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Sorting Boys and Men : Unlawful Intercourse, Boy-Protection, and the Child Marriage Restraint Act in Colonial India
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On September 6, 1935, the judge at the Allahabad High Court in northern India upheld a rare sentence under the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) of 1929.1 The father of the bride had appealed the sentence on the grounds that his daughter was above the age of fourteen at the time of marriage. His appeal was denied, for while his daughter had indeed been of age at the time of the wedding, her husband had been a mere “child.” On January 28, 1937, across the country in southern India, the judge at the Madras High Court upheld a similar sentence. In this case, the father of the groom appealed his conviction insisting he had been misled about the bride’s age.2 While conceding the man might well have been unaware of the precise age of the prospective daughter-in-law, the judge held that he must, however, have known that his own son, at seventeen, had been a “child” at the time of the wedding. In both cases the appellants had presumed that the age of a groom was irrelevant to the spirit of the law. But the courts chose to implement the law in its letter, and the Child Marriage Restraint Act provided an unambiguous definition of the child as “a person who, if a male, is under 18 years of age, and if a female, is under 14 years of age.”3

I draw attention to these anomalous convictions not to suggest that the Child Marriage Restraint Act (henceforth CMRA) was strictly enforced in colonial India. Historians have convincingly demonstrated that this was far from being the case, even as they have outlined the real and symbolic significance of the act in terms of the emergence of a notion of women’s rights, of strategic alliances between women activists and male nationalists, and of the contours of a modern or national government.4 As Mrinalini Sinha has most recently argued of the newness of the CMRA: It was pushed through by national initiative and not by colonial design; it was the first law to target marriage amongst all communities irrespective of religion; it was novel in responding to women’s activism and further creating a space for women as subjects of rights, instead of mere objects of protection.5 In focusing primarily upon questions about gender and sexuality as they affected women, however, historians seem largely to have presumed, much like the surprised parents of the child-grooms in the cases cited above, that boys were largely irrelevant to discussions of child marriage. In this article, I foreground age as a category of analysis and emphasize how age was imbricated in sex and gender structures. In doing so, I suggest that the explicit focus on the child as such—the girl-child as well as the boy-child—constituted the novelty of the CMRA of 1929, which established with a single stroke of the pen a precise and incontrovertible definition of the “child,” mapped along the axes of sex and age.6

While scholars have long illuminated aspects of the so-called woman question through their scrutiny of laws on the age of consent and marriage, recent scholarship has been attentive to the emergence of the girl-child as a legal subject separate from the woman. In a recent article that appeared in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, Ashwini Tambe emphasized how “laws defining minimum age standards for marriage and sexual relations have played a prominent role in defining the boundaries of girlhood in India.”7 The boundaries and contours of boyhood, and the gender and sexual anxieties articulated in the protection of boys, however, have received far less attention. Through a counterintuitive scrutiny of the boy-child as a legal subject and an object of protection, this paper pushes the boundaries of such feminist analysis, which paradoxically reinforces assumptions about “separate spheres.”8

Scholars of masculinity have long challenged such a tendency to consider boys and men as unsexed, ungendered, and unmarked subjects.9 In an influential essay on this theme in the context of Indian historiography, Mrinalini Sinha has clarified how the consideration of men as gendered beings might clarify...



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