Child Marriage and Female Education: the Religious Character of Social Reform for Hindu and Muslim Women in Late Colonial India

Child marriage and the lack of female education were problems across both Hindu and Muslim women, and were highlighted particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet, in the Indian age of reform, each religious community chose to focus on different aspects of their women’s social conditions as subjects for their reform campaigns. Hindu reformers focused on matters of conjugality, particularly child marriage, whilst Muslim reformers chose to work towards reforming female education.

In the nineteenth century British criticisms of Indian society pointed to the condition of Indian women and their social customs as an indicator of the nation’s backwardness. As part of this, Christian missionaries played a role in highlighting India’s social ‘ills’, prompting social reform amongst the indigenous population. Indian reformers attempted to demonstrate the progressiveness of their nation, whilst also preserving their religion and culture. These reformers identified child marriage and female education as Indian social conditions in need of reform, due to what were perceived as ‘backward’ customs by western opinions.

An exploration of the specifics of these two religiously segregated reform agendas is needed in order to examine what accounts for the apparently selective embrace of reform campaigns for Hindu and Muslim women. An examination of both reform agendas and their trajectories, as they were initiated by men and later taken up by the women of each religious community, can highlight not only the differences between the two reform campaigns and their motives, but also identify the similar ideologies behind each agenda. Finally, in light of these two streams of women’s activism, the emergence of the All India Women’s Movement can be explored in an attempt to understand the religious character of social reform campaigns in late colonial India.

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