- Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal
The feminist historian Joan Scott has argued that it is not “individuals who have experience, but subjects who are constituted through experience.”1 Following from this, Mahua Sarkar’s nuanced study seeks to foreground the mechanisms that kept Muslim women invisible as agents in Indian colonial history. Seeking to correct erstwhile celebratory representations of Muslim women, Visible Histories neither extols the virtues of Muslim womanhood in the late colonial period of Bengal, nor does it seek a redress for their untold stories. Visible Histories’ contribution to colonial historiography is more nuanced: to present “a series of discursive sites in which Muslim women in colonial Bengal appear and disappear in particular ways: in colonial discourse on “native” women; in Hindu (nationalist) discussions on Muslims; in revivalist and liberal Muslim writing; and finally in the private memories of Muslim women today” (21). Thus what follows is a sketch of late colonial and early nationalist Bengal in which, and through which, Muslim women’s subjectivities are interwoven. Paradoxically, Muslim women’s writing and oral histories are limited by those very social structures of late-colonial Bengal that render her voice invisible.
The book has four main chapters beginning with the early colonial interactions—a subject which has recently received much attention.2 In this chapter, Sarkar sketches a scene where multiple actors negotiate identity through interlinked discourses: Muslim women’s agency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a complex negotiation between different patriarchal structures of family and community—between men from the British ranks of government and their counterparts in the subcontinent. Chapter one engages the colonial accounts of the relationships between British men and their “native” partners in order to tease out Muslim women’s complicity and subversiveness in determining their identity and destiny.
Chapter Two, “The Politics of (In)Visibility,” challenges the idea that alliances between women of different religious and class backgrounds were forged solely on the basis of identity, and that identity could be used as the lens through which social marginalization and invisibility can be understood. Analyzing newspapers and a vast corpus of periodical literature of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, this chapter suggests that Hindu and Brahmo women were seen as the liberated opposite of Muslim women. Thus, by keeping Muslim women “hidden” and “invisible” Hindu and Brahmo women could emerge as the symbol of liberated India, and worked to advance the nationalist (Hindu) agenda of saving Hindu women from the influence of Muslims.
In “Negotiating Identity” (Chapter Three), the author limits her focus to middle-class Muslim writing. Literary periodicals in which Muslim men and women discussed the pressing social and political issues of the day form the buttress of Sarkar’s claim that these voices are not considered in the traditional historical accounts of early-twentieth century Bengal. Numerous intellectuals from the Muslim community (post 1857) were taking up the issue of the future of Muslims in the subcontinent. Much of Urdu literature (poetry, literary criticism, and prose) from this time period envisioned modernity in some extent as a critical rethinking of religious identity—and what role women would play in the refashioning and rebuilding of strong Muslim communities. These works (from outside Bengal) echo Sarkar’s point that a “significant number of Muslim intellectuals opposed political separation” (25).
Chapter Four of the book pulls together the life histories of five middle-class Muslim women who lived in Calcutta and/or Dhaka between the years 1910–1950. Here, the author seeks to document and explain how the social landscape of Bengal mediated how these women understood their experience. Rather than recuperating these women’s voices to make them “visible” to the contemporary historian, this chapter shows how gender identity is always partial, in contradistinction to normative expectations, sometimes capitulating to social mores, and always political: as Sarkar puts it, “personal memories are not easily separable from the structures of representation of official history” (135). Here Sarkar does an excellent job of reading these women’s stories and historicizing...