The ‘invisibility’ of Muslim Women: Locating Muslim Women’s Voices in the History of Modern South Asia

With the rise of women’s history and the history of gender in the late twentieth century, feminist scholars and historians have contributed significantly to the body of knowledge regarding Indian women’s history. This has included women’s activities in both the nationalist and women’s movements, as well as feminist initiatives in social reform and the uplift of women in India.[1] Yet, the history of women in colonial India has largely, and disproportionately, been a history of Hindu women, which has resulted in something of an ‘invisibility’ of Muslim women.[2] While there are some scholars who have attempted to address this gap in the knowledge, there remains much to be written on the history of Muslim women in colonial India.[3]

In consideration of the theory of intersectionality, it is generally accepted that race, class, and gender greatly affected women’s lived experiences, here specifically under conditions of colonialism. Yet the centrality of religion to daily life, and religious plurality in India, meant that religion also deeply affected these experiences. Women from different religious groups perceived their oppression in different ways, and their potential social uplift through different means, with different ends in mind. While the women’s movement attempted to unite women on the commonality of gender, religion remained a barrier to this ideal, and a constant source of division on matters of personal law and women’s rights. In addition, religious movements, which were also highly nationalistic in character, vied for the support of women from within their own religious communities, which for many females meant a choice between the advance of their gender or their religious community.

Thus, religion becomes an important factor in any analysis of the history of women in modern South Asia. The religion of these individuals determined which areas of social reform were of primary importance to them, as well as their interactions and social relations with other female reformers. Both Hindu and Muslim women were active in campaigning for changes and improvements to their conditions. However, the limited quantity of literature that focuses on Muslim women suggests that their reform campaigns, were somehow of less significance than Hindu reformist activity.

Scanning through primary sources and the extant historiography on the topic, one is amazed by how much scope for research exists in this area of study. The Muslim women of late colonial India organised themselves to campaign for social reform and an improvement to their conditions, they agitated for women’s rights, many were involved in the nationalist movement, others in the Pakistan movement, and many saw it as a religious duty to engage in the promotion of education for Muslim females. In addition, with increasing female education many Muslim women were also published authors and contributed articles to magazines written by Muslim women for Muslim women. Already it becomes apparent that the history of women in India was far more complex and diverse than that suggested by the grand narrative in the existing literature.

Through my own research I have come to find that the history of Muslim women in colonial India is an area of study which requires further attention and exploration. It is a rich history of both male and female activity in social and religious reform. While the disproportion in the existing literature can be attributed to the fact that India was and is a predominantly Hindu country, providing an array of readily available information on this history, the wealth of available, largely unexplored, sources suggests that Muslim women in India have a claim in this history, pointing to the need for further scholarship in this area of India’s history.

[1] See Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India,  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism,  (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010); Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, ‘Recasting Women: An Introduction’, in Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, ed. by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), pp. 1-26.

[2] See Mahua Sarkar, Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal,  (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). Sarkar discusses the ‘invisibility’ of Muslim women in nationalist histories of India produced during the late nineteenth century.

[3] Some leading works in the field include: Gail Minault, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India,  (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998); Barbara Metcalf, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar, a Partial Translation with Commentary,  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Muslim Women, Reform and Princely Patronage: Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum,  (London: Routledge, 1990); Azra Asghar Ali, The Emergence of Feminism among Indian Muslim Women, 1920-1947,  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Sonia Nishat Amin, The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939,  (New York: E. J. Brill, 1996).

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