Gender and Nationalism in 19th Century Bengal

In a world thrown into the tumult of the struggle for Independence, what room did women have for themselves? Was the nationalist movement, as it emerged in the country, enabling for women? Or, did it bring with itself its own trappings?

To answer this question, I’ll look at colonial Bengal in the 19th century. This is not because Bengal was an exceptional case in anyway, nor because it can define the rest of India. My reason is rather simpler than that. It is because the studies available have focussed only on Bengal, more than other states. Any pointer towards other such studies for other states is always welcome.

So, to get to the point: did the status of women change in any way during this dynamic time? To answer this, we must separate the symbolic from the real. We must, in other words, look differently and separately at the place of women in terms of their actual participation in the freedom struggle as well as the symbolic space accorded to the feminine.

Women came out in masses on the streets, in rebellion to the British. They boycotted goods, picketed shops as well as men did. Several took up positions of leadership even. Yet this was seen as a source of anxiety by the Indian nationalist freedom fighters. How did a struggle for freedom for equality and justice become simultaneously a source of bother that the freedom imparted be not too much, not freely given to all (read: women), etc?

To look at this, it’s essential to look at gender not as something of a given but something constructed, made possible by endless repetitions such that it appears to be the natural truth. The feminine then, as opposed to the female. The question then follows is: what was the position of the feminine such that it led to the silencing and sidelining of several women?

We are all familiar with the concept of motherland. Deshmata: the land as mother. We have been fed this notion for so long that it seems to be something of a universalism. Yet, if we look historically, it was exactly at this particular time that this notion came to the fore in a big way. It was exactly around this time that, to quote scholar Tanika Sarkar, “the country was sacralised and feminised.”

The practice of looking at the country as feminine – to be saved and protected from outsiders – took root during the time of Indian nationalism. However, this was not done in a vacuum. There has long been a tradition in India of female cults. What took place was an extension of that to looking at the country as another goddess – to be revered and protected. Slogans like ‘bharat mata ki jai!’ (Hail the motherland!) took shape as a direct result of this.

So why the anxiety is women were involved in the freedom struggle? The idea was that just as the home is the realm of women, the feminine, the female, etc, so to is the world the space of the masculine and thus of men. Women crossing the threshold of the house was seen as transgressive.

It was one thing to call the country your mother and quite another to have your mother fight for that country. The paradox of that was quite lost on the nationalists.

Today, as we have firmly cemented the notion of deshmata; as we have posters of goddesses represent women national leaders; and as we use the rhetoric of the motherland repeatedly without question, the burden of what the nationalists did, in their bid to ensure freedom, needs questioning even more urgently.