- The Emergence of Feminism Among Indian Muslim Women, 1920–1947
Recent decades have seen a marked rise in the production of scholarship documenting the experience(s) of women, who have often been ignored within conventional historiographic practices. In India, however, this growing body of work on women deals mostly with Hindu women. In contrast, the experiences of women of other communities, including that of Muslim women, remain grossly understudied. Azra Asghar Ali’s book on Muslim women in pre-independence India is, thus, a welcome intervention that addresses an important gap in the history of women in South Asia.
Ali’s main goal in her book is to study “the chain of developments that gradually opened up a space for Muslim women” in the decades before independence, and in turn facilitated the “emergence of feminism” among them (xvii). Accordingly, in each of the six chapters, she systematically documents the creation of “various kinds of ‘spaces’ in which Muslim women were increasingly able to participate in the public sphere, created in large part by changes emanating from the impact of the colonial state” (xvii). In Ali’s formulation, these new public spaces within which “reassessed gender relations could develop”, were “central to the evolving position of Indian Muslim women from the end of the nineteenth century” (xviii).
The book begins with a discussion of the broad “socio-cultural transitions” resulting in part from the political and economic impact of colonial rule, as well as efforts made by both the emergent middle classes and reform-minded older élites in the nineteenth century. As Ali rightly points out, these early efforts among Muslims were propelled more by a desire to improve the image of the community, rather than a serious impulse to bring long-ranging reforms to women’s lives. However, even these rudimentary changes set the stage for more serious reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the rest of the book, Ali focuses on the transformations in the specific institutions of education, health-care, social and political legislature, and literary culture — all of which created opportunities for Muslim women to come out of seclusion and participate more fully in the public life of the nation. Apart from handling an impressive volume of historical material, the book is also particularly effective in pointing out the new economic opportunities, as well as greater social mobility that reforms in both education and healthcare made available to Muslim women (90). According to Ali, these experiences of greater economic and social independence, as well as the debates over social and political legislation aimed at improving women’s status in the first half of the twentieth century, encouraged Muslim women to participate subsequently in the Pakistan movement. Ali is, of course, well aware of feminist critiques of the limited, even “convenient” nature of upper/middle class Muslim women’s participation in the Pakistan movement. However, in her work she insists on a more charitable reading which highlights the importance of these early experiences of public appearance and work by Muslim women as part of a “continuous struggle” for gender equality (204–206).
While one can easily appreciate Ali’s argument about the significance of incremental change for women in early twentieth century India, it is more difficult to agree with her somewhat uncritical equation of feminist consciousness with public appearance or participation in mass political movements. The very visible participation of women in violent religious revivalist movements in South Asia alone should caution us against such easy conceptual conflations. It is unfortunate that the author puts so much emphasis on a rather unclearly defined trope of “public space”, or “visibility and audibility,” as a shorthand for the complex process of resistance and self-definition that Muslim women in late colonial India engaged in. Consequently, one has to wait until the end of the book, much of which focuses on the creation of institutional space by men for women within a male-dominated socio-political system, to hear Muslim women’s own thoughts/words as documented in their writings in various contemporary journals.