Reviews


FACES OF THE FEMININE IN ANCIENT, MEDIEVAL, AND MODERN INDIA. Edited by Mandakranta Bose. pp.346. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

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This volume of twenty-two essays is a valuable contribution to the history of women. The essays cover a broad range of periods and views; in the process it helps to remedy the lack of introductory texts on this subject. And that is the reason I have chosen to include this volume on the Brief Guide. Though it does not cover the Kushan period it provides an excellent introduction that will be useful to anyone who wishes to study Kushan women.

The volume began as a conference in 1994. In stark contrast to other conference proceedings Mandakranta Bose has succeeded in imposing a very pleasant unity. There are three sections; ancient, medieval, and modern. And in each section the essays pick up ideas and threads from each other. The result is a pleasure to read, and the essays are engaging and entertaining (with one exception). If anyone thinks that these 'stylistic' matters are irrelevant to the merit of the volume they should reflect that for an introduction to the study of Indian women to be successful it is not enough for it to cover a broad range well; it must also be read.


Usable Histories

A concept that recurs throughout the volume is that of 'usable histories'. The authors who advocate this concept seek to reinterpret the past, emphasizing new aspects more amenable to modern views and sensibilities. This isn't quite revisionism, though several of the authors in the volume are revisionists. 'Usable history' does not involve contesting the interpretation of others, or even trying to show the failings of previous history. Instead the authors simply emphasize new aspects of old evidence. Aspects that favour their own, less patriarchal, viewpoint.

A good example of this is Vidyut Aklujkar's chapter on Anasuya. Anasuya is the central (female) figure of a number of legends. In these she appears in the dual role of wise matriarch and devoted wife. Aklujkar discusses this dual role at length and concludes:

'Interpreted thus, the myths celebrate the triumph of female productivity and context-sensitive creativity. Granted, they also offer standard traditional panegyrics to the virtue of the faithfulness in wifehood, but that virtue serves as a means for the woman's ultimate triumph and is not the end in itself.' (66)

This extract makes clear how Aklujkar does not challenge the traditional interpretation which extols Anasuya's faithfulness. She simply chooses to see it as secondary and thus creates a 'usable history' for extolling those aspects she finds important in the modern world.

Dasgupta takes up the same idea in her chapter on the myths of Amba and Madhavi. She shows how the stories contain ambiguities that undermine the standard gender relations in the myths. Though as she points out these ambiguities are of her making rather than the intent of the original author (54). Dasgupta is far bolder in this sense than Aklujhar in that she makes absolutely clear that the original authors did not intend these ambiguities.

The concept of 'usable history' is one which creates tensions inside and outside of womens history. The idea of finding the evidence you like and using that, in effect ignoring the rest, runs counter to the idea of 'objectivity' espoused by traditional historians. It is a strategy that would find much greater favour with postmodern theorists who see history purely in terms of the present. 'Usable histories' are also controversial within the feminist movement and have been from its earliest days. The early feminist Mary Wolstonecraft roundly attacked those who search for exceptional women as producing nothing of value, as the plight of modern women is one which affects the mass of women so it is the history of the mass of women that should concern the modern writer. Anasuya and Amba are completely unrepresentative of that mass; their inclusion in ancient legends is enough to prove that. By concentrating on them and putting a positive spin, a 'usable history', over the top of the evidence the author risks idealizing the past and obscuring the injustices done to women then, and now. As these authors are aware the history they are working with is the same history that is used by those who oppress women now. It is the source and justification for practices such as forced marriage and wife burning. The creation of 'usable histories' from that same source material subverts the foundations of modern patriarchy. So a tool is made available for undermining modern injustice.

These ideas and others run as a subtext throuhgout the first part of the volume and those reading will find themselves drawn into the debate. Ultimately each reader will have to take their own position on 'usable histories. And this, the way the volume subtly asks the reader to start taking up their own positions is a valuable introduction to women's history in general.


Some Other Highpoints

Before continuing it is worth picking out a few other valuable contributions. These are in no particular order and they do not include all the good work in the volume.

Bose provides an enlightening article on Sati. Though she is concerned with ancient texts her article is given modern relevance by several recent burnings in India. She shows how Sati is as much about political and social control as religious or traditional authority. And she goes on to argue that the only way such controls can be broken down is by educating the victims themselves. It is the female subject who is at the centre of Sati and so it is the female subject who must break free.
Buddhist Jain
Donor = ? 8 13
Corporate Donor 3 1
Female Religious Donor8 2
Queen Donor 0 0
Other Female 12 36
Total Female % 34% 73%
Male Religious Donor23 8
King Donor 4 0
Other Male 11 6
Total Male % 66% 27%
Total Inscriptions 66 65

'The Wildering Gloom' by Chapla Verma is much more focused on the past. She argues that early Buddhism was far more egalitarian than it became after the Buddha's nirvana. She goes as far as to suggest that the Buddha may have even intended equal status for women. After his death the dominant culture perverted his intention and relegated women to a secondary role. Her conclusion highlights one of the deficiencies of the volume: it is written almost entirely from written sources. Archaeology, which has made great strides in the understanding of women in other fields of history, has been largely ignored. In this respect Verma's conclusion that women were relegated to a secondary role should be contrasted with my own conclusions, based on inscriptions, that they had a possibly dominant role in the Kushan period. Resolution of these conflicting interpretations will necessitate historians of women learning a new set of skills to engage with archaeology.

