Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 457-459
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Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History.
Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History. By BARBARA N. RAMUSACK and SHARON L. SIEVERS. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp. 266. $14.95 (paper).
The series editors, Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel, have written in the introduction that "it is important to avoid three common pitfalls: interpreting [third world] women as the exotic, women as victims and women as anomalies" (p. xviii). In this book the two authors, Ramusack and Sievers, have done this successfully.
The earliest version of Women in Asia: Restoring Women in History was originally produced and distributed by the Organization of American Historians as Restoring Women to History: Teaching Packets for Integrating Women's History into Courses on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East in 1989. Like the previous version, it is divided into two segments. In the first part Barbara Ramusack focuses on women of South and Southeast Asia while in the second part Sharon Sievers concentrates on women in China, Japan, and Korea.
In the South Asia segment, Ramusack has described and analyzed [End Page 457] Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi women's status and rights from 2500 B.C.E. to the present. Because of space constraints, she has been unable to cover Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. Ramusack provides us with maps of South and Southeast Asia, glossaries, chronologies, and extensive bibliographies of both regions. These components are extremely helpful for teachers and students of world history as well as South and Southeast Asian history.
Ramusack arranged her topics thematically, covering legal rights of women, purdah, and the zenana in South Asia, women and religious practice, reform movements and Indian women, and so forth. In 1989, when the earliest version came out, I commented in the Journal of Women's History (Vol. 1:1, Spring 1989) that "Ramusack does a commendable job in synthesizing the latest findings on South Asian women. Despite inherent difficulties of catenating diverse materials which focus on women's lives that span over several centuries, this chapter is well written." The updated version of this work deserves equal credit.
In spite of this, I feel some uneasiness with some of Ramusack's observations, her main themes, and her bibliographies. On page 42 she writes, "While both British and Indian leaders claimed to be the more dedicated champions of Indian women, neither group consulted extensively with Indian women about how they perceived their own need." It seems to me that during this period most of the British reformers concerned about women's causes did not particularly ask the British women about their needs about which she has written (pp. 41, 64). Therefore it was quite normal that British reformers and Western-educated Indian reformers would not consult Indian women about their needs. Thus this observation serves no purpose. The dominant themes of the South Asia section are political and religious histories as this part underscores South Asian women's status and rights, and religious history as religion intersects with social history. Religion has been emphasized because "religion has been a source of power for women, or a source of subordination or both" (p. xxv). Ramusack has an extensive discussion on activism of Indian women in reform movements as well as in nationalist movements. The author shows that Indian women were activists rather than passive observers as was thought in the past. But in the process she made no attempt to cover the development or evolution of thought processes of Indian women, resulting in no reference to the intellectual history of Indian women. Another aspect that I would like to have seen is Professor Ramusack mentioning books or articles written in Indian languages on these topics, at least reminding the readers of the breadth of interest on the topics. [End Page 458]
In Women in Southeast Asia, Ramusack concentrates on the history of status and rights of women in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the island nations of Indonesia and the Philippines. This...