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Gender and Tribe: Writing Women's History in Chotanagpur

Sumi Krishna

By Shashank Shekhar Sinha
Stree, Kolkata, 2005, pp. 248, Rs. 550.00


The writing of ‘women’s history’ has been closely related to the women’s movement and feminist practice. Since the 1960s, feminist scholars have challenged the methodology of conventional historiography and have altered its contours and research tools, perhaps with greater success than in the case of any other discipline.  By the late 1980s pioneering women scholars, notably Gerda Lerner, had achieved respectability for women’s history as a field of enquiry. In India, women’s history grew as activists in the women’s movement began to retrace women’s past. With feminist research providing the stimulus, key concepts of patriarchy and male domination have been used by historians and social scientists (women and men) to understand the values that sustain the division of labour, and economic and familial oppression of women. Enquiries into the growth of feminist consciousness and women’s agency in struggle have also been rich seams in historical scholarship.   Gender studies (which grew out of women’s studies and has a somewhat ambiguous linkage to its more ‘political’ forerunner) has helped to enhance our knowledge of  how women’s pasts are differently constructed, not only by their gender but also by  religion, class, caste and ethnicity. Women’s studies/gender studies have considerable transformatory potential. Studies of the historical interweaving of gender and caste in India, for instance, have been especially valuable in enhancing our understanding of, and our ability to challenge, the persistence of contemporary forms of women’s oppression. Our understanding of the interface of gender and tribe, however, has rarely been sharpened by a historical perspective. Our knowledge of the lives and livelihoods of tribal women in India is largely derived from contemporary or recent ethnographic accounts that use the tools of social anthropology and/or development communication. The repertoire of methods and tools that women’s history and cultural studies have used to document the hitherto unrecorded hidden testimonies of non-literate peoples have also rarely been used to retrieve tribal women’s history. As a result, we know little of the complex historicity of various tribal patriarchies in diverse locations and over time. This lack has contributed to the pervasive tendency both within and outside academia to valorize the precolonial past of tribal peoples and to romanticize gender relations in the major tribal societies of central and Northeastern India.   It is against this briefly sketched topography that Shashank Shekhar Sinha’s multidisciplinary ...

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