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Social Change and Women

Sudha Pai

By Prem Chowdhry
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 347, Rs. 695.00


This is an important book that captures in detail and great finesse through a study of ‘contentious marriages’ the ongoing processes of social change in northern Indian society. By focusing on the central institution of marriage it weaves together the inter-relationship between caste, class and gender and its impact on women in Haryanvi society. The study shows that the traditional system of marriage arranged by senior male or female relatives continues in Haryana as patriarchal forces retain control over the individual women’s sexuality, production and reproduction as well as the political economy of the entire community. Yet at the same time these deeply embedded social norms are now being questioned as new ideas, values and cultural norms are emerging among the younger generation. But any attempt by a woman to select her life partner is viewed as very threatening and immediately put down by the caste elders. It is this clash – often violent and life threatening—between older norms and new emerging ideas around marriage and the reasons underlying it that form the central theme of this work.   Chowdhry argues through an analysis of popular culture particularly cinema that in the 1970s for a time romantic love among young people triumphed and family pride and izzat (honour) had to bow before it. But the 1990s have very forcefully brought back old values that underline not rebellion but acquiescence; patriarchal norms, which were challenged, have been reaffirmed. Chowdhry locates this ‘retreat’ in cinema as a response to the reaction of popular culture to the restructuring of the Indian economy since 1991. It has led to attempts, visible not only in cinema but also in sections of the media, to save Indian culture, deemed morally and culturally different and superior to that of the West, from globalizing forces. The institution of marriage is perceived to be under threat from an alien value system requiring protection by the moral guardians of the society. Thus, patriarchal values have managed to overcome the threat they faced in the 1970s due to democratization of Indian society and the inroads of western culture. Yet at the same time challenges to the old order continue and in fact, are on the rise among the younger generation. Based on extensive fieldwork conducted between 1999-2003, with seven chapters, the book has a wide canvas. Beginning in the colonial period it examines three kinds of contentious marriages: intercaste marriages where caste ...

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