opinion, it is actually the shift of historiography concern from a conversation with the West to the past, which facilitate Indian historians made the inconceivable relation between women’s movement and nationalist movement understandable. Through exploring concrete context of nationalist discourse on women’s issues, Indian historians have further our understanding, rather than stay at the level of scolding male nationalist biases. According to nationalism historiography, it was nationalism which helped Indian women go out of purdah, to take part in the public life, and finally acquired the equal position with man. But feminist historians have demonstrated that Independent India has not brought equality to women, actually women’s situation get worse, then this often leads us to slip “back” into feminism. Feminist scholarship has beyond the debate of its impact on women or of the history of women’s contributions to nationalism, and has arrived it much more sophisticated analyses of the constitutive role of gender in Indian nationalism.41 According to Mrinalini Sinha’s creative works , it is clear that in women’s history, the question facing Indian women was never really the dilemma between feminism and nationalism, though quite often this is how it was posed. The real issue was whether woman as category could independently used or not. Rely on recent Indian scholarship, it is arguable that the reason of women’s issue was closely link with the fate of India as a nation, could neither be attribute to the manipulation of nationalists, nor an aberration of a real feminism, but relate with the particular historical moment of its appearance. A renewal of the struggle for the equality and freedom of women must imply a struggle against the nationalist construct of womanhood, as well as a struggle against the construct of feminism.
Unlike Indian feminist historians, Chinese counterparts have not obviously shift their interest to concrete historical studies recently. Most of Chinese feminist scholars (especially in the mainland China) look at history from the top to downwards, focus on the political records of elites. Moreover, majority of Chinese feminist historiography has not gone beyond the limitation of ideology, still framed in the structure of either feminism or socialism, which either leaves the varieties of women’s history in darkness or at surface level. For example, in the earlier twentieth century, not only socialist but also bourgeois liberalist and colonist concern women’s issue, and there are tremendous debates among them. However, the rich history is merely studied as separate fragments by historians from mainland China, Tai wan, and Hong Kong, it has not been explored in the way it deserved. In my point of view, Chinese women’s history not only has not been located in a broad context, but also has not been studied from different perspectives enough. Therefore, neither the complexities of Chinese women’s issue, nor the historical and conceptual legacies in China has been explored and assessed soberly. In China, some unwarranted assumptions are pervasive and persistent. For example, Chinese women’s liberation has gone too far away that they are more liberated than the Western counterpart, as a myth42 about Chinese women, still dominate public discourse in China.
In China today, the goal of studying foreign countries (especially Western advanced countries), is to learn advanced experience, link track with world trend. Likewise, most of feminist historians tend to look to the West for inspiration, and there are a lot of papers locate at translating and introducing feminism history in the Western countries and the theoretical debates between radical, liberal, socialist Marxist feminism. But most of Chinese feminist scholars have not shown the same zeal to Chinese past and present. As a result, the evolution of feminism in U.S. and European countries are more accessible than indigenous Chinese women’s information. Compared with Chinese counterpart, Indian feminist spend most of their time on studying their own history and society with Western theory and methodology, rather than studying the Western feminism history. And they have made great achievement in this regard, and won world reputation and influence. I contend to strengthening studying Chinese women’s history from below. Without a deep understanding of one’s own land, how could expect to learn from the other.
I am not saying that Indian feminist historians have done enough.43 Actually, it is only a beginning to get a richer and deeper view of women’s history, there are still a lot unanswered question, and unasked question. The complexities of history deserve greater scholarly attention both in China and India. I contend that, in order to understand ourselves, our history must be accepted, and the shame feeling of lacking certain kind of quality must be thrown away, and historians, should have more conversation with past itself. This is the precondition for us to understand our history.
This essay is one of the fruits of my project on Indian feminist historiography, supported by Asia Scholarship Foundation. I am grateful to ASF. My Grateful thanks also to Mary John, Patricia Uberoi, Uma Chakravarti, without their valuable suggestions and comments, I would not enjoy my work in Delhi so much.
