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Sacred Identities:
The Politicization of Gender and the Indian Struggle for Independence

The Indian independence and nationalist movements which began at approximately the turn of the twentieth century and ended in 1947 revealed the importance of gender identity in politics as they appeared in concepts of dignity, honor, and sexual expectations for both men and women. These values and expectations were discussed in the discourses of important Indian nationalist leaders, including Gandhi himself, as well as the literature of some popular movements with a comparatively minimal impact on the success of the independence movements, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh party and other Hindu revivalist organizations. The Swadeshi movement in particular politicized gender with its use of a nationalistically symbolic feminine deity. Prescribed gender roles were not something new in India since they are outlined in Hindu religious texts as sacramental practices.[1] However, they were not necessarily critically important as political issues until they were made so by British propaganda, which used specific issues that pertained to Indian gender as a way to justify the Raj.[2] British imperial propaganda attacked the masculinity of Indian men as well as the dignity of Indian women. These gender themes reappeared in different forms throughout the Indian independence movements, and eventually became direct symbols for nationalism and national dignity, particularly among the Hindu majority.[3] While gender issues may have entered political discourse many times in history, the issue of Indian gendered politics during the period of mass independence movements and immediately following is a particularly useful era to study because very tangible consequences were shown immediately after Indian independence, during the communal violence of the Partition. Women were specifically targeted as victims of physical abuse, sexual violation, and other forms of degradation and humiliation during mass riots between Hindus and Muslims because gender and womanhood had been so politicized that physical attacks against them became symbolic metaphors for an insult against an entire community or nation.[4] While British gendered propaganda was not the sole culprit in the development of such a culture, British rule did elicit the conditions where such ideas could take hold in a forceful way.

British propaganda about the gendered inferiority of Hindus had deep roots in the nature of imperialism. Over the course of centuries, British global colonization catalyzed the evolution of an imperial ideology with highly influential ideas about race, nationalism, and gender. Issues of gender identity and sexuality became a focal point for the British as their culture became increasingly invested in imperialism in the nineteenth century. Faced with comparatively massive populations of purportedly inferior people, a colonial culture developed that imagined the sanctity of British femininity to be under attack by a vicious, wild, sexually unrestrained population of native Indians. This thread necessitated the figure of a virile, masculine British man in order to defend her. Eventually this imperial image evolved, and incorporated the idea that Indian men were weak and effeminate, necessitating that the masculine British rule over them. These imperial ideas contributed to the philosophy that justified British rule, while establishing the political implications of gender identity.[5]

These ideas about gender and the inferiority of Indians continued well into the twentieth century. One of the best sources from the period of Indian independence movements that compiled British propagandist ideas about the inferiority of Indians was the book Mother India, written by Katherine Mayo in 1927. It was highly controversial for the unashamedly imperial way that it described Indian culture. While Mayo herself was not a British citizen and did not work for the British government, British colonial authorities were well aware of its production and she admitted publically to having their approval and assistance.[6]

Mother India criticized many aspects of Indian life, but covered several issues with consistency. Each was regularly related back to the issue of the inability of Indians to rule themselves, therefore justifying British rule. These were the issues of gender and sexuality, which were frequently discussed in conjunction with the backwardness and ignorance of Indians as well as the uselessness of Indian religion, particularly Hindu polytheism. One segment read,

Superstition among the Indian peoples knows few boundary lines

of condition or class. Women in general are prone to believe that

disease is an evidence of the approach of a god. Medicine and surgery,

driving that god away, offend him, and it is ill business to offend the

great ones.[7]

This showed Indian women as ignorant due to their religion, which was condescendingly described as simply a superstition. It also portrayed women as ignorant and helpless on account of a society and religion that oppressed them with harmful expectations of their gender. The following excerpt expounded upon the idea of how poor motherhood affected the virility of Indian men:

Take a girl child twelve years old, a pitiful physical specimen in

bone and blood, illiterate, ignorant, without any sort of training in

habits of health. Force motherhood upon her at the earliest possible

moment. Rear her weakling son in intensive vicious practices that

drain his small vitality day by day. Give him no outlet in sports.

