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Organizer: Geraldine Forbes, State University of New York, Oswego
Chair: Hanna Papanek, Harvard University
Discussant: David Ludden, University of Pennsylvania
Our panel suggests the roles of women and family and their links with dominant forms of cultural production, nation, state, and communal identity are key to the process of constructing a gendered history of South Asia. The focus on the middle class is particularly relevant for the construction of its gendered identity and the role of its women. The redefinition of the images of women as "respectable" by male ideologues has played a crucial role in consolidating the social identity of the middle-class family and securing its central place in the nation. But women were never thoughtlessly receptive of these male ideas and visions. Within the limits of the wife-mother role envisioned by males, women influenced, modified, resisted, and challenged this stereotype. Our panel highlights this tension between patriarchal control and womens resistance and attempts at self-definition.
Set against this historical backdrop, our panel rethinks, re-situates and questions the themes of resistance, subversion, and control in the construction of middle-class womens identity and autonomy. Spanning colonial India to the present, we use a variety of sources to reveal the continuing relevance of middle-class notions of respectability and their impact on womens identity. More importantly, we attempt to capture womens modes of reaction and resistance to dominant practices of cultural production. While Siddiqis and Banerjees papers explore control and subversion in the construction and representation of womens identity, Forbes work focuses on the interplay between male control and female resistance in modifying the images of the patriarchal family.
Subverting the Moral Universe: "Narratives of Transgression" and Middle-Class Womens Identity
Swapna Banerjee, University of Florida, Gainesville
The importance of the family and the domestic domain as a site of articulating middle-class cultural identity and for establishing its hegemony over subordinate groups has gained much attention in recent scholarship on South Asia (Forbes 1996; Chatterjee 1993; Chakrabarty 1994). Located at the heart of the domestic domain, the interaction between the upwardly mobile employers and the lower class domestic workers offers an excellent opportunity to examine the middle-classs multi-dimensional bid for hegemony in colonial Bengal. By analyzing the "narratives of transgression," my paper demonstrates how the articulation of Bengali middle-class self identity was based on the definition of its women who in turn were carefully distinguished from members of lower socio-economic groups. Examining selective literary sources, my paper argues that the process of self definition of the Bengali middle-class was fraught with tension emanating from the possibility of subversion and transgression of their ideals by the subaltern "other" whom they tried to keep at bay and effectively under control. It will demonstrate that the discourse that articulated the distance between the domestics and the Bengali middle-class was closely tied up with the ideal model of the "respectable" lady and the ideal housewife. It reveals that the aspects of fear, conflict and tension that underlay employer-servant relationships were often predicated on the notion and status of the Bengali ladythe bhadramahila.
"I looked as mean as possible": Photography as a Site of Womens Resistance
Geraldine Forbes, SUNY, Oswego
In India, photography became a tool of imperialists concerned with classifying and controlling the people they ruled. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, elite Indian families began to construct photograph albums containing controlled and categorized images of their family members. In the twentieth century, middle-class people patronized the smaller studios and used their own cameras to create family albums. While the technology facilitated the control of family heads in the nineteenth century, the greater availability of studios and cameras in the twentieth century carried the potential for disruption. And, as images became more difficult to direct, instances of rebellion appear among the photos in family collections. My specific concern is womens role in disrupting the image of the patriarchal family in twentieth-century family albums. Collections begin to include photographs of women posed in deviant costumes and engaged in what were defined as male activities. In addition, during interviews, women selected seemingly conventional images and told stories about how they had consciously subverted the photographers purpose. Using photographs from family albums and notes from interviews with women born around the turn of the century, I ask whether we should see these "deviant" images as day-to-day acts of resistance that leave the system intact, or, as steps with the potential to disrupt patriarchy? How do we understand and privilege these "tellings" of photographs? I argue that visual images and the responses they evoke from photographed subjects can be important tools in understanding family/colonial history.
Nationalizing Respectability: Reflections on the Womens Movement in Bangladesh
Dina Siddiqi, New School for Social Research
In this paper, I examine three critical moments in the history of the womens movement in Bangladesh. I argue that the strictures of middle-class respectability in conjunction with the dominant strand of nationalism have consistently limited the responses of womens groups. The dictates of class have ensured that respectability and the ideology of protection remain the focal point of feminist struggle. Moreover, this ideology of protection extends only to certain citizens of the nation-state. As a result, the scope for resistance leading to structural change is foreclosed. I begin with the public debates over the Rima murder trial in the 1980s, debates which revolved around the sexual purity of the women involved, and the acceptable limits of transgression on the part of respectable men and women. The second moment I consider is in the early 1990s, a period which saw a rise in fatwa-related violence against women. Last, I analyze the response of womens groups to the disappearance of a radical minority activist, Kalpana Chakma, just before the general elections in 1996. What concerns me ultimately is Bengali nationalism and its deployment of the figure of Bengali middle-class women and their Others, as this impinges on feminist politics. The relationship between nationalism and feminism, always complicated, is made more so by the fact that in Bangladesh, nationalism, development, democracy and secularism are all defined squarely in opposition to Islam.