1 It is not precise to term the relation I discuss in the essay as the one between “women’s movement and nationalist movement”. Because some concerning studies focus on the relation between “feminism and nationalism”, some examine “women’s issue and nationalism” and certainly some about “women’s movement and nationalist movement”. These topics are close related. Actually, to some extent, these different terms signified the different ways of studying one issue. I don’t want to involve here in the theoretical debates about the definition of feminism and women’s movement, in my opinion, without put into a particular historical context, abstract theoretical debate is helpless.
2 The issue of the ‘independence’ of women’s movement is not new, it dates back to the early twentieth century. But, how independent women’s movement is defined, and what the precise differences between ‘independent’ and ‘dependent’ women’s movement, is still unclear. There are a lot of debates what can legitimately be termed independent women’s movement. Generally speaking, when authors use the term, what concern them are if women take decision for and by themselves.
3 Sarkar, Tanika. Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: community, religion and cultural nationalism, New Delhi:Permaments Black, 2001.p.54.
4 Kumar, Radha. The History of Doing: an illustrated account of movements for women’s rights and feminism in India 1800-1990, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1993.P.2.
5 Forbes, Geraldine. Women in Colonial India: Essays on politics, medicine, and historiography, New Delhi: Chronicle Books, 2005.p.26.
6 Sangari, Kumkum; Vaid, Sudesh. Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006.p.2.
7 Basu, Aparna & Taneja, Anup. edited, Breaking out of Invisibility: women in Indian History, Indian Council of Historical Research, 2002.p.161.
8 Liddle, Joanna & Joshi, Rama. Daughters of Independence: Gender, Caste and Class in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1986.P. 22; Aparna Basu, “The role of women in the Indian struggle for freedom”, in Nanda B R Indian Women: From Purdah to Modernity, New Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1976.p.40; P.K. Sharma. Nationalism, social reform and Indian women, Janaki Prankashan, 1981, P.54.
9 Liddle, Joanna and Joshi, Rama. Daughters of Independence: Gender, Caste and Class in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1986, p.18.
10 Forbes, Geraldine. Women in Modern India, New Delhi: Cambridge university press, 1998 P. 156.
11 For a more detailed analysis of it, see Sen, Samita “Towards a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective”, in Karin Kapadia. edited, The Violence of Development: The Politics of Identity, Gender and Social Inequalities in India, Zed Books, London & New York, 2002.p.476.
12 Kumar, Radha. The History of Doing: an Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1993, P. 57.
13 Wilford, Rick and Miller, L. Robert. Edited, Women, Ethnicity and Nationalism, New Delhi: Routledge, 1998 P.3.
14 Liddle, Joanna and Joshi, Rama. Daughters of Independence: Gender, Caste and Class in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1986 P. 38.
15 Ibid, p.18.
16 Forbes, Geraldine. “The Indian women’s movement: A struggle for women’s rights or National liberation?” in Minault, Gail edi. The Extended Family: Women and Political Participation in India and Pakistan, Delhi: Chanakya publications, 1981 P. 51.
17 Forbes, Geraldine. Women in Colonial India: Essays on Politics, Medicine, and Historiography, New Delhi: Chronicle Books, 2005. P. 28.
18 Ibid, P. 28.
19 Anagol, Padma. The Emergency of Feminism in India 1850-1920, England: Ashgate, 2005.p.8.
20 In India, it is commonly assumed that women fight for women’s interest by themselves is the sign of women’s agency or autonomous. A lot of academic issues derive from this assumption.
21 Mohan, Kamlesh. Towards Gender History Images, Identities and Roles of North Indian Women, New Delhi: AAKAR, 2006.p.14; Chakravarti,Uma， Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai, New Delhi: Kali for women, 2000；Vidyut Bhagwat, Marathi Literature as a Source for Contemporary Feminism, in Maitrayee Chaudhuri edited, Feminism in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 2004.P.296.
22 Chakravarti, Uma. Rewriting History:The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai, New Delhi: Kali for women, 2000.
23 Bhagwat, Vidyut. “Marathi Literature as a Source for Contemporary Feminism”, in Maitrayee Chaudhuri edited, Feminism in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 2004.P.296.
24 Kumar, Radha. The History of Doing: an Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1993. p.9.
25 Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi, Daughters of Independence: Gender, Caste and Class in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1986, P. 49.
26 Kumar, Radha. The History of Doing: an Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1993. p.195.
28 Sangari, Kumkum & Vaid, Sudesh. Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006.p.18.
29 Pawar, Kiran. Women in Indian History: Social, Economic, Political and Cultural perspectives, New Delhi: Vision & Venture, 1996.P. 25.
30 Chatterjee, Partha. “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question”, Sangari, Kumkum & Vaid, Sudesh, Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006.p.233.
31 Ibid, P.239.
32 Ibid, P.251.
33 Sarkar, Tanika. Hindu wife, Hindu nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism, Delhi: Permaments Black, 2001.p.6.
34 Ibid, p.243.
35 Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: the ‘Manly Englishman’ and the ‘Effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century, New Delhi: kali for women, 1995.p.141.
36 Sinha, Mrinalini. Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire, New Delhi: zubaan 2006.p.199.
37 Ibid, p.232.
38 Ibid, p.195.
39 Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: the ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century, New Delhi: kali for women, 1995.p.46.
40 Uma Chakravarti, Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi? Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past, Sangari, Kumkum; Vaid, Sudesh, Recasting women essays in colonial history, Zubaan, 2006.p.28.
41 Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: the ‘Manly Englishman’ and the ‘Effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century, New Delhi: kali for women, 1995.P.181.
42 After the establishment of People’s Republic of China, Chinese women not only acquired equality legislatively, but also ‘hold up the half sky’, which meant they could now go out of home into society. The broader economic, social and political transformations that have occurred in China have made the unquestionable changes in the lives of women in China possible. Under this condition, most of Chinese, from Chinese political leaders, intellectuals to common women, all believed that socialism had made sweeping accomplishments in liberating women.
43 Although Indian feminist historiography have proved fruitful, they are by no means unproblematic.
Anagol, Padma, The Emergency of Feminism in India 1850-1920, England: Ashgate, 2005.
Basu, Aparna & Taneja, Anup edited, Breaking out of Invisibility: women in Indian History, Indian Council of Historical Research, 2002.
Chaudhuri, Maitrayee. edited, Feminism in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 2004.
Chaudhuri, Maitrayee. Indian Women’s Movement, Reform and Revival, New Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1993.
Chakravarti,Uma. Rewriting History: The life and times of Pandita Ramabai, New Delhi: Kali for women, 2000.
Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalism thought and the Colonial World; The Nation and its Fragments: A possible India, New Delhi: Oxford university press, 2005.
Desai, Neera. Feminism as Experience: Thoughts and Narratives, Mumbai: Sparrow, 2006.
Forbes, Geraldine, Women in Colonial India: Essays on politics, medicine, and historiography, New Delhi: Chronicle Books, 2005.
Gandhi, Nandita & Shah, Nandita. The Issues at Stake: Theory and Practice in the Contemporary Women’s Movement in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1992.
Gupta, Charu. Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India, Delhi: Permanent black, 2005.
Jayawardena, Kumari. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1986.
John, E. Mary. Discrepant Dislocations Feminism, Theory, and Postcolonial Histories, Berkeley:University of California press. 1996.
Kasturi, Leela & Mazumda, Vinar. edited, Women and Indian Nationalism, New Delhi: Vikas publishing house pvt ltd, 1994.
Liddle, Joanna and Joshi, Rama. Daughters of Independence: Gender, Caste and Class in India, New Delhi: Kali for women, 1986.