So it is a pleasure to see that at least one of the authors has already begun this process. Leslie Orr examines over 3000 inscriptions recording Hindu, Jain and Buddhist donations. Though the inscriptions are mostly by male donors a substantial minority are female donors. Orr goes on to show that not just the gender of the donor but the terms in use are in opposition with those found in textual sources. And she shows how women's experience varied both within the major religions and across time. This is a useful antidote to those who treat the status of Indian women as an unchanging constant. She provides all her data for Tamilandu in three sets of statistical tables, one for each major religion. These indicate that ten to twenty percent of donors were women, certainly not a group that can be ignored. For those interested in comparative history and differences in time I have presented the inscription from the Kushan period in the same format.


Postcolonial Identity as Feminist Fantasy

Matilda Gabrielpillai produces the only disappointing essay in the volume. She examines several Tamil writers who have explored the conflict between the dowry system and the position of modern Indian women. She sees these stories as part of wider discourse (attempts to represent) the lives of Indian women. In particular two discourses: of the western world, which portrays dowry as part of a systematic oppression of Indian women; and that of the Indian Nationalist movement, which sees dowry as part of the cultural distinctiveness of India. Gabrielpillai is concerned with how Tamil writers find their own route between these two poles which allows them to criticize dowry without betraying the Nationalist cause. So far so good. The emphasis on discourse and representation, and the subject of how the competing views of Indian and Western men affect women's reactions to the institution of dowry should have made this a very interesting essay

Unfortunately Gabrielpillai has borrowed a complex theoretical language from those historians who deal with these problems, and the reader is treated to gems like:

'I hope in this chapter, through the readings of Tamil women writers' representation of the dowry system, to foreground postcolonial national identity as a semiological terrain that is already fluctuating, already in contestation in terms of gendered meanings, so that Kadiyoti's reading of the nation as masculine is itself to be read as always-already a privileging of the male fantasmic of nationhood over that of the postcolonial womans, as itself complicit, in the domination of the male voice that it bemoans.' (289)

This sort of language serves a purpose in specialist journals, like History and Theory. In those journals it allows complex ideas to be expressed quickly and concisely. However, in a collection for the general reader it is absurd to assume that this sort of language will be understood. When language is used in an inappropriate context the suspicion arises that the author did not want their work to be understood. That they are trying to conceal poorly thought out ideas and give weight to their arguments with long words. As Gabrielpillai's ideas are unwrapped this suspicion grows stronger.

'If Indian National identity is correctly understood in patriarchal terms as a sexual 'division of labor' - of the happy combination of modern culture, imagined as masculine activity in economic, and of Indian tradition, conceived in terms of women's conformity to traditional roles assigned to them in premodern social texts - then these women's writings bring this two-part identity into crisis and gender the postcolonial imaginary itself as feminist insurgency, as the invasion of female meanings into patriarchal cultural logic. They implicitly also raise the question as to the circulation of desire in Western dominant representations of Indian women as victims of dowry violence, where Indian women's bodies are looked at as suffering bodies rather than as bodies of resistance, so that the pathology is in the gaze rather than in the spectacle of dowry violence.' (295)

Gabrielpillai is arguing that the nationalists divide Indian culture in two. Men conduct economic affairs in a modern western way, while women are given a subordinate domestic role that is 'traditional'. The women writers respond by destroying the distinction and by forcing their way into the male sphere (Gabrielpillai uses the metaphor of invasion or insurgency). Gabrielpillai challenges the western view of the problems of the dowry system (her metaphor for these problems is disease, thus pathology). She suggests that the problem is with western observers rather than the dowry system (in our gaze rather than the spectacle). In other words there is no problem other than those imagined by western observers.

This would be fine if Gabrielpillai did not constantly talk about womens' resistance. She makes a point of emphasizing women's resistance to the discourse of male dominance but resistance requires oppression. Without oppression resistance cannot exist. If the resistance is real, not imagined, then the oppression (pathology) must also be real. The pathology is in the spectacle rather than the gaze. Gabrielpillai avoids this contradiction by ignoring it. By using language that her audience will not understand she reduces words to the level of arbitrary symbols. Meaning is no longer conveyed by the words. Instead Gabrielpillai can impose whatever conclusions she likes because her article conveys no information to the majority of its readers.


One of the flaws in this excellent collection is that it omits a great deal. In particular it omits the Kushan period (and the related Indo-Greek and Indo-Parthian periods). The chapters on the ancient period end with discussion of Buddhism down to the time of Ashoka and a discussion of rituals in Hindu belief. The medieval section begins with the dissolution of the Gupta Empire. This omission silences the voices of women from a vast period. It also makes a lie of suggestions that women's history can end the narrow political history of the past and make a more inclusive history. No history is inclusive and each attempt to make it so simply creates new exclusions.

Despite this Bose has provided an excellent introduction to the lives of women in India's long and complex past, the theories that underpin that study and the debates surrounding it. Anyone wishing to recover the history of women in the Kushan period will need to understand those methods and debates. So in this sense Bose has done a service to all areas of Indian history by making available these tools.

Contents Page Women in the Kushan Period  Courtesans and Tantric Consorts Trade and Religious Exchange Gandharan Art in Context