- The Public, the Familiar, and the Intimate in South Asia
Perhaps the most wearying part of talking about gendered histories of South Asia, including, if not especially, in feminist contexts, is the weight of pre-determined images of victimhood and oppression: the abject servant, the nineteenth-century wife, and the hypersexual Orientalist are standard objects of such scrutiny. These three new texts, however, which focus on meanings of agency and (in)action, legal legibility and affect, challenge the easy exotic appeal of such representations of victimhood. They remind us that intimacies and privacies expressed in gender are often means of constituting race and class, regional pride, and colonial governance. Diverse in the times and locations they cover, all three books trace the processes through which these categories are constituted, following questions of historical legacy and emergent modernities. These books deserve serious attention as feminist texts in their contributions to theory and methodology, as well as in demonstrating the variety and complexity of studies of gender in contemporary South Asian Studies.
Mytheli Sreenivas's Wives, Widows, Concubines: The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India, is one of a number of recent books on sex and family in colonial India, but it stands out in its elegant evaluation of legal and literary sources, and its lucid exploration of the simultaneous emergence of marriage and property regimes. (It won the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies, a major recognition). The monograph aims to take on the deceptively simple task of writing a history of family, particularly the Tamil family in the nineteenth century. In contrast to feminist analyses that have looked either to material [End Page 180] or to social inscriptions of family, the book argues that political, economic, and legal spheres are constituted through engagement with questions of family, and social hierarchies are shaped by negotiating its terms: Sreenivas emphasizes that "the 'logic' of the conjugal family ideal was linked to, and further developed, the 'logic' of other political, economic and kinship relations among various social groups" (13).
Perhaps no representation of South Asia is as tiresome as the binary of "arranged" marriages (the complexities of this term are far beyond the purview of this review), against romantic or companionate marriages as the ideal in intimacy. Sreenivas focuses on the emergence of such a "conjugal family" ideal—the notion that marital partners rather than extended kin were to be the core basis of family for economic as well as affective ends—but she shows that it served property and market regimes, and nationalist and ethnic movements, rather than being driven by any romantic vectors. Examining Gains of Learning Bills and the Hindu Women's Right to Property Act alongside legal cases, she demonstrates that the ideal of the conjugal family often resonated in contexts of market development, against vociferous opposition from landed classes who emphasized the importance of joint property instead. Mercantile capital and administrative jobs arose as ways for Indians to acquire non-land-related forms of wealth, but framing this in terms of breaking away from joint family property could be cast as selfish modern behavior; depicting the right to distribute individual property as a conjugal desire to leave one's own spouse and children well protected, however, carried more advantage, alongside claims that "individual freedom and individual capital" would prosper (54). In this bifurcation, the colonial State strategically supported both landowning groups and fluid mercantile capital in different contexts.
It might appear from the above description that conjugality discourses had the potential to be advantageous to women, but Sreenivas proves at great length that while the "rearticulation" of the conjugal relation brought women...