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Muslim women in colonial North India circa 1920-1947 : politics, law and community identity



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Deutsch, Karin Anne 


This dissertation explores the relationship between gender and Muslim community identity in late colonial India. It pursues two broad themes. The first of these is the way in which gender issues were used symbolically by Muslim religious and political leaders to give substance to a community identity based largely on religious and cultural ideals in the three decades prior to independence. The second is the activities of elite Muslim women in social reform organisations and their entry into politics. Most of the recent literature on the development of a distinct Muslim identity during this period focuses entirely on politics and thus on relatively short-term factors leading to Partition. However, gender makes us look again at the longer term, especially the way in which it gave substance to the imagining of an all- India Muslim identity. I examine the various constructions and stereotypes of the Muslim woman and the ways in which she was seen as being in need of special protection in the political sphere while being in an advantageous position with regard to Muslim personal law. Of particular importance here are the discourse on purdah, which had become communalised during this period even as purdah practices were changing, and the ways in which Islamic law became considered as a 'sacred site' for Muslims in the late colonial period. I argue that the focus on gender issues by certain political and religious leaders was a 'universalising' factor: while it was difficult to portray all Indian Muslims as constituting a definitive and united group, all Indian Muslim women could be depicted as being alike, with the same interests and problems. These tendencies were strengthened by the Indian Muslim awareness of a wider Muslim community. In terms of practice, I examine women's entry into the political sphere, as well as their relationship with national women's organisations. I show that women were not passive onlookers to the debates on gender, but contributed to them, although their interest was more on improving women's rights than on formulating community identities. The dissertation examines women's conflicting identities as women and as Muslims, particularly as the initial unity among women on social reform issues was eroded due to communal antagonism in the realm of politics. The focus of the dissertation will be on the public sphere, which is where one can best examine the