Shehabuddin on Sarkar, 'Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal'

Mahua Sarkar
Elora Shehabuddin

Mahua Sarkar. Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. xi + 338 pp. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-4215-1; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-4234-2.

Reviewed by Elora Shehabuddin (Rice University) Published on H-Asia (September, 2011) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Muslim Women in Bengal

“‘Why should Muslim women have to do what Hindu women did?’ [Mumtaz] exclaimed indignantly. ‘Just because they [Muslim women] did not always attend school does not mean that they were all backward!’” (p. 169). This excerpt from one of Mahua Sarkar’s interviews in her book, Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal, is a perfect example of the biases that have plagued histories of late colonial Bengal and against which Sarkar pits her own book. Her deep reflections on this exchange, to Mumtaz’s response to what Sarkar belatedly realizes was a “naïve and poorly thought-out question,” are, in turn, a beautiful example of the critical thoughtfulness with which Sarkar approaches her primary sources, be they early twentieth-century periodicals or interview subjects.

Visible Histories, Disappearing Women sets out to examine how Muslim women have been produced “as invisible and oppressed/backward in the written history of late colonial Bengal.” Sociologist Mahua Sarkar’s goal is not so much to “correct the problem of invisibility/silence of Muslim women by recovering them” as to “understand the discursive and material contexts that have historically produced Muslim women as victimized, invisible, and/or mute,” with particular attention to the “nation-centredness” of the discipline of history and the celebration of certain kinds of agency by liberal feminism (pp. 1-2). She critiques much of the recent and growing scholarship on Muslim women in colonial India for, first, assuming, rather than exploring, “the fact of Muslim women’s difference” and, second, for treating the Muslim experience in late colonial Bengal as merely a paler, lagging version of the dominant Hindu version. The result, she argues, has been a manufactured blindness to Muslim women’s own writings and thoughts on what was of concern to them. In other words, because they were not seen as being as concerned with all the same issues that consumed Hindu reformers of their time, they were seen as not being as interested in reforms at the same time. Moreover, their very “backwardness” helped to define the Hindu women as “modern” and “progressive,” in a direct application of the Orientalist paradigm (p. 16).

Drawing on critical feminist scholarship and historical sociological scholarship as well as impressive archival research and oral histories, the book comprises four substantive chapters, representing four “discursive sites or contexts”: colonial attitudes towards “native consorts”; Hindu (nationalist) discourse; the writings of Muslim men and women in late colonial Bengal; and the “private memories” of Bengali Muslim women born in the early twentieth century (pp. 20-21). In each of these four contexts, Sarkar painstakingly examines how the invisibility of Muslim women was produced, but without trying at the same time to recover Muslim women’s voices or agency. As she states very clearly, hers is not a project of recuperation of “unmediated subaltern truths” or of narratives of the “previously marginalized” that are invariably assumed to be critiques of the “dominant order” (p. 135). Rather, as she demonstrates in the outstanding fourth chapter, it is necessary “to interrogate how different conceptions of selves and groups are produced in the first place and to what ends” (p. 135).

Chapter 4 examines “the often vexed but close linkages between public constructions and private reminiscences,” by focusing on the oral histories of five Muslim women who lived in Calcutta or Dhaka in the mid twentieth century, as well as conversations with three other Muslim women and seven Hindu women (p. 134). Through her analysis of these first-hand accounts, especially those of the Muslim women “that would typically remain invisible to normative historical accounts, [Sarkar] interrogate[s] both the conventional ways in which Muslim women are represented in contemporary India and what qualifies as history” (p. 195). Sarkar writes with sensitivity about the narrative strategies involved in these oral histories, the role of the “dialogic contexts”--the immediate interaction with a U.S.-based scholar perceived as Hindu, as well as the larger sociopolitical setting of postcolonial India--and the “necessarily ‘partial’ and ‘situated’” nature of the knowledge that can emerge from such memories (p. 135).

In her analysis of the interviews, Sarkar warns that her focus is the pre-Partition period and that readers seeking more information about the postcolonial period are likely to be frustrated (p. 139). In the end, however, while the constraints of space and time are understandable, her decision not to engage in a discussion of the different contexts of politics and society in West Bengal and Bangladesh since 1947 is more than about scope. I believe it affects her very assumptions about what has been underresearched, what needs to be redressed, and what is at stake. Early in the book, Sarkar laments the representations of Muslim women in “post-independence India,” in a “Hindu-dominated nation-state” (pp. 23, 25), and in her conclusion discusses recent high-profile incidents involving Muslim women in modern India such as the Shah Bano case and the Gujarat pogroms. This ultimately renders the book an India-centered book and while the author’s intention was indeed to read the past from the vantage point of India today, it would have been enlightening, in a book about Bengal, to even briefly consider the role of (East) Bengali nationalism in the experiences, narrative strategies, and memories of Muslim women in a “Muslim-dominated” East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, in which Muslim women’s “nondominant/subaltern” status is markedly (though not diametrically) different (p. 23).

Sarkar’s fine and thought-provoking book should find pride of place in graduate courses on South Asian history as well as feminist interdisciplinary methodologies. In a course specializing on gender in South Asian history, it could be read very productively alongside, and occasionally against, the Feminist Press’s 1988 book that introduced Begum Rokeya to a large U.S. readership; Sonia Nishat Amin’s 1996 book on Muslim women in colonial Bengal; and translated excerpts from the Bengali text Zanana Mahfil (named after the women’s page of the famed Saogat periodical), the first compilation, to my knowledge, of selected writings of a variety of Bengali Muslim women of the early twentieth century.[1] Sarkar’s own interviews in particular add to this earlier scholarship by giving us access to the narrated memories of women who, while all educated and middle-class, were (with the exception of the late poet and activist Sufia Kamal) not public figures.


[1]. Rokeya Hossain, Sultanas Dream (New York: CUNY/The Feminist Press, 1988); Sonia Nishat Amin, The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939 (Leiden: Brill, 1996); Shaheen Akhtar and Moushumi Bhowmik, eds., Zanana Mahfil: Bangali Musulman Lekhikader Nirbachito Rochona, 1904-1938 [Selected works of Bengali Muslim women writers, 1904-1938] (Calcutta: Stree, 1998). 

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Citation: Elora Shehabuddin. Review of Sarkar, Mahua, Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. September, 2011. URL:

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