There is a dire need to examine the shifting conceptualizations of womanhood and ideologies of gendered bourgeois identity as they emerged among South Asian Muslims during the 19th century. These discourses were located within a large social context of the gradual erosion of feudal tradition, along with the exigencies of capitalist markets, and the emergence of a new middle class that came into conversation with the ideals of Enlightenment — rationalism. It was within the colonial matrix of power that Muslim reformers began addressing a particular community as it had been defined and constituted discursively by the state and members of the new upper middle classes. These changes were not universal but were, in fact, limited to this respectable and upwardly mobile class of “landed and mercantile families who often had some members in government jobs.”
The women of this ‘service-gentry’ — as C.A. Bayly terms it — underwent the radical spatial shift from the previous seclusion of pardah to the public sphere. This first took place during the ‘Caliphate Movement’ and involved the active participation in political sphere by women belonging to upper and middle classes. Jinnah, in 1944, claimed:
“It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable conditions in which our women have to live. You should take your women along with you as comrades in every sphere of life.”
In the 19th century, women came to be exalted as moral influences, “a force for good in the immoral city of colonialism”.
The literature of the time also bears witness to this change, as, for example, with Hali’s Chup ki Dad (Homage to the Silence). Devji describes this shift in “the politics of space” from the char-divari (four walls of the house), the peripheries of the main household “to the centre of the new Muslim home”. This was a moment of obsession on the part of Muslim “reformers” (both Ulema and the westernized elite) with the need to educate woman, to create a “new, rational woman” as an essential part of the overall identity formation of Indian Muslims. Metcalf alludes to this “literate woman” who is the pinnacle of respectability and speaks standard Urdu, practices scripturalist religion, manages the household efficiently, raises well-behaved children, and fulfils her obligations to all those with whom she is in reciprocal ties.
This feminine ideal and ‘performativity of gender’ articulated and espoused in the writings of reform-minded authors such as Ashraf Ali Thanavi’s Bahishti Zewar is embodied in the notions of adab and aql; the latter being “reasoned discrimination” and the practices having the ritual significance of self-discipline, most preferably under the guidance of a Sufi mentor. A woman’s “relations to society in general and to her husband in particular is precisely the analogue for the believer’s relation to God”. This is a blending of both the new middle class ethos of gendered identity and the Sufi notions of qalandar and malang as brides of God (as Katherine Ewing elaborates) as well as the Urs embodying the awaited Union with the Beloved.
In Thanvi’s understanding, women have the same potential or achievement, religious or otherwise, as men and are equal in eyes of God. What is lacking in the case of women was access to the means of knowledge and literacy. In reference to the Bahishti Zewar, Thanvi notes that from reading this book alone a woman would be the equal of a ‘middling alim’ and he proposed a programme of home study that would make her an alim indeed. Ultimately these material changes in the relations of production from feudal to the capitalist middle class brought with it various reformulations of gendered identities as well as the spatial transition from women in purdah to the homo economicus who participates in the public sphere, and soon-to-be national spheres.
The writer is a lecturer at Law College, Punjab University, Jhelum Campus.