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Journal of Women's History 13.2 (2001) 169-170

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Voices from the Margins: Subaltern Women Speak . . . and Rewrite History

Tina Davidson, with the assistance of Ruth Roach Pierson

Lati Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. California: University of California Press, 1998. xiv + 246 pp.; ill.; glossary. ISBN 0-520-21406-4 (cl); 0-520-21407-2 (pb).

Afsaneh Najmabadi. The Story of the Daughters of Quchan: Gender and National Memory in Iranian History. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998. xiv + 241 pp.; ill.; maps; glossary. ISBN 0-8156-2790-4 (cl); 0-8156-2791-2 (pb).

Wendy Webster. Imagining Home: Gender, 'Race,' and National Identity, 1945-1964. London: University College, London Press, 1998. xxiv + 240 pp. ISBN 1-85728-350-3 (cl); 1-85728-351-1 (pb).

Eagerly awaited since the publication of her widely cited article by the same title, Lata Mani's Contentious Traditions has finally appeared in book form. It offers an important and extended answer to the question philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak posed in her article, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 1 The issue of voice has been a hallmark of much feminist theoretical debate in recent years. Questions of who speaks for whom, under what circumstances, and the legitimacy of feminist scholarship that proposes to consider the identity of an unknown Other have been central to this debate. A further concern, particular to and rising out of subaltern studies, has been who has the capacity to speak and whether the subaltern voice can ever be heard. In her much-discussed contribu-tion to this debate, Spivak answered the question, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" with a resounding no. She grounded her argument in a consideration of the issue of sati--widow burning--in colonial India, maintaining that subaltern women's voices are completely absent in extant records because colonial and indigenous manipulation of female agency silenced them. For Spivak, there is no possibility of the subaltern ever coming to voice or of anyone else ever speaking for her. Not only Mani's Contentious Traditions, but also two other recent studies--all three written from very different geo-historical specificities--can be read as addressing Spivak's provocative question.

Following Spivak, Mani also focuses on the prohibition of sati in early-nineteenth-century colonial India. Although sati was caste- and region-specific, and thus a relatively limited practice, it served to signify the [End Page 169] oppression of all Indian womanhood. The widows were rendered marginal to, and sometimes entirely erased from, the indigenous and colonial debate on the prohibition of sati. Current historiography perpetuates this marginalization. It is Mani's contention that "although sati became an alibi for the colonial civilizing mission on the one hand, and on the other hand, a significant occasion for indigenous autocritique, the women who burned were neither subjects nor even the primary objects of concern in the debate on its prohibition. They were, rather, the ground for a complex and competing set of struggles over Indian society and definition of Hin- du tradition" ( 2). Nevertheless, Mani seeks to restore agency to the widows.

Mani approaches her study through colonial discourse analysis. The weaknesses of this approach, she points out, include scholars' tendency to interpret colonial relations as binary and oppositional, and their lack of attention to differences among the colonized. Mani avoids these failures by considering the heterogeneity of discourses of both indigenous colonized and colonial contributors to the debate. Mani pays attention to the similarities and differences between the pro- and anti-sati factions, between the colonial officials and Baptist missionaries in India, and the ways in which the bhadlarok--a classic intermediary class specifically created out of the indigenous population by the interaction between colonizers and colonized--strove to distinguish itself from both.

Mani's research is based on an exhaustive rediscovery of the sources that constituted the debate among colonial officials, the bhadralok, and British missionaries on the prohibition of sati. In her examination of these sources, Mani analyzes the emergent discourse on women and...


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