Give him habits that make him, by the time he is thirty years of age,

a decrepit and querulous old wreck – and you will ask what has sapped

the energy of his manhood? … [8]

Here, a single conclusion was deduced from a set of conditions. Indian women were described as ignorant and weak, as well as oppressed, having been “forced” into motherhood, causing mothers to raise men weak in physique and character. These were conditions for which Indian society was ostensibly to blame. The argument continued until it essentially claimed that the Indian perception of imperial subjugation was a self-induced condition brought on by the fact that they had such incompetent, ignorant mothers that would raise emasculated and sickly men. The next logical step was, of course, that this made British rule all but a total necessity:

Given men who enter the world physical bankrupts out of bankrupt

stock, rear them through childhood in influences and practices that

devour their vitality…find them, at an age when the Anglo-Saxon is

just coming into full glory of manhood, broken-nerved, low-spirited,

petulant ancients; and need you, while this remains unchanged, seek

for other reasons why they are poor and sick and dying and why their

hands are too weak, too fluttering, to seize or to hold the reins of


The British goal in casting a negative image of Indian sexuality was clearly to entrench British imperial dominance. Eventually these issues would resurface during the independence movements, as many Indian nationalists were cautious not to appear to lack strength or virility, and often expressed this concern in the same language used in Mother India. The issue went deeper than perhaps even the British or Katherine Mayo may have been aware, because many expressions of gender in Indian society were not simply cultural habits but religious issues as well.[10]

For instance, the types of behavioral expressions that the British may have interpreted as effeminacy from Indian men had a long history and were deliberately practiced. British culture traditionally associated passive behavior with femininity and aggressive or active behavior with masculinity, but this was actually the reverse in India, a cultural mistranslation that would have caused a “masculine” Indian to appear particularly “feminine” to a Briton. The Bhakti religious movement in Mughal India, for example, held that androgyny and passiveness was a liberating spiritual ideal for men. However, by the late nineteenth century, the effects of the British concept of gender had taken root, and through cultural propaganda many Indians were given an unwanted image of effeminacy.[11]

As well their criticism of male androgyny or femininity, British attacks on Indian women also struck at deep roots in Indian culture. In addition to the types of criticisms about the ignorance of mothers that produced weak offspring discussed in Mother India, several issues repeatedly came to the surface regarding women. Among the most significant were their ostensible mistreatment by Indian men and their oppression, suffering through things such as female infanticide and the practice of sati, or ritual widow suicide.[12] Often, cultural norms surrounding the expectations of women were more than just social tradition; they were tenets of Indian religion. Therefore, when the British attacked behavior and traditions relating to gender, they indirectly attacked other aspects of Hindu culture as well, particularly religion. According to one Hindu woman,

The observance of prescribed ritual, caste and gender norms that had

been spelt out by the Vedas and subsequent sacred law-codes, would

constitute the essence of a pious life or dkarhma. The woman enters

sansar through the sacrament of marriage, the only sacrament that is

available to her. For her, sansar is the unending flow of domestic work

and responsibilities, primarily connected with cooking, serving, and

child-rearing. Ideally, the woman should have no other religious activity…[13]

This illustrates the religious significance of women’s social expectations. If motherhood and other domestic work were so important as to be called a sacrament for Hindus, then propaganda like Mother India was a direct insult to a Vedic religious culture that had existed in India for thousands of years.

The consequences of the cultural onslaught against Indian traditions initially worked in the favor of the British, but in time would backfire against them and eventually contributed to the independence movements following the turn of the century. As British involvement in India became more involved over time, an increasing number of Indians were incorporated into the colonial governments. They spoke English and adopted English traditions, forsaking their old Indian identity. Lajpat Rai, one of the leaders of Indian independence, described the trend:

They began to think like their English masters…He detested Indian

life and took pride in being Anglicised. Everything Indian was odious

in his eyes. The Indians were barbarians; their religion was a bundle

of superstitions; they were dirty people; their customs and manners

were uncivilized; they were a set of narrow-minded bigots who did

not know that man was born free.[14]

He continued to explain that disillusionment with English ways came about when those same anglophile Indian elites realized that they could never reach the same level of success or prosperity in the English-ruled institutions and society. They then started to turn to their anglicized notions of liberty and self-government.[15] While this development may have been particularly concentrated among the elites, many of those elites would have a key role in independence, including Gandhi, who was educated in law in England early in his life. This showed one of the main cultural factors that contributed to the onset of the Indian independence movements. British rule was changing Indian culture. Disillusionment with the Raj allowed many independence fighters to combine multiple cultures and unite them against British rule. One of those factors was the British political ideals of liberty and self-government that an increasing number of Indians were becoming aware of and adopting, as discussed by Lajpat Rai. The other feature was the revival of traditional aspects of Indian culture as a nationalist force. Many of these included traditional Indian ideas of gender that had been under siege during the period of British rule.

