There are fears that the virulent movement of a certain quarter might restrict and contract the increasing entry of our women folk into public space. The reference is to the demands of the Hefazat-e-Islam movement that is unfortunately occupying a disproportionately large space of our media. Looking back one would find that women’s movement beyond the confines of the household and women’s participation in public affairs has not been easy. Therefore, the efforts to put the clock back needs to be seen in historical perspective in order to appreciate the potentials of damage that may be caused by the obscurantist elements.
The degraded condition of Indian women was taken as an indicator of India’s inferior status in the hierarchy of civilisations. It is no wonder, therefore, that the status of women became the main focus of the reforming agenda of the modernising Indian intellectuals of the 19th century.
Thus female infanticide was banned, sati was abolished and widow remarriage was legalised. However, men treated women as subjects of their modernising project and could not imagine them to be their conscious equals claiming agency for their own emancipation.
In India, while the public space became the sphere of activities for men, women were confined to the household. The ancient Hindu lawgiver Manu prescribed a permanent dependent status for women, to be protected by their fathers, husbands and sons at different stages of their lives. However, if this was a fact of life, it was also true on the other hand, that seclusion of women was not a universal practice, as there is evidence of high public visibility of women, both rich and poor, in certain regions in the 18th century.
The ideal of secluded womanhood came to be universalised only in the 19th century. The Muslim society too put similar restrictions on women. At this time the Islamic revivalism movement spearheaded by the Ulama and the modernisation campaign led by the educated middle-classes constructed Sharif culture almost as a private polity, with the status of women being central to it, as an indicator of the progress of the Muslim community as a whole.
The Sharif Muslims in Bengal shuddered at the thought of their women transgressing the norms of purdah (a persian word, literally meaning curtain). For both Hindu and Muslim women, this metaphor of purdah did not merely mean their physical seclusion behind the veil. It meant “multitudes of complex social arrangements which maintained social and not just physical distance between the sexes.” By the 19th century the ideal of
purdah had become universalised for both Muslim and Hindu women and for both elites and commoners, although in its practical implications it acted differently for different groups.
In so far as Indian educated women were concerned, we may mention Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain among the Muslim women in Bengal. At the turn of the century a number of women in middle-class Indian households were educated, either formally or informally. However, this did not improve the conditions of their social existence remarkably. The goal of the Muslim educators of women was “to create women who would be better wives, better mothers and better Muslims.”
It is interesting to recollect that the colonial State too wanted to confine women to domesticity. For it was there that they would be safe both for themselves and for the State. Both the customary Hindu and Islamic personal laws which the courts upheld and the new statutory laws which the State promulgated, sanctified the right of the patriarchal family and constricted the freedom of choice for women.
In the 1920s and 1930s women’s participation in political affairs remained predominantly an urban phenomenon. In so far as Muslim women were concerned, many of them participated in the Khilafat-non-cooperation movement. However, if this helped towards weakening of the rigors of purdah, its total abolition was out of question because for Muslims it was a symbol of their cultural distinctiveness. The Indian National Congress and its leaders were simply not interested in women’s issues and except for allowing some symbolic presence, never included women in any decision making process. The congress wanted women to be “law-breakers only and not law-makers.”
The developments of the early 20th century that meant the birth of a new consciousness, new organisations and the politicisation of women did bring in some remarkable changes for some women-the more enlightened, middle class and urban variety, who had effectively claimed for themselves a niche in the public space. However, for the rest of the Indian womanhood, the changes were less meaningful. The new reality recognised certain public role for women but accepted at the same time the social, biological and psychological difference between the sexes.
Women’s constricted role in public affairs and space came to be seriously challenged in the 1940s when women across class and religious lines began to claim a more active role for themselves in the public space and fought as comrades-in-arms with their male counterparts in the last phase of the struggle for freedom. This female activism was markedly visible in the quit India movement of 1942 when most male leaders were imprisoned. In 1920s and 1930s many middle-class educated women had joined the communist movement and had participated in mobilising working classes, in organising industrial actions and in campaigning for the release of political prisoners.
Involvement of women in the community movement was expanded to a new level when the Tebhaga movement began in Bengal in 1946 with the sharecroppers demand for two-thirds share of the produce. The communist leaderships, however, preferred only supportive and secondary roles for women and could not think of women outside the conventional structures of gender relations, that is, family and marriage, and therefore, could not trust them with guns in the actual battlefield.
The Pakistan movement in the 1940s opened for the Muslim women of the subcontinent a new space for political action. The Muslim league also sought to universalise its politics and in 1938 started a women’s sub-committee to involve Muslim women. As the Pakistan movement grew momentum more and more women were sucked into it as election candidates, as voters and as active demonstrators in street politics. This political position was a liberating experience. Importantly, this signified an acceptance of a public role for women in Muslim society.
While the Pakistan movement did involve some Muslim women in public action, the partition experience once again reinforced the traditional ashraf ideal of Muslim womanhood, to be protected within the domestic sphere. Any transgression of this boundary would lead to immorality, ir-religiousity and dishonour for the community.
Thus, as it seems the women’s question in colonial India and post-partition Pakistan hardly received the priority it deserved. Although women became conscious and actively participated in the political struggles and identified themselves with emerging nations, feminism had not yet been incorporated into the prevailing ideologies of liberation.
The national liberation of 1971 and women’s liberation movement on the international stage had galvanised our womenfolk into actions of emancipators. There is a very long way to traverse. The regressive swinging of the pendulum has to be stalled.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.