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'Women have History, Women are in History'

Kalpana Kannabiran

By Kamlesh Mohan
Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 272, Rs. 595.00


Using historical sources, including official and nonofficial, published and unpublished in combination with oral tradition and other sources, Kamlesh Mohan attempts an exploration of the varied formulations of culture and their interplay with economic forces from the colonial period to contemporary India. Through three sections, we journey through colonial Punjab, Sikh society, Jallianwala Bagh, Nehruvian utopias and globalization.   The opening question in the first section, ‘Reforming Women’, ‘what shall we do with religion?’ (p. 21) sets the tone for an examination of the ways in which Sikh tradition conceptualizes women. Arguing that even while Sikh religious tradition presented some departures from Hinduism, its rootedness in brahmanical patriarchy on the one side, and the hegemony of the extremely patriarchal Jats within Sikhism on the other served to freeze and stereotype gender formations. This was further accentuated by the cultivation of a martial culture as a defining trait of the faith. At its originary moment, though, Sikhism launched a valiant drive to remove prejudice against women. Protesting against exploitation, political abuse, social degradation, cultural anomie and the immiseration of the people, Guru Nanak was utterly conscious of the way in which all of this was linked to the exploitation of women and their vulnerability: (pp. 24–25) Babur has descended upon India, with the wedding party of lust and forcibly demands surrender of the bride. Decency and law have hidden themselves. The evil is strutting about in triumph. Mohammedan and Hindu priests are discarded; and Satan is solemnising the marriages. (Babarvani, cf. 25)   However, Kamlesh Mohan argues that while women’s emancipation was articulated by the Sikh gurus, there was an equivocation that is reflected in the misogynist images of mother and bride, and the unabashed joy in bringing forth sons. This translates into practice with Sikh women subjected to a curious mix of brahmanical and Jat patriarchal norms and values systems, especially in matters of entitlements to property, marriage practices, parenting, fertility patterns, and work participation. The second chapter, ‘Clamping Shutters and Valorising Women’, discusses the transitions in agriculture in colonial Punjab and its implications for women. The adverse female sex ratio and qualities of passivity and docility which begins to get entrenched during this period coexisted with the image of the ever working, sturdy Punjabi wife, especially Jatti: domestic chores, training and scrubbing, nursing children, animal husbandry, agricultural labour—all of this and more. Colonial stereotypes were then pasted on to a society already ...

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