ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Imagining a New Ethic of Sociality

The Non-Brahmin Educated Woman in 19th-Century Western India

The works of three non-Brahmin educated women from 19th-century western India are read against dominant historiographies of womanhood. It is argued that these women resist being interpreted as evidence of liberal enlightenment thinking in anti-caste social reform, or as regional dissenting voices to incipient nationalist developments that place the spiritual–material binary at the centre of the women’s question. Rather, their works are read as intellectual resources that imagined a new ethic of sociality, using an embodied reason to alter the imagination of the “inner spiritual” by first destabilising it and then reimagining it. The paper locates the invention of the spiritual–material binary outside of anti-colonial motives via these women, making the articulation of a separation between the spiritual and the material untenable.

There have been, broadly speaking, two dominant ways of reading the history of womanhood in modern India. The first looks at them through the lens of social reform currents, attributing to them a condition that is constituted by Hindu (read Indian) tradition, which (from the European gaze adopted by the reformers) was viewed as, on the whole, deplorable. The task then was to reform this condition by doing away with practices of Hindu tradition identified as objectionable and moving society towards an embrace of liberal education and legal protections from the worst effects of these practices. On this reading, the problems of women were evident to male reformers and colonialist recorders, who could then direct these women out of such oppression. Women were turned into potential symbols of the moral health of the colony and later, the incipient nation. The trajectory of such a narrative was, thus, of the familiar passage from tradition to modernity, exploitation to freedom.

This enlightenment liberal reading of the womens question is challenged by a second historiography, which argues that the model idea of womanhood emerges in the nationalist movement and that it is a novel development emerging out of colonial contact. This nationalist reimagining of Indian womanhood is a combination of Brahminic and Victorian virtues (OHanlon 1994: 3), standing in contrast all at once to the memsahib, the old traditional Hindu woman and the lower-class woman (Chatterjee 1989: 627). This new woman is not amenable to the colonial narrative of tradition being the root cause of her exploitation. Rather she is deemed a protector of tradition in the cultural inner core of nationalism, as it withstands the onslaught of colonial modernity in the outer material spheres of state, economy, modes of production, technology, etc (Chatterjee 1989: 62426). This was especially so, since Indian nationalismas an outer phenomenon (rather than inner imaginings that I am focused on in this paper, in the realm of womanhood)was offering no resistance to such an onslaught. Partha Chatterjee, in saying this, is claiming that Indian womanhood is a sort of placeholder for a nationalism that is inner, spiritual and cultural, distinct from the nationalism that speaks to the issues of state, political economy and other such elements of the outer. This view, first articulated by Ghulam Murshid (1983) and Sumit Sarkar (1985), was most purposively developed in Chatterjee (1989) who presents this inner reimagining of womanhood to be a resolution of the womens question in Indias nationalist narrative.1 

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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