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  • The Emergence of Feminism in India, 1850–1920 by Padma Anagol
  • Shefali Chandra
The Emergence of Feminism in India, 1850–1920. By Padma Anagol. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005.

Intentionally setting out to foreground the voices of women, Padma Anagol has provided rich resources for revisiting historical and historiographical questions on the Indian nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By prominently foregrounding Marathi language sources penned by women, Anagol’s original and important work bursts with fresh literary and historical material. With that she revitalizes important questions on the over lap between the power of the colonial state and its Indian beneficiaries, on the narrative of indigenous feminism, and on the location of power in the years between 1850–1920.

Anagol argues that the ‘“creation and re-creation of patriarchy” as a major theme dominates the historiography of gender and women’s studies in India.’ (5). Indeed path breaking feminist re-evaluations of the historical record have as this author maintains, remained preoccupied with the historical configurations through which patriarchy emerged as the ‘overriding forms of societal order and the ways in which it institutionalised the rights of men to control and appropriate the economic, sexual and reproductive services of women.’ This has led to the ‘neglect of recovery of women’s voices during the colonial period.’ In bringing to light an enormous, inter-referential corpus of women’s writings from this period, Anagol successfully extends the methodology and politics of women’s historians such as Geraldine Forbes and Radha Kumar1.

Despite posing her agenda as being about the recovery and retrieval of women’s voices, Anagol never re-centres the dominant paradigm — native patriarchy or colonial power - as inevitable or more powerful. Postcolonial feminism has done well to argue that the classic mode of women’s history — which is guided by the urge to find and recover marginal voices — only inscribes male power as natural. This critique is successfully foreclosed by Anagol. Crucially, she does this not through an engagement with philosophical debates on agency, location or standpoint. Rather, Anagol delineates the vibrant world of Indian feminism by making available an astonishing range of histories, life-stories, and sources. The women whose lives she relates made striking critiques of male power, boldly demanding social change for human equity and criticizing the deliberate stunting of their personalities (31). But most strikingly, theirs weren’t either demands for a hollow equivalence, nor were they merely a series of claims posed in a reactive mode. In the process of critique and negotiation, Indian women shaped dominant institutions for their own purposes. Here the chapters on Crime, Law, Christianity and Literature are especially rich. As Anagol demonstrates, women shaped institutions and cultural practices for their specific realities, for instance ‘indigenising’ Christianity through ‘their woman-centred approach to religion’ (43). In the process we are introduced to lesser known figures, Salubai Tambwekar or Rebecca Simeon and guided through actual acts of refashioning.

Anagol specifically addresses three broad debates within Indian feminist historiography. First the assertion, made by scholars such as Lata Mani and Uma Chakravarti on the manner in the contest between Indian and colonial patriarchs re-centered scriptural sources.2 Instead and due to her focus on women’s voices, Anagol demonstrates that women never surrendered this debate to male actors; instead they carefully followed, engaged with and critiqued the very scriptural frameworks within which the contest was staged. This was how ‘women shifted their focus from the shastras of the olden days to concentrate on the present … [itself] constructed through the cumulative experiences of contemporary women.’ (202). It was in this creative and powerful way that women countered (recently elevated) Shastric authority on child and arranged marriages, and selectively critiqued the subject positions produced by the textual encounter.

Secondly, as Anagol argues, the tendency of some scholarship to privilege the politics of colonialism and nationalism has diverted our attention away from the real dynamic of social change in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indicating the power of our current fascination with questions on the location of power and the contest/renegotiation between Indian and British men, Anagol demonstrates instead that the radical shift in this period lay in the assertion...