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Silent Voices and Societal Norms

Maithreyi Krishnaraj

Edited by Govind Kelkar , Dev Nathan and Pierre Walter
Sage Publications, Delhi, 2003, pp. 326, Rs. 550.00


The title of the book Gender Relations in Forest Society in Asia. Patriarchy at Odds hits the nail on the head. It discards the conventional appellation ‘tribal’—a term redolent of patronage and a barely concealed disparagement that views such society as ‘pre-modern’, hence ‘primitive’.   The antonym ‘Silent Voices’ conveys the tragedy of women in such societies. Their voices have fallen silent waiting for someone to come along to hear the story of their lives. The incursion of patriarchy into a non-patriarchal set up has not been an easy victory or achieved without resistance. It is only when there is a deliberate intervention, either to hear those silent voices or to support positive change that we begin to understand social relations as they existed and as they are transforming in these societies. The International Fund for Agricultural Development funded twelve studies (of which ten are reported in the book), with a specific focus on gender relations, is one such intervention that brings to us clearer insights on hitherto vaguely known details. Anthropological treatises of such societies concentrate on minutiae of kinship but fail to draw on other facets that govern gender relations. ‘Tribal communities are more egalitarian’ is an oft repeated generalization, be they matrilineal or patrilineal, but what was it that made them so has not been adequately surmised except by feminist anthropologists—but even they have identified many different factors. One commonly cited aspect was women’s contribution to production. After analysing more than a hundred societies Peggy Sanday had identified women’s role in the public sphere as the most important test of gender relations favourable to women.   The present volume is not a replication of any standard version. Coming many decades after feminist anthropological work of the sixties and seventies, it brings fresh insights into the complex bases on which more egalitarian gender relations rested, how they were maintained and what forces operated to destabilize them. Earlier studies of indigenous societies were static pictures, snapshots, recording quaint practices for the edification of mainstream readers looking for exotica. This book is in every sense a departure from those conventions—neither romanticizing these societies nor belittling them but trying to capture their trials and tribulations in the course of their transition to a new mode of life, alien to their long held customary beliefs and practices. It deals essentially with processes at work. The story is one of ...

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