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In her article contentious traditions: a debate on sati in colonial India Lata mani is tries to look at the Bengal renaissance and its implication on women. She uses the word emblematic tradition to denote women because the reworking of the tradition largely is done through debating their status and right in their society. Even now, women and her body and movement are something which is the main subject of the debates on authentic traditions. The questions like what woman should wear, where woman should be, whether woman should drink or smoke are still asked and answered by tradition. But interestingly those debates are exclusively centered around the middle and upper class women who should be safeguarding a nations tradition, but largely ignore the lower class women who ‘traditionally’ drinks or smoke or wear a lunki and walk around. Radha kumar in her book “history of doing” also critically looks at the much celebrated history of 19th century and says how, the 19th century reforms were mainly centered on the urban upper caste women. She also shows that how such reforms had a negative impact on other communities, who had an entirely different practice of certain customs. For example, he explains how the bill on widow remarriage had a specific clause which classifies the property rights of a widow. If the property comes to her from her husband’s family after the remarriage she was no longer allowed to keep it. But there were many communities who allowed the widows to keep her husband’s property even after remarriage. The bill had a negative impact on those communities which traditionally allowed widow remarriages. He also shows that, while the new bourgeoisie of Bengal opened schools to educate women, that was mainly for upgrading them up to the standard of their foreign counter parts, and that resulted in the marginalization of popular form of traditional music and traditional platform of women’s entertainment. It curtailed the women’s space and expressions within the traditional set up.
Radha kumar locates the reform movements in a specific historical context, 19th century which is called as the ‘age of woman’. She also identifies the role players of this reform movements, mainly the colonial rulers who were engaging in a “civilizing mission”, then there is the existing dominant groups, who with their relationship to the colonial regime began to be forged into a middle class or bourgeoisie. And the site of reform, or who were to be reformed were the women, or the institutions which is directly related to women. The article mainly talks about the reform movements in Bengal and Maharashtra and covers the movements to abolish sati, child marriage and the age of consent, movements for education and widow remarriage, the campaign for factory legislation. It also shows how towards the end of 19th century, the liberals and nationalists like Tilak and Tagore began an anti reform movement to reclaim the Hindu tradition.
While the article mainly talks about the reform movements which took place in Maharashtra and Bengal, I found it interesting to connect it with the 19th century reform movements in kerala, particularly of the reforms took place among the Nayar community of Kerala, which has a long history of matrilineal kinship structure. Particularly because much of the literature which I was familiar with implicitly treats patriliny as a normative standard . it also treats the reforms in 19th century as a milestone in achieving keralas social change.(rewrite)
Matrilineal Tharavadu before the colonial rule was an entity were women had right to property and also decision making power unlike in patriliny where women had no permanent stake either in her own home or in her husbands home. But then under the colonial rule, the search of a responsible authority to settle matters under the changing agrarian relationship and taxation, that power was taken away from women, and replaced by the eldest male member of the tharavadu. but according to many of the female authors, who had the experiences of a tharavadu, even during colonial time, tharavadu offered women a sense of stability and belongingness, which disappeared over time. According to Sharadamani’s book on the transformation of matriliny in Kerala, the educated nayar men came forward demanding, reforms in marriage, control and division of property and inheritance, during the last quarter of the 19th century. It becomes important to examine who were the subject of this reform, who initiated reform, what are the main legislations regarding this and also to see the effect of this reform on nayar women.
Who initiated reform?
The social reformers were largely young educated Nayar men of well to do tharavadus.Brahmins who were in the top in the caste hierarchy were resistant to English education for a very long time. Nayars and young Christians from the wealthy families were the ones who actually utilized the opportunity of English education in this case. G. Arunima in her book “here comes papa; colonialism and the transformation of matriliny in Malabar” gives an account of the nature of the education which they received.A few women also did receive English education but the public education in this period mainly trained women for domestic arts rather than professional work where the education which men received prepared them for professional work. For the younger male reformers the impartibility of the tharavadu actually symbolized the dependency on karanavar. In a book written in 1977 on ‘marriage and family in kerala’ Fr. J. Puthenkalam S J says how the nayars and Christians profited most by education and, how the successful battle of reform was lead by these educated (men) changing the pattern of marriage and family in Kerala.
These educated young men who read mainly Victorian literature familiarized with an idea of family which consists of father mother and children where the father plays the role of the head of the family and also the protector of wife and children.. Sharadamani in her book says “quoting the practice of civilized world they insisted on a man’s right to bequeath his self acquired wealth to his wife and children instead of his tharavadu, as was the practice under matriliny”.
Polygamy was seen as rampant, and divorce as a threat to the stable institution of marriage. According to G. Arunima “they egged each other onto agitate against the malpractice like exogamy and divorce, that resulted in the backwardness of the community. The call for reform was directed at men, who were to rouse their manhood and organize”
For them the main aim was the creation of a new family based on conjugal love.But what was lacking was a sense of individualism which was a main factor in constituting a nuclear family in west.
Who were the subject of reform?
Women, who were s at the centre of matriliny and who also, had a civil and legal status independent of men. Some historical accounts suggests that even under the rule of a karanavar women had the right to divorce her husband at any time and go back to her Natal home. She was always welcomed there and also had decision making power.
one of the major rite which they attacked was thalikettu kalyanam, which was an initiation ceremony for females once they reach puberty. A thali was tied on her neck either by a Brahmin or by her mother. People from different Taravadus were invited and feasts were given to all of them. The question arises, if their struggle was to get property right, why would they attack all the rites which is associated with matrilineal women? other than the practice of Sambandham. So the attack was on a mother centered family form which they found different and humiliating from the kind of western model which they have read and studied. For the young nayar men, it was a huge wastage of money where as for a nayar woman it is rite which celebrates her sexuality and also something which gives her some sort of authority.
What were the main legislations which took place?
Demand for ‘reforms’ in the customary practices regarding marriage, property, and changes in the system of inheritance mainly came within the community, as pointed out earlier from the educated young men. The focus of attack was the Sambandham system of marriage. It was an attack against the immorality of the nayar women and their polyandrous sexuality. According to G.Arunima at the heart of this was a condemnation of matriliny. The cry against the ‘promiscuous polyandry’ and the ‘barbarous past’ argued for a new community based monogamous marriage and conjugal co residence.
One of the important legislation was the Malabar marriage act of 1896, which provided an aid to the ‘natural progress and good morals’. It also defined the divorce rules. ‘a woman could demand maintenance from her husband only as long as she remained hindu, continue chaste, did not remarry or commit adultry’
The second one was the ‘madras marumakkathayam act’ of 1933 which abolished the joint family and the collective right to property.
What was the impact of those reforms on women
While men were talking about reform and legislation, no women’s voice were taken into consideration or heard. It was men, from their Victorian romantic poems who wrote about the love between men and woman, where the men played the leading role. Women lost their decision making power within the family, now she became the dutiful wife who has to look after her husband and children with love, who has no option of going back to her own home.she also lost her inheritance right in property. The reform not only effected the nayar community but also other community who were following similar matrilineal forms of marriage. But the legislatures considered the nayar matrilinty as the standardized form and no attention was given to the other communities.
The nayar reform movements that challenged the power of the karanavar in itself were patriarchal. Their demands for marriage reforms , tenants rights or family partition did not give any room for the power which a woman held till then within a tharavadu. so basically under the patriarchal rule of the karanavar women enjoyed some kind of power and authority which was replaced by a new kind of patriarchy. Radha Krishnan in her article on 19th century says “the social reform as such characterized as playing an important part in the formation of new set of patriarchal-gender based relations essential in the construction of a bourgeois society”. The same thing can be applied to the reforms in kerala also, though they were opposing the authority of a male head, they were arguing only for the freedom of men from an elderly patriarch while what they were arguing for was same authority over their wife and children. As sharadamani points out the growing political awareness attracted the educated people of kerala to more radical and left ideologies. But though women in kerala face less restriction regarding the access of education and employment compared to their counterparts in west, the actual comparison has to be made between the men of kerala and the women of kerala. The education did not give them a sense of worth or independence compared to the men.
While comparing the reform movements in Kerala with Bengal and Maharashtra, it is evident that family marriage and kinship becomes a site of reform. The progress and development of a society is assessed based on the change in marriage and family system. We also see that the subject of reform was mainly women but it was the privileged men who were in the leadership of reform movements. Neither did women play a part in these reforms nor their voice heard. Tradition provided a space for entertainment and joy within the private space, in the case of kerala, tradition provided them a kind of decision making power and authority. While the western ideas of family and marriage was imposed upon Indian women the ideological developments which took place in the west did not happen in Indian case.
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