When the time came for me to consider topics for my postgraduate research I thought long and hard about what it was I would enjoy researching most. I had always enjoyed colonial history and already had a good knowledge of the methodologies and ideologies within the field. So I now had a basis on which to explore my options. I looked at the areas I had already covered so far and decided that it was imperial cultures and the impact of imperialism on societies that seemed to stick out to me. The time and place came next. India, the crowning glory of the British empire, with its rich history and diverse cultures would be the place. As for the time, the nineteenth century would be an excellent choice. This was the century in which Britain asserted its full authority over this colonial possession, transforming the lives of the indigenous peoples through its social reforms and legislations as a result of what they perceived was a backward society, simultaneously justifying colonial rule, and social and cultural interventions.
I met with my supervisor, armed with a time and place, as well as a vague area to consider. After some discussion, I warmed to the idea of looking at social reforms for women in nineteenth century colonial India, as gender was another area of history I had always found very interesting. I sifted through the works of other historians who had already covered this area, such as Tanika Sarkar, Geraldine Forbes and Gail Minault (to name a few), to give me a more thorough idea of the historiography relating to these issues. I found that social reforms for women in the nineteenth century mostly revolved around issues of marriage. Issues like child marriage, female infanticide and widow burning featured prominently.
Child marriage in Colonial India
I decided to single out one social reform, in order to narrow down the period and place, and to help simplify my search for primary sources. Child marriage was one area that I thought would be most fruitful, as this issue was highlighted not only by native social reformers and female victims, but also by Christian missionaries and the colonial government. It was listed as one of the many ‘social evils’ of indigenous society not only by foreigners but also by indigenous reformers.
As my research went on I came to realise that work on these issues had been covered quite extensively and so carried on with my reading in order to find a topic that would add some originality to my research. It was whilst reading the book ‘Secluded Scholars’ by Gail Minault that it occurred to me that most of the reforms that I had covered so far related to Hindu women. Minault on the other hand had focused on educational reforms for Muslim women and their impact on society in late colonial India. This made me think, is there a middle way between these two areas that I could maybe consider.
As I read on and delved deeper I found how much Muslim women had participated in women’s movements and the campaigns for social reforms, along with their Hindu counterparts. Muslim women suffered the many social constraints their Hindu sisters did due to the integration of cultural practices within communities. The adoption of Hindu practices and vice versa, meant these issues for social reform were, to some extent, universal among the women of India regardless of religious background.
In the case of Muslim women, they already had many rights other women of their time did not, yet due to a highly patriarchal society and lack of education, these rights were never fully realised nor granted until later. They could own and inherit property, had a say in matters of marriage and were encouraged to educate themselves. Yet, most women were unaware of such rights and went about their lives in almost complete submission to the men in their lives. They adopted the practices of child marriage and the exclusion of widows from society. Hindu women, on the other hand, had adopted the practice of purdah and female seclusion, limiting their interaction with the outside world and, along with the practice of child marriage, this restricted their access to education beyond an elementary level. Hence the zenana quarters of the Indian home were targeted by female Christian missionaries.
I came to realise that there were many commonalities as well as differences in the social reform campaigns for Hindu and Muslim women. Although the plight of women differed regionally and religious identity started to take priority, many Muslim and Hindu women worked together to better the situation for all the women of India, aiming to give them greater social standing and rights that were simply unthinkable a few decades earlier.