The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain By Bharati Ray, Oxford, Rs 445

An “unplanned, random” search at the National Library, Calcutta, had revealed Begum Sakhawat’s Motichoor to Bharati Ray. This, read simultaneously with Jibaner Jharapata by Sarala Devi, spawned the idea of this book in which Ray makes a comparative analysis of the giant initiatives of two outstanding women of the early 20th century; explores the “radical” feminism of Begum Sakhawat and her transcendence to glory as a role model in next door Bangladesh; and questions Sarala Devi’s comparative obscurity in the feminist history of Bengal.

Ray calls both women the “earliest feminists” of India, “if we take it [the term feminist] in its broadest sense to mean a woman or a man who is aware of at least some aspects of the oppression of women, and consciously tries to resist or fight against them...”. Both, Ray argues, endeavoured to relate to the women’s question in their own separate ways — Sarala fought for women’s advancement as part of her general scheme for national progress, and Begum Sakhawat, more directly, as she concentrated on fighting off patriarchy and advocated women’s education as their only way to escape subordination.

Apart from looking closely at their times, Ray weaves into her analysis specific histories of the lives of the women — family background, marriage, widowhood — and connects them with their work. This not only enlivens the discussion but also helps the reader understand their distinct theories on the gender issue. Sarala Devi, who was brought up in the liberal and culturally-rich atmosphere of the Tagore family and allowed to experiment with her own life till her late marriage at the age of 33, after which she continued with her involvement in the national struggle, looked at women’s status in society in a very different way from Begum Sakh- awat. The latter, having grown up in the claustrophobic, cloying set-up of a feudal home and married off at a vulnerable age, saw male domination as the principal threat to the progress of her sex, both within her community and outside.

Thus while Sarala Devi fitted the nationalist construct of women as good mothers/wives and its stress on the personal courage or valour of females, quite comfortably into her scheme for women’s welfare — which included substantial “networking” with the other gender — Begum Sakhawat’s theory was more radical. She saw herself and her followers as “physicians” trying to heal the soul and body of womenfolk, torn and tattered by the cruelty perpetrated on them by men. There can be no compromise as in her novel, Padmarag, where the heroine, despite being in love with the hero, forsakes him for past cruelties. Education was her prescribed route to freedom, not only social, but also economic, an idea whose contemporaneity sets her apart from other women of her time. Although much of this radicalism was later tempered as Begum Sakhawat struggled with her community to promote her school, this does not take away at all from her laudatory stand.

Apart from taking up the cudgels on behalf of Sarala Devi, whose gender project, Ray argues, was central to her nationalist scheme, there is one other thing that Ray does here — relate the concerns of the two women with the feminist movement today, without which effort the research would have appeared grossly antiquarian. The exercise however appears to be a bit forced, particularly where Ray tries to link the women’s ideas with questions of “violence” or physical abuse. Ray says Begum Sakhawat did not bother herself with analysing what prompted male violence against women or with trying to free herself from the Anjuman. Sarala Devi’s organization, Mahamandal, also did not deal with the question of rape and its punishment although the founder had thought about the prevention of violence.

Ray cannot answer why the question was neglected altogether, but it was probably because communal violence, with rape as its major constituent, had not figured in Indian history so prominently at that time. The ravages were to come later, although the issue of communalism had already arisen and both Sarala Devi and Begum Sakhawat tried their best to practise and further social harmony.

Ray’s analysis of the two women pioneers in social activism is interesting, but not scintillating. Besides, does the mere rescuing of Sarala Devi from the dust of the archives justify the use of the precious grants of the Indian Council of Historical Research'

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