One of the first and most important movements that publically incorporated gender into the politics of independence was the Swadeshi movement, because it would be represented by an anthem and figure that associated female imagery with nationalism. The Swadeshi, or Home Manufactures, movement aimed to break the stranglehold of British goods on the Indian economy with a variety of factors, including the boycott of British manufactured goods and the return of Indian traditional handicrafts and goods produced domestically. Swadeshi was essentially a response to the British economic system that maintained dominance over Indian industry. The movement began after the British partition of Bengal into two separate provinces, which was perceived by many Indians to be a pernicious attempt to pit Muslims against Hindus based on the dynamics of the populations that were divided. In spite of the fact that a boycott of British goods was a political issue that received the full endorsement of the Indian National Congress, the movement that represented it soon led to the politicization of gender and Hindu culture with the way it was represented and popularized. The significance of economic resistance was represented with a deistic woman, Bharat Mata or “Mother India,” which had roots in Vedic religion.[16] The sentiment behind Bharat Mata was expressed in a religious, nationalist poem, “Bande Materam.” As the movement flourished, the symbolism of “Bande Materam” had become so effective that the use of the phrase itself was actually outlawed by the colonial government. It developed into a cult of motherhood, using the iconic, deistic woman Bharat Mata as a representative of spirituality, Hindu nationalism, and also the Swadeshi economic movement simultaneously.[17]

These different aspects of Swadeshi, including religion, economics, and nationalism, were not all necessarily advocated by the same people, but rather, people that represented aspects of each attributed Swadeshi to their name. All of them were represented, however, by the movement’s slogan “Bande Materam,” therefore linking the poem’s gendered and religious imagery to political issues. For example, Surendranath Banerjea, who would later become one of the influential personalities of the Indian National Congress, wrote about Swadeshi in his publication the Bengalee in 1902,

The agitation for political rights may bind the various nationalities

of India together for a time. The community of interests may cease

when these rights are achieved. But the commercial union of the various

Indian nationalities, once established, will never cease to exist. Commercial

and industrial activity is, therefore, a bond of very strong union and is,

therefore, a mighty factor in the formation of a great Indian nation.[18]

This explanation of the national importance of Swadeshi’s commercial success portrayed it as an economic issue. However, such an interpretation was not universal. For example, Bipin Pal, one of the leaders of the Swadeshi movement, argued that

Every object is a thought of God – materialized; every man is the Spirit

of God – incarnated. So is every nation the manifestation and revelation

of a Divine Ideal… Individuals are born, individuals die – but the nation

liveth for ever. The Deity, the divine-Ideal, the Logos of God, which Bande Mataram [hail to the motherland] reveals, is eternal.[19]

Bipin Pal’s description of the values of Swadeshi illustrated how Indian politics could take on an extremely political quality, and a further investigation of the connections between these two quotations shows why the Swadeshi movement was so important to determine the way that gender was politicized. The biggest link between the way these two separate parts of Swadeshi were represented was the movement’s popular symbol, the poem “Bande Mataram,” and its figurehead, the female religious icon, Bharat Mata, which represented the economic and political aspect of the Swadeshi movement in addition to the religious and gendered aspect of it. “Bande Materam” was originally published in a novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, but became an anthem for Swadeshi, and eventually the unofficial anthem for much of India.[20]

An insight into the interplay between religion, gender, and nationalism can be gained by analyzing the text of “Bande Materam.” The poem talks clearly about the symbol of a deistic woman that represents virtue in the following passage, “To thee I call, Mother and Lord!... Thine the strength that nerves the arm, thine the beauty, thine the charm. Every image made divine in our temples is but thine… Pure and perfect without peer, Mother, lend thine ear.”[21] This shows a unity between the ideas of purity and motherhood, which was likely reminiscent of the Vedic concepts of motherhood and duty. These ideas were also paired with nationalism in the poem, which can be interpreted from the second stanza, as it used extremely geographical language in describing India as having “rich with thy hurrying streams, bright with thy orchard gleams, cool with thy winds of delight, dark fields waving, mother of might.”[22] In these passages, the imagery of a deistic, divine mother was paired with landscape imagery which most likely represents the land of India in a nationalist sense.

The poem talks about defense of the mother image in a militant tone, which accounts for why Muslims such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah considered it to be hostile[23], as seen in the following passage:

Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands, when the swords flash out in

twice seventy million hands and seventy millions voices roar thy dreadful

name from shore to shore? With many strengths who art mighty and

stored… To her I cry who ever her foemen drave back from plain and sea

and shook herself free.[24]

Such language, speaking of millions of swords driving away the enemies of the divine mother figure, could easily have been seen by Muslims as deliberately aggressive, especially since Muslims were generally excluded from the primarily Hindu Swadeshi[25] movement and did not share the religious beliefs of the poem.

The poem became so popular that it would be sung at national events as an unofficial Indian anthem and became a central feature of the political tensions between Muslims and Hindus. The Indian National Congress wrote in a Working Committee statement in 1936 that “Bande Materam”

became [a symbol of] of national resistance to British imperialism

in Bengal especially, and generally in other parts of India. The words

“Bande Materam” became a slogan of power which inspired our people

and a greeting which ever reminds us of our struggle for national freedom…

The Committee recognize the validity of the objection raised by Muslim

friends to certain parts of the song… therefore, the Committee recommended

that wherever the Bande Materam is sung at national gatherings, only the first

two stanzas should be sung.[26]

In spite of the attempt by the Congress to mediate the religiously divisive impact of the poem’s popularity, the response by the Indian Muslim community was extremely negative. In 1938, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, head of the Muslim League in India, said that it was

not only idolatrous but in its origin and substance a hymn to spread hatred

for the Musalmans. And they in their wisdom tried and are persisting now

and compelling the school authorities to sing Bande Materam at congregations and school gatherings although it is admitted that it is not a National Song…[27]

He then lamented the rule of the Hindu Congress and claimed that it was more offensive in its treatment of the Muslims than the British had ever been. Jinnah’s remarks indicated the significance of the impact that “Bande Materam” had on the Indian political climate. Originating after the partition of Bengal as a response to British rule, “Bande Materam” became nationalized by Hindus and a symbolic feature of the political, and cultural, divisions that were growing between Hindus and Muslims prior to Indian independence.

The popularization and cultural importance of the “Bande Materam” poem was an instance of the politicization of gender being brought to the forefront of the Indian independence movement. The British government had fostered ill will, fanned communal tensions, and made itself the target of nationalist sentiment when it partitioned the Bengal province in India. The partition of Bengal was hardly a gendered political move, nor was the concept of a nationalist boycott of British goods. However, these two issues managed to be confronted by a Hindu culture that, whether or not those involved were aware of it, forced women’s sexuality and honor into the public sphere of politics by making the icon of a deistic woman the symbol of a nationalist economic movement. This confrontation was a result of a history of British propaganda that insulted and repressed native forms of sexual identity, as well as British political actions, such as the partition of Bengal, which provoked the Swadeshi resistance movement[28]. This theme of politicization of gender would appear in a significant way in other instances throughout the independence movements and would contribute to a culture of womanhood that produced dire circumstances for many women during the partition as it made them a specific target for violence.

It is worth noting that the women involved in Indian politics were not passive actors in this cultural trend regarding the political expectations of their gender. Nationalist expectations of women appeared to be endorsed by many of the women whom they targeted. It should not be assumed that these sentiments about the role of womanhood were imposed on women who were hostile to them and desired to be liberated. Many Indian women had internalized cultural expectations of their gender and saw domesticity as their personal duty towards the family and community. On the national level, the issue of women’s rights and movements for their education and political rights gained increasing public attention in the years leading up to Indian independence. As social reforms that progressively allowed women rights such as education gradually took place, it was expected that they would use those advantages in the service of their families and the nation. Mrs. P. K. Ray, president of the All-India Women’s Conference on Educational and Social Reforms, stated at an annual meeting in 1931 that moral teaching was necessary for women who had a heavier responsibility during the period of change that India underwent in the years prior to independence, and stated that “If we wish to produce a real type of womanhood that will be a glory to our country in the future, we must remould [sic] and remodel our homes.”[29] If a goal of women’s education reform was to make womanhood better serve the “glory [of their] country,” then gender politicization had clearly pervaded Indian culture to the extent that it influenced the women leaders who fought for women’s rights.

Indian feminist movements, like political movements, were divided on religious grounds, and the Muslim feminists developed associations with a unique character separate from that of Hindu women. Nevertheless, they were similar in the fact that both emphasized subjects in education such as “domestic science” so that educated women could become more effective wives and mothers. However they were not inherently politicized to the same extent as the Hindu women’s movements, since Muslim women’s education did not necessarily aim indirectly to facilitate service to the country as did P.K. Ray and other Hindu reformers.[30]

The women’s movements were organized separately from the political independence movements, and neither had total collaboration in their views or objectives. There were different branches of each, distinct from one another. According to Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the leaders of the Indian National Congress,

…it has not been possible to do justice to all aspects of the Indian struggle.

On analyzing, we find several streams of activity. There is the main stream

– the political movement, which is under the leadership of the Indian

National Congress… [as well as] other subsidiary movements like the

women’s movement, the youth movements and the students’ movements.[31]

All of these fell under the general influence of the Congress, but many other organizations did not, such as the revolutionary groups of Bengal or the Hindu Revivalists. Hindu Revivalism gained political momentum as an increasing number of Hindus felt that the Congress and the powerful Swaraj Party, of which Gandhi would become the leader, were too pro-Muslim. One of the first such movements was called Hindu Mahasabha, and it challenged the Swaraj Party’s position of non-violent resistance.[32] This effectively made them political rivals, yet the two groups, the Hindu Revivalists and the Swarajists, both utilized gender, albeit in unique ways, as part of their political platform.

Active, aggressive defense of India was one of the platforms of the Hindu Revivalists, and this eventually developed into a concept of masculinity that would combine manly duty with nationalism. This exposes another layer of gender in politics with the equation of masculinity with national duty. At a Hindu Mahasabha meeting in 1925, Lajpat Rai argued that passive resistance would weaken the unity of Hindus and harm progress towards independence. Another Hindu Revivalist argued that noncooperation “cannot breed the energy or resourcefulness and practical wisdom necessary for a political struggle,” and yet another that “The Hindu race once so great and glorious is truly speaking ‘nobody’s child’ now. The result is that it is usually the Hindus who fall an easy prey to the aggression of those more united and virile.”[33] It is an interesting coincidence that such language is notably similar to British anti-Indian propaganda, such as that in Mother India, which criticized Indian men for lacking virility and strength. While this particular instance may be a coincidence, there is no mistaking the eventual importance of gender for Hindu Revivalists as time proceeded, which was shown clearly in some of their later publications. For example, The Organiser was a periodical released by the Hindu Revivalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sengh, which had the same founder as Hindu Mahasabha. One article published in 1947 included the following interpretation of violence against Hindu women in India:

Tens of thousands of our pious mothers and sisters who would faint at the

sight of blood were kidnapped and sold for so many rupees, annas, pies.

I have seen some of them recovered from that holy land. Their foreheads

bore tattoo marks declaring them ‘Mohammad ki joru’ [Mohammed’s wife]...

Their [that of refugees in general] early and effective absorption in the

economy and society of the regions of their adoption is the primary duty

of every national of Hindustan. The task is not easy. It bristles with

difficulties. That is obvious. But no less obvious is the fact that the problem

is a challenge to our manhood, no less than to our nationalism.[34]

This description was about the violence against women during the chaos of the partition. Protection of those women and the resettling of communities was described in such a way as to combine the issues of religion, nationalism, and gender. The article was written from the perspective of the Hindu Revivalists, and they believed that on account of both their “manhood” and their “nationalism” that the defense of Hindu women was necessary. Even after India had gained its independence, the issue of gender and nationalism remained firmly entrenched in politics. This politicization of gender was not, however, unique to the Hindu Revivalists. Potentially much more important was the way that influential leaders such as Gandhi described the expectations of gender. Even at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, gender was called upon as a justification for political ideas.

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi described his vision for an independent India achieved through nonviolent resistance, and in it included a vision of what is or is not “manly” in politics. When he made reference to gender in Hind Swaraj, it came consistently in the form of a discussion regarding masculinity and manly strength. One of the arguments he made regarded British military protection of the Indians. He claimed that when the Indians allowed the British to protect them from other aggressive, militant Indian tribes it made the Indians “emasculated and cowardly,” and that seeking protection by the English against fellow Indians was unmanly.[35] The next political issue that he discussed with reference to gender was the Indian reliance on the British court system in order to resolve disputes between Indians, which he also called “unmanly” and “cowardly.”[36] Finally, as a tool for maintaining personal strength, he advocated chastity, giving the argument that “a man who is unchaste loses stamina,” and “becomes emasculated and cowardly.”[37] Based on Hind Swaraj, it is clear that Gandhi viewed loss of responsibility to the British as unmanly, as well as the loss of control over the self by giving into “animal indulgence,” as he described sexual relations. The idea that any sexually active man is “emasculated and cowardly” may seem somewhat extreme, but the language he used to refer to gender is notably familiar. Such arguments were strikingly similar to those made by British imperial propaganda, especially in Mother India, which argued that Indian men were weak, emasculated, and lacked stamina and sexual discipline. While it is unlikely that Gandhi chose his words as a specific response to the British propaganda, such a similarity in language indicates that this was more than just a coincidence and that expectations of gender had ingrained themselves in an Indian understanding of politics, with the equation of masculine virility with fitness for self-government.

Gandhi’s account of the expectations of women was also drawn into the realm of politics. Gandhi believed that women had a very important role to play in Swaraj and seemed to have believed firmly that the modesty and honor of women was of utmost importance. The following account shows his description of a woman’s purity as being worth the price of her life.

If the Swaraj is really drawing nearer, women will daily become more

capable of protecting their honour… [If] there is such a thing as truth and

purity in the world, I wish to state categorically that woman has within

her sufficient strength to preserve her chastity… The power to die everyone

has but few desire to use it. When someone wishes to dishonour a woman,

when a man is in danger of being overmastered by lust, such a man and

woman have a right to commit suicide… Even in the grip of no matter how

strong a person, any man or woman can kill himself or herself by biting off

the tongue or, if the hands are free, by pressing the wind-pipe… I urge every sister to pray thus on arising every morning: ‘O God, keep me pure, give me

the strength to preserve my chastity, strength to preserve it even at the cost

of my life.[38]

This passage shows the power that lay behind expectations of women to preserve their honor. Seemingly contradictory to his overall philosophy of nonviolence, Gandhi preached that it was better for women to die than for them to sacrifice their honor or chastity. This statement is particularly chilling because for thousands of women, his advice of death before dishonor became a reality. In the communal violence surrounding the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, women suffered twofold because they were targeted by both sides in the conflict. They were subjected to humiliation and brutalization by opposing communities, usually Muslim against Hindu or vice versa, as well as by their own communities. It was a commonly held belief that sexually violated women would have to be killed, often by members of their own family or by suicide, in order to preserve the honor of the community.[39]

This violence represented the culmination of decades in which gender had been forced into the forefront of politics. The grim product of women’s role as a symbol of nationalist honor was that individual women became a target instead of the nation’s honor which they were seen to represent. Women’s honor necessitated defense by men, and to do so asserted their manhood. Violence against women necessitated vengeance, fuelling communal strife.[40] Just as the Hindu Revivalist article had described, that violence was seen as a challenge to both manhood and nationalism. Even Gandhi made an exception in his philosophy of nonviolence when it came to the physical defense of women, arguing that any “man or woman who happens to be present [should run] to the rescue of the woman [in danger] and should [not] tolerate an outrage on her modesty… the man who allows the modesty of a woman to be thus outraged will be regarded as a coward.”[41] A physical deformation, sexual violation, or other physical attack that branded and shamed a woman was intended as more than just as a personal attack against her but as an attack against the community that she was viewed to represent.[42] She was then often killed by her own community or forced into suicide in order to preserve the community’s honor.

The conditions in which women were targeted for violence by both sides of the conflict during the communal riots of the partition shows the potential danger of the politicization of gender. Gender identities of both men and women may have been a relatively private affair earlier in Indian history, but British rule forced it into the realm of politics. The British used both the ignorance of women as people and as mothers, and the weakness of Indian men as justifications for rule. Then, British administrative decisions, such as the partition of Bengal, contributed both to resistance by Indians against their rule and increased tensions between Muslims and Hindus. Gendered ideals of politics were represented by many unique groups in India, as with the Swadeshi movement, Hindu Revivalists, women’s reform movements, and even in Gandhi’s ideals of nonviolence. The ultimate consequence of this was that women were trapped in a pattern of violence during the partition riots, where opposing communities would offend their dignity through physical assault, and their own communities would then kill them for having had their purity violated. In a broader historical context this shows one of the many dangers of imperialism and the harmful consequences it can have for a culture.


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[1] Tanika Sarkar, “A Book of Her Own, a Life of Her Own: Autobiography of a Nineteenth-Century Woman” History Workshop Journal 36 (1993): 39.

[2] Nancy L. Paxton, Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 1-36.

[3] Butalia Urvashi, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 145-147.

[4] Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 57-58.

[5] Paxton, Writing Under the Raj, 1-36.

[6] Katherine Mayo, Mother India: Selections from the Controversial 1927 Text, ed. Mrinalini Sinha (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 18-19.

[7] Mayo, Mother India, 147.

[8] Mayo, Mother India, 79.

[9] Mayo, Mother India, 91-92.

[10] Cited in Sarkar, A Book of Her Own, 39.

[11] Revathi Krishnaswamy, Effeminism: The Economy of Colonial Desire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 19.

[12] Peter N. Stearns, Gender in World History (New York: Routledge, 2006), 86-87.

[13]Cited in Sarkar, A Book of Her Own 39.

[14] Lajpat Rai, Young India: An Interpretation and a History of the Nationalist Movement from Within (New York: Howard Fertig, 1968), 112-113.

[15] Rai, Young India, 113-116.

[16] Manu Gosami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 242-244.

[17] Gosami, Producing India, 256-263.

[18] Bipan Chandra, Essays on Indian Nationalism (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1993), 64.

[19] Stuart Hall, “The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity,” in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, ed. Anthony King (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 22.

[20] Leonard A Gordon, Bengal: The Nationalist Movement 1876-1940 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 90.

[21] Sri Aurobindo Writings and Talks, “Bande Mataram – a Mantra with Hidden Meaning.” Write Spirit.


[22] Sri Aurobindo, “Bande Materam.”

[23] Mohammed Ali Jinnah, “Jinnah’s Presidential Address at Sind League Conference,” in The Paradoxes of Partition (1937-47), ed. S.A.I. Tirmizi (New Delhi: Manak Publications, 1998), 482-483.

[24] Sri Aurobindo, “Bande Mataram.”

[25] Gordon, Bengal, 99.

[26] “Congress Working Committee’s Statement,” in The Paradoxes of Partition (1937-47), ed. S.A.I. Tirmizi (New Delhi: Manak Publications, 1998), 277-278.

[27] Mohammed Ali Jinnah, “Jinnah’s Presidential Address at Sind League Conference,” in The Paradoxes of Partition (1937-47), ed. S.A.I. Tirmizi (New Delhi: Manak Publications, 1998), 482-483.

[28] Manu Gosami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 240-246.

[29] “Indian Womanhood: Need for Moral Education,” (The London Times, Dec 29, 1931; pg.7; issue 46016; col D).

[30] Azra Asghar Ali, The Emergence of Feminism Among Indian Muslim Women: 1920-1947 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45-48.

[31] Subhas Chandra Bose, The Indian Struggle: 1920-1942, ed. Sisir Kumar Bose and Sugata Bose (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 334.

[32] Bose, The Indian Struggle, 131-136.

[33] Walter K. Anderson and Shridhar D. Damle, The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism (London: Westview Press, 1987), 26-29.

[34] Butalia Urvashi, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 145-147.

[35] Mahatma Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj and Indian Home Rule,” The Complete Site on

Mahatma Gandhi.<>, 23.

[36] Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj,” 33.

[37] Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj,” 54.

[38] Mohandas Gandhi, Gandhi In India: In his Own Words, ed. Martin Green (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1987), 20-21.

[39] Menon and Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries, 57-58.

[40] Menon and Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries, 41.

[41] Mohandas Gandhi, “What Women Should do in a Difficult Situation,” in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 51, ed. Shantilala Harvijan Shah (New Delhi: Navijan Press, 1972), 17.

[42] Menon and Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries, 43-45.

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Last Updated: 8/24/10