Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Socio-Political Activity of Women in the 19th and 20th Century

The need for women’ history is now recognized to a certain extent. A focus on women leads to the articulation of gender as a category of historical analysis, and to a conceptual perspective that makes possible a genuine rewriting of history. The paucity literature on women, however, remains grave, especially in the context of modern Indian history. One has to extend one’s sources. In this context, contemporary literature becomes extremely important. Literature is socially constructed and is too political.
During the nineteenth century women actively participated in the philanthropic and missionary activity which is the result of the evangelical movement and the new female role that was implicit in this Protestant revival. The Evangelical movement was a reform movement within the Anglican Church and in American churches and dominated Anglo-American societies during the nineteenth century. It had a profound and complex influence on the life and world-view of women.[1]
When we analysis the history carefully, one striking and glaring similarity is that different cultures, civilizations and even societies of different faith and religions down the annals of time, women were exploited and subjugated. We read in the history the deplorable plight of Indian women in the 19th and 20th century, wherein women were denied even basic human rights. Religious texts and sacred texts were interpreted in such a way that the women fold remain subjugated and chained by ancient beliefs and traditions. The women were not treated at par with men, and there were many social evils like child marriage, female infanticide, and the inhuman practice of Sati. (The burning alive of a widow, on the funeral pyre of her husband.) Though elementary schools were open yet girls and low caste children were not given admission in these schools. But there was a small section of girls who had received education. Widow Remarriage was prohibited, devadasi system, dowry system thus women were denied liberty. As the saying goes ‘Old habits die hard’, some of the social evils that haunted the women in the 19th century or the periods before continued to be practiced till today even by the educated people, a good example will be the inhuman custom of Dowry.
It is very sad to note that many Indologists have seized upon these social evils as distinctive evidence of India’s perennial backwardness. Moreover, during the colonial period these social inequalities and social divisions based on caste has become a convenient tool in the hands of the colonizers. On the one hand, they could tactfully play of one community against another. On the other hand, they could create an impression that India was a land rife with uniquely abhorrent social practices that only an enlightened foreigner could attempt to reform. India's social ills were discussed with a contemptuous cynicism and often with a willful intent to instill a sense of deep shame and inferiority.
The nineteenth-century-Protestant missionaries’ understanding of Christian mission as transplanting of the Western Christianity in Asia and Africa reinforced the subjugation of native women. It reduced the Christian mission to the changing of religious identities; it also divested the women of their personhood by treating them as either “stumbling blocks” or stepping-stones in missionaries’ expansionist enterprise.[2] Most female reformers of the nineteenth century believed that the guarantor of social progress, the agent of civilization, was woman herself. Western missionaries were committed to effecting a substantial change in the social norms affecting women. Among the majority of missionaries in India, for example, this commitment was reflected in a rhetoric that stressed women’s low status in Indian society and urged conversion to Christianity as a means of raising women’s status.[3]
Missionary reports written by Katherine mc Laurin and Mattie E. Currie, Canadian Baptist missionaries in Andhra Pradesh in the first half of the 19th century illustrate that they used women as an ‘agency’ to achieve their agenda of ‘winning’ the native community. They represented Telugu women both as obstacles to and as potential agents in Christianization of the Telugu communities. Moreover, they opined that these “brute” objects could become “Kings (God’s) daughters through the efforts of Canadian missionary women. Mc Laurin believed that “pagan” Telugus were waiting to be redeemed by her compatriots and their “dark” cultures needed “light” from Canadian Baptists. She regarded her compatriots as “masters” and Telugu Christians as “servants”.[4]
However, it should be admitted that Laurin has taken an extreme step in preserving the stories of single women missionaries and some Bible women in a chapter, which need to be appreciated. Other Canadian Baptist missionaries did not give so much space for women in their reports. While Mc Laurin representation viewed Telugu women as mostly hindrances to Christian expansion, Mattie E. Currie, a missionary teacher at Eva Rose York Bible Training School for Women, Tuni, depicted Telugu women as heroic new women. The story of Rajabullamma, a Telugu Bible woman, by Mattie Currie illustrates this attitude. A Canadian Baptist missionary journal, Among the Telugus, published this account of a runaway woman in 1936. Currie explained the enthusiasm that Telugu women showed in embracing Christianity and the need for women’s missionary adventures and sought support of the readers.[5]
Evangelization for Christ was the only aim of the missionary societies and for that they wanted to educate the women also. They believed that the church of Christ will never appear in its great beauty, unless the foundation of Christian education be laid in the minds of its members by the hands of a Christian mother. Moreover the missionaries realized that education was one of the means to raise the women folk from their low status in the society. Therefore, along with evangelistic work, the missionaries concentrated on educational work also. Women missionaries had a far-reaching impact and were among the most effective agents of cultural change. New ideas of female higher education, employment and social liberation and equality touched the lives of many women, and contributed much to their social and cultural transformation. The missionaries showed particular interest in the development of female education, irrespective of caste or creed. Free boarding, food, and clothing provided at the beginning was a blessing to the slaves and poor girls.
While women were often in subordinate positions in terms of missionary hierarchy, the mission movement contributed significantly to the entrance of women into the public domain. It gave women the opportunity to engage in charitable activities outside the home, the chance to learn organizational skills, and the opportunity to enter the labour market as missionaries. Most missions have acted deliberately to change gender structures among the local people they encountered in the mission field, but they have also, intentionally and unintentionally, caused changes in such structures both in their own organizations and in their home countries.[6]

Pandita Ramabai
Pandita Ramabai, a poet, scholar, and champion of the rights of women, has been acclaimed as a "mother of modern India." A widely traveled lady, she visited most parts of India, and even went to England (1883) and the USA (1886-88). She wrote a book titled The High Caste Hindu Woman, which was used as an appeal to raise funds in the US and elsewhere, for a home for Brahmin widows in India.
She married at the age of twenty-two, but her husband died of cholera after only sixteen months, leaving her alone with an infant daughter, Manorama. Her travels in India and now her present circumstances sensitized her to the bleak plight of widows and orphans.
The practice among higher castes of betrothing young girls to much older men (her own mother had been nine, her father over forty, at the time of their marriage) had contributed to the vast number of widows, women without status or protection. Ramabai set out to do something about this social problem, establishing centers for widows and orphans in Poona and later Bombay, where the women were given basic education and training in marketable skills. Soon Ramabai had become the leading advocate for the rights and welfare of women in India. She established the Mukti Mission in 1889 as a refuge for young widows who were abused by their families. Meera Kosambi and Meena Alexander, in their respective studies of Pandita Ramabai Saraswathi, the feminist and social reformer of late 19th century and early 20th century say that the path was harder, as women of her days had not entered the public domain. Educated, outspoken and unorthodox, Ramabai lived her life on her own terms, while working for the social emancipation of women through institutional initiatives such as shelters for widows as well as through her writings and active public life. Kosambi draws attention to an aspect of Ramabai's perspective that almost anticipated the human development approach towards social and economic progress, namely, her belief that a society which oppresses its women and discriminates against them can never progress.

[1] Billie Melman, Women’s Orient: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918 London 1995, 166.
[2] James Taneti, Empowering Mission or Enslaving Enterprise? Women Missionaries’ attitudes to Telugu Women in Bangalore Theological Forum vol. XXXIX, No. 1 June 2007. 161.
[3] Flemming ‘A New Humanity: American Missionaries’ Ideals for Women in North India, 1870-1930’ (1992) p. 194.
[4] Malcolm L. Orchard & Katherine S. Mc Laurin, The Enterprise: The Jubilee Story of the Canadian Baptist Mission in India, 1874-1924 (Toronto: The Canadian Baptist Foreign Mission Board, n.d).
[5] Mattie Currie, Among the Telugus: The Canadian Baptist Foreign Mission board, a report published by CBFMB, Toronto, 1936. 93-94.
[6] Line Nyhagen Predelli and Jon Miller ‘Piety and Patriarchy: ‘Contested Gender Regimes in Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Missions’ in Taylor Huber and N C Lutkehaus (eds.) 1999.

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