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Child marriage and the lack of female education were social problems across both Hindu and Muslim women. Colonial criticisms in the nineteenth century, pointed to the condition of Indian women and their social customs as an indicator of the nation’s backwardness and inability for self-rule. This in turn prompted a protective nationalistic ideology amongst the indigenous population, and the pursuance of social reforms for their women. Yet religious communities in India chose to focus on different aspects of their women’s social conditions as subjects of their reform campaigns. Matters of conjugality, particularly child marriage, were the focus of Hindu reformers in the late nineteenth century. However, Muslim reformists chose to work towards reforming female education for their women.
In the 1890s these two matters for reform were picked up, as the death of the child-wife Phulmonee Dasi in 1889, sparked further debate on child marriage, while the Muhammedan Educational Conference in Aligarh resolved to work toward promoting female education. By the 1930s Muslim female education was increasing significantly, while legislation was passed both in 1891 and 1929 to raise the marriageable age of girls.1 This research explores the trajectory of these two reform agendas, and asks: what accounts for the apparently selective embrace of reform campaigns for Hindu and Muslim women? This question will be explored through a careful examination of native texts and periodicals, alongside missionary and English sources to provide a comparison of the seemingly different reform campaigns for Indian women, between the years 1885 and 1940.
In consideration of this question my dissertation will build on the work of other scholars within the field. Partha Chatterjee and Tanika Sarkar have identified how reform campaigns were closely tied to nationalistic ambitions, particularly within Hindu social reforms. Chatterjee claims that nationalism formed the basis of reformist’ ideology, which in turn influenced the direction and subjects of their focus.2 Nationalistic discourse raised the woman to a new level of social importance within the private realm of the home, as the preserver of culture. This placed conjugality as a significant matter within the reform agenda, which in the late nineteenth century focused on child marriage. Sarkar explores these reforms in child marriage, presenting the multiple discourses among different sections of Hindu society, as well as the colonial government, and how these affected legislation and the reform movement itself.
On reforms for Indian Muslim women, Barbara Metcalf and Gail Minault have explored how Muslims focused on education as a matter for reform.4 This again can be tied into notions of nationalism and cultural continuity. The perceived decline of Islam in India, and the threat this posed to Muslim identity, led to a nationalistic ideology that encouraged reform in female education to ensure cultural continuity. Women as the preservers and transmitters of culture and religion were targeted for the greater good of the wider Muslim community. The importance of literature for women in affecting these changes was paramount and so an interrogation of Urdu literature, highlights how reformers sought to affect change and to what degree, while also providing insights into the motives for reform.
Scholars have looked into the matters of social reform for Indian women, either focusing on a particular religious community, or taking all Indian women together within one broad category, undifferentiated by religious experience. My research will draw these two religiously segregated reform campaigns in a comparison, to highlight the similarities in ideologies behind motives for reform amongst each religious community. North India will be focused on particularly as a place from which many reforms were initiated. This was also a place of Muslim majority communities, while campaigns against child marriage were significant here due to the death of the child-wife Phulmonee Dasi in Calcutta.
A close reading of key texts and records from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will be carried out through archival research, and an exploration of published data and online sources. Organizational reports and journals, government records, and newspaper sources will be used to explore key developments in Muslim female education and the suppression of Hindu child marriage. In addition to this, Urdu works and literature produced specifically for female education will be explored to gauge the ideologies behind the motives for educational reform, whilst native opinion on child marriage will be obtained through the writings of Indian contemporaries on this issue. This investigation will provide insights into what reformers aimed to achieve, how they were able to secure change, and the relationship of developments in Muslim female education and Hindu child marriage to the implementation of legislation, and changes to the customs and social conditions of Indian women.
An exploration of the histories of colonialism, nationalism, and gender and feminism is required to further understand these developments, as each impacted the change in Indian women’s conditions. The threat of colonial influences created a protective nationalistic ideology amongst Indians who sought to preserve their religious and cultural identities through the reform of their women. Why did Indian nationalism focus on the reform of women and how was this differentiated amongst the religious communities? Feminism influenced women to seek greater gender equality and assert change. Women from both religious communities emerged into the public to campaign for changes in their social conditions. In light of these two streams of women’s activism, was a common cause for women of both religious communities represented in the all India women’s movement, or could religion serve as a barrier to the cooperation of Hindu and Muslim women, struggling for a common cause? These historiographies remind us to be attentive to these broader questions. The problems reformers aimed to address were common across both religious communities, and so the selective nature of each campaign needs to be explored in order to understand if a common ideology amongst Hindus and Muslims under colonial rule prompted the need for change, or if differences between the two reform campaigns were of greater significance. In turn, an investigation of the emergence of women in reform campaigns can highlight if feminism and women’s rights were motives that replaced the initial nationalistic drive, or if nationalistic feeling was still present among these women.
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