'Invisible Women in History and Global Studies: Reflections from an Archival Research Project' Globalizations, 14(2) 2016, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2016.1158905

Meenal Shrivastava Discussion

At the invitation of our Advisory Board, Dr. Meenal Shrivastava of Athabasca University offers H-Nationalism the following summary of her recent article from Globalizationswhich questions the continuing invisibility of the significant scale of the involvement of women in historical movements/moments.

Brief summary of the article

Globally, `women’ has been either a marginal topic, or a separate subject of history writing. Although, history of women as a field of enquiry arose in the 1960s producing some significant correctives to traditional history writing that had obscured the role of women in social and political change, this did not lead to any significant inclusion of women in mainstream history writing, even less so in accounting for the invisible women of colour in ‘Clio’s Empire’.

In the 1980s, Subaltern Studies exposed the breach between popular and national histories by pointing to the construction of history as a process that is driven by the social and political elite of the time. From a research model for studying the colonial experience of South Asia, Subaltern Studies has provided a method of vigorous post-colonial critique, significantly enriching the texture and interpretation of historical research. This approach revolutionized Indian historiography in particular by challenging nationalistic frames and expanding the subject matter of history beyond the machinations of dynasties, leaders and rulers, to autonomous popular movements defining ‘a history from below’. Subaltern historians searched for the roots of the profoundly ambiguous and contradictory patterns of continuities and change in the Indian subcontinent by expanding the scope of history through the inclusion of the role of trade unions, tribal revolts, peasant groups, and a nascent capitalist bourgeoisie.

Aside from these groups, however, there was another significant demographic which led to the irreversible entry of the masses into active political life: the multitude of South Asian women. Ordinary women’s lives were not only being transformed by the national movement within and outside the domestic spheres, but women themselves were contributing to the eventual emergence of the world’s largest mass movement. The rise and evolution of subaltern studies and feminist analysis of history notwithstanding, data on women’s participation in human history, in South Asia and elsewhere, remains sketchy. This is particularly vexing in the context of the fact that in the first year of the Salt Satyagraha alone (1930-31), of the 80, 000 political prisoners, 17,000 were women.

Despite this unprecedented level of political participation by women, even after nearly six decades of political independence, the nature and scale of ordinary women’s participation remains invisible within the Nationalist traditions of South Asian historiography. More surprisingly, this substantial scale of women’s involvement finds little acknowledgement in the Indian `subaltern’ traditions, or even the ‘global’ feminist narratives. The context of the new patriarchy that emerged in post-independence India saw women excluded from political power, providing the impetus to bring back the women’s question in subaltern studies. Nevertheless, despite a huge uptake in the critiques of women in the subaltern project, these works remained uninterested in women nationalists. Hence we know little about the ordinary women political activists whose lives were fundamentally transformed by their political involvement and who transformed the very nature of the independence movement in South Asia. 

Using the findings of a research project on the anti-colonial movement in British India, this article relates a personal journey of discovery underscoring the significance of individual narratives and archival resources. Both the subaltern studies and the feminist traditions have long recognized the importance of personal narratives, family histories, and oral histories contributing to a fuller understanding of the history of popular movements.  The paper contends, however, that these inclusive theoretical and methodological approaches have had limited application in contemporary historiography, in South Asia and elsewhere. The paper therefore argues for gender mainstreaming across various historiographical approaches – not only those on the right and left of the political spectrum but also in the ‘global’ feminist narratives.

 The invisibility of ordinary women of colour in the “global” history of the modern feminist movement is particularly glaring.  Mainstream accounts of feminism consider its beginnings in the women’s suffrage movements in the western world in the 19th and 20th Centuries, spreading to the post-colonial world only after the 1960s. Clearly the smooth edges of mainstream historical narratives, even feminist ones, are ruffled by allowing spaces for the stories of erased women from different parts of the world. The need for this ruffling is evident when we consider the fact that the 1928 lowering of the voting age of British women to give them equal suffrage with men in the UK coincided with the repression of civil liberties in British India during the same period.

The appointment of the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in India without any Indian representation, and its arrival in India in 1928, led to nationwide protests, which the British authorities tried to curb through extreme police brutality and the suspension of civil liberties. The political stalemate on the issue of representation and police brutality led to Gandhi’s call for nationwide Civil Disobedience in 1930. Gandhi not only led one of the largest non-violent mass movements in the world, but also opened the doors for an unprecedented number of ordinary South Asian women to join the freedom movement, which included a 12 year old girl, my grandmother, Prakashwati Sinha, aka as Parvati, or Shanti Devi.  The need for the historical authentication of her personal diary and published autobiography led to my archival quest, a narrative memoir (working title: Amma’s Daughters, in Press), and the conference papers on which this article is based.

What emerged from the multi-archival research in London, New Delhi, and Patna, challenged my assumptions about the nature and scale of women’s involvement in the national movement in South Asia.  I was surprised to learn that my grandmother was not among a handful of women political activists, but one among the many hundreds of thousands of women without a famous last name who made up the cadre of the freedom movement in South Asia. Their stories are languishing in personal diaries, private letters, photographic chronicles, oral traditions, and other records that are yet to be fully utilized as historical material.

Wives, daughters, and nieces of famous political activists who found themselves in the midst of social-political upheaval in South Asia, were often thrust into leadership roles during the most restive periods of political mobilization. The courageous actions of this handful of women are rightfully celebrated in historical texts, particularly those written in the Nationalist tradition. As shown in this article, however, the stories of these elite women are not truly representative of the experience of the majority of women political activists of the time. In fact, the dominance of the historical accounts of elite women has acted like a foil hiding the very different lived experience of masses of women who participated in the freedom movement. This historical oversight distorts the true nature and scale of women’s contributions to and involvement in the largest non-violent political movement in the world.

Where Were the Women and Why does it Matter?

Long before Mahatma Gandhi led a sub-continent wide movement against the colonial policies of the British, ordinary women were supporting families of nationalists who were in prisons, or in hiding from the police. Without any formal integration of women in political institutions, these ordinary women had been involved in unrecognized acts of political defiance in various periods of the national movement, proving the suspicion of the British that the zenanas were nurturing dangerous political notions. Nevertheless, while significant scholarship exits on the historical context in which the identity of the Indian woman emerged and evolved neither the scale of women’s involvement, nor the variegated nature of their historical experience finds much acknowledgement in mainstream Indian historiography.

This article thus raises several questions: Despite the high proportion of women’s political participation in most regions of South Asia, as well as robust scholarship on ‘women’s history’ and the politics of feminism in colonial India, why is the role of women so understated in the mainstream historiography of the anti-colonial movement? What were the social and political mechanisms enabling the erasure of the masses of women from the stories of the anti-colonial movement in South Asia? What role have these patterns played in the persistence of gender inequality in the region? What do historical patterns tell us about contemporary policy debates, designs, and implementation issues?

Given their broad nature, these questions are not necessarily answered in this article. However, highlighting these particular aspects of the erasure of women from history could not only contribute to broadening our historical horizons, but it can also shed light on the persistence of unequal and unjust patterns in contemporary society. Undoubtedly, the inadequately challenged binaries of political/personal, political activist/passive victim, and public/private spaces, have contributed to the erasure of ordinary women and their personal activism from public historical accounts. As the article contends, however, while critical scholarship, particularly arising out of the subaltern and feminist traditions, acknowledge the limitations of these binaries, the insights from these studies have not necessarily made an impact on the research agendas in different historiographical traditions.

Highlighting the relevance of history for policy design and analysis, I argue for ‘Historical gender mainstreaming’. This is important not only for a more comprehensive understanding of history, but also because our understanding of the past has direct relevance for contemporary social policy issues. Revealing the role of ordinary women in historical movements is particularly important to understand the historical context(s) that affect contemporary policy, as instructive accounts tracing continuities and changes in the socio-political context of social policies.