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A Review of the Limitations and Possibilities of the Historiography of Women in Early India

In Search of Our Past

Women, like other subordinate groups in society are among the muted or even silent voices of history. They have been excluded both as actors and as authors from featuring in history as they should and remain one of its most neglected subjects. The exercise of rewriting the past has been confined to invisibilising women: their presence has only been negatively registered, mainly through a vast silence.

However, it is necessary to draw attention to the fact that while in general women have been invisible in historical writing this invisibility varies vastly over time and space according to differences in social and cultural practices. The Indian situation represents an example of this relative visibility of women in historical writing particularly with regard to 'ancient' India wherein historians created a certain space for women in the reconstruction of the past, but the space conceded to them existed only within clearly defined parameters as this review will show.

In this paper we undertake, first, a broadly representative rather than comprehensive historiographical survey of studies on women in early India. The survey does not concentrate on factual details, important though these may be, but on the preconceived notions or assumptions which may have determined the kinds of facts considered historically relevant. Second, attention is to paid to the kinds of explanations offered for changes in women's status. And finally we examine possible alternatives. 

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