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Shaping The Discourse: Bengali Women Writers Who Blazed A Trail [Book Review]

Posted: May 10, 2015

Shaping The Discourse: Writings from Bengali Periodicals (1865-1947) gives us an excellent glimpse of revolutionary Bengali women writers of the period.

Earlier this week, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day, and the birth anniversary of the world’s first woman journalist Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochrane).

Even as we talk of the achievements of Nellie Bly, who blazed a trail in journalism for many to follow, we would do well to recall our own women who  questioned their status and laid the foundations of  an enlightened India through the columns of periodicals and newspapers in the mid-19th century.

Women were granted equality by our Constitution in 1950, but the consensus for women’s rights took a long time in the making; this book is a documentation of how it was done.

Reading Shaping The Discourse: Writings from Bengali Periodicals (1865-1947), a translation of letters and essays on subjects that remain contemporaneous to this day, one is struck by how well-read and informed these early graduates and post-graduates were.

There are women ruing child mortality, demanding birth control, vocational training for girls and women, an end to the custom of dowry, education for women to become independent, doing away with the forced observance of chastity following widowhood, questioning the mores that end up making young virginal girls widows under the kaulinya pratha (practice of families marrying girls to elderly upper caste men to elevate their status), and demanding the end to killing of young women in Hindu and  Muslim families.

There is even a successful refutation of moral policing, as regards Saratchandra Chatterjee’s portrayal of women who opt to rebel against the system, and choose to end farcical marriages with lecherous husbands. But social mores and the plight of women are not the only concerns here. There are many writings by revolutionaries, nationalists and literati like Saraladevi Chaudhurani, Leelabati Roy, Swarnalata Basu, Sita Devi, Saralabala Sarkar, Swarnakumari Devi, Manorama Basu as also anonymous or unknown persons on the political issues of the day, the women’s role in the satyagraha movement, and what the system of governance in independent India should be. Sufiya Khatun’s call for an India where unity in diversity is the norm, written in Bangabani in 1924, is far ahead even for our times.

Abala Bose’s write-up on the Nari Samabaya Samiti (Women’s Cooperative Store) in the Bengali periodical Jagriti, in 1931, says a lot about the practical ideas of women of that era. Perhaps this is what served as the model for the micro-financing self-help groups (SHGs) that serve as vehicles for women’s economic emancipation today. Her sister, Sarala Ray’s  views on what education should mean for women’s upliftment-beyond the keeping of laundry notes, and shopping, are considerably revolutionary for that era. (Not surprising, though, since it comes from the founder of the prestigious Gokhale Memorial Girls” School, and the wife of Dr.Ray, the first Indian principal of Presidency College.)

The  gist of the ideas held by  these women could be summed up in what noted children’s author Sukhalata Rao, wrote, as far back as in 1931- If Indian women do not arise, India will not wake up, in an article on “The Ideal Woman,”  (Adarsha Nari) in Bangalakshmi. Sukhalata Rao’s piece questions the then prevalent social mores that dictated marriage and family life as the only choices available for women. To her, selflessly dedicating one’s life to social upliftment is just as ideal a life to lead. There is also an anonymous writer’s suggestion to have widowed or destitute women serve society as nuns or social reformers, while we have Swarnakumari Devi (Rabindranath Tagore’s elder sister) proposing that they be trained as teachers in Bharati, the literary journal she edited since 1885.

The letters and essays written by Muslim women reflect a gradual moving away from ideas borrowed from Hindu parables, way back in 1865, (when Taherunnesa writes in Bamabodhini Patrika) to Bibi Khairunnesa Khatun advocating women’s education through neighbourhood schools, in keeping with Islamic social norms , in Nabanoor, (1904). The growing confidence of the Muslim woman is evident, when  educationist and writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, questions the very concept of “abala” ( weak) womankind in her travelogue on the Himalayas in an essay  in Mahila, (1904).

Anwara Rahman , an early post-graduate,  writing in Saogat,in 1946, condemning the ulema as the greatest stumbling blocks to  progress of Muslim women, and questioning  the denial of choice for Muslim women in choosing one’s partner,  in spite of it being granted by the Prophet; or  letter- writer Salma Raushan-Jahan, opposing a piece of writing in 1936 where Indian Muslims are looked upon as foreigners, are as modern as can be. One is struck by Raushan-Jahan’s clarity of thought and arguments that question assumptions of Muslims being disrespectful of Hindu scriptures, and the belief that Muslims never read or enjoy Kalidasa.

An excellent document for those who plan to research the early years of the Indian women’s movement, the book would have done well to include photographs of the earliest Indian periodicals, and at least some of the authors, whose biographical details are known.

Edited by Ipshita Chanda and Jayeeta Bagchi

Publisher: School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University/Stree

 

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