The Saltlist

Satire in the Age of Letters and Technology- more than just a pinch of it.

‘The History of Doing’ by Radha Kumar.

By Neha Sen

Author- Radha Kumar

Year Of Publication – 1993

In the book ‘The History Of Doing’, Radha Kumar looks at how the movements for women’s rights and feminism have developed in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth century by dividing the movements into the Pre – Independence & Post – Independence periods.

Movements for women’s rights were led by men, in the pre-independence period, and affected by colonialism. They focused on the woman’s role as a mother/wife and spoke about fulfilling their needs, arising from the difference between men and them.

There were two schools of thought within the British establishment on the issue of abolition of sati. One school believed that it was an example of Hindu barbarism and it was essential to abolish it as part of the British civilizing mission. The other held that any such move would amount to interference in religious affairs of the Hindus. Thus, in the early years of the nineteenth century, laws were passed which distinguished between enforced and voluntary sati (just like the Mughals had done before them), a move which angered the campaigners seeking abolishment of sati.

Annie Besant, the first woman president of Congress, believed that the Rights Of Man were sexual and not human rights as they were denied to women. It is interesting to note that one of the first issues concerning women to be referred to by the Congress was prostitution.

Rape, it seems, was a taboo subject, nameable only when committed by outsiders. With the help of examples, Radha Kumar shows that nationalists would jump into the fray if the crime was committed by the British, highlighting it as an act of imperialist barbarism and violation of community or national honour rather than an act of violence against women. However, if the case involved natives then the only ones to raise their voices would be reformers. Thus, by the end of nineteenth century, the issues of rape and racism were interlinked.

In the late nineteenth century, the nationalist women who made attempts at ‘employment generation’ for women, along swadeshi lines, seem to have assumed that women’s wage-work was a subsidiary activity to supplement the male wage rather than to earn a living wage.

Democracy has brought with it movements led by women which are based on the principles of equality and, hence, reject the sexual division of labour. The images used in these movements are that of the daughter and the working woman. In addition to highlighting the economic independence of women, the use of the working woman as a symbol in these movements, also indicates the involvement of women in workplace politics.

Kumar also notes that while anti-patriarchal movements (in which women participated in large numbers) used shame as a tactic against their opponents, feminist movements refused to do so as that would mean accepting the conventional definitions of masculinity and feminity.

The fledgling women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was still centered around the argument: whether biological differences between men and women was the root of women’s oppression or not. The late 1970s saw the rise of a three-tiered hierarchy in the movement comprising of theory generators (usually the most articulate), activists (consciousness-raisers) and “the subjects of their attention”.

In her work, Radha Kumar shows that feminist movements in India highlighted brutal forms of violence against women whereas instances of oppression in subtler ways were ignored.

In a chapter dealing with Dowry, the author reveals that police officers and politicians have often advised activists to use ‘social pressure’ against dowry murderers rather than to take recourse in the law. However, activists have used both.

Feminists have long held the belief that religion and rights are separate and distinct. But the aftermath of the Shah Bano case judgement challenged this belief.

In a chapter focusing on sati, Radha Kumar notes that religious fundamentalism not only rationalizes the sexual oppression of women but also mobilizes them in support of their own oppression. This is corroborated by the large number of women who participated in the pro-sati campaign. However, Kumar also shows that no emphasis was placed on the absence of widows (the group of women most directly affected by sati) from these campaigns.

Thus, the author notes that feminism in India has seen the focus shift from the needs to the rights of the women. In fact, most movements have recorded a tension between the desire for equality (hence, opposing sex-based differentiation) and the gender-based celebration of the feminine.

The History Of Doing is a delightful read as the writing style is rich and the inclusion of pictures, posters, personal accounts and the accounts of those affected, and the copies of letters and bills gives it a more personalized feel. It is a well-researched work and also serves the purpose of introducing the readers to other feminist literature such as Manushi.

The book demands a sequel covering feminist movements from 1990 to present day. And as the Indian Review of Books says, The History Of Doing is “a book to buy and keep”.


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This entry was posted on May 24, 2011 by in Books and Authors.

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