Gender in Indian History and Society c. 1800 to the present

Gender in Indian History and Society c. 1800 to the present


Convenor: Dr Anwesha Roy

What do we mean when we use the word ‘gender’ in the context of history writing? We often use statements such as ‘rewriting history’ through the gender lens – what does this imply? Is it simply studying women’s history? This course will answer such questions by examining socio-economic and political relations in India from the 1800s to the present, using gender relations as a tool for historical analysis – thereby exploring power dynamics and the (re)structuring of both colonial and post-colonial society in India and providing a nuanced understanding of historically specific politics.

Gender was central to India’s experience of colonialism. From the institution of Sati in the 1820s, to later conflicts over widow remarriage and the age of consent, the status of Indian women attracted the reforming zeal of missionaries, colonial legislators and metropolitan liberals. For Indian conservatives, reformers and later nationalists, women and the family were likewise potent symbols, conveying a variety of different class, community and national identities.

In more subtle ways, colonialism posed troubling issues for men and masculinity. Religious reform societies and political leaders of all shades of opinion sought in different ways to create a new moral vision for men and gender within family, community and nation, often in the face of unsettling assertions of women’s rights and freedoms. Questions of masculinity in relation to class, community and property rights assumed equal importance from the 1930s, as India’s future leaders debated legislation over Hindu and Muslim personal laws. The heightened significance of gender was nowhere more striking than over the years of Partition, when violence against women on either side underscored their roles as symbols of community, class and state.

Although this longer term history continues to find echoes, the independent states of South Asia have also set their own very different trajectories in the field of gender. Women are present at every level of politics, women’s organisations flourish, and the emergence of new urban middle classes across the region have re-set sexual norms and expectations for men and women alike. At the same time, many regional societies have witnessed a savage backlash against expanding freedoms for young women, while the increasingly skewed gender ratio is testament to the greater valuation still placed on sons over daughters.

This paper will give students a chance to explore the longer term history of gender relations in different parts of the subcontinent, as well as their changing forms in the present day. Following the work of Joan Scott, gender will be studied here both as form of ideology often used to underpin hierarchy in many areas of society, and as a set of roles and practices with great power to shape men’s and women’s lives.


Take a look at…

Tanika Sarkar and Sumit Sarkar, eds.  2008.  Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Francesca Orsini, ed.  2006. Love in South Asia: A Cultural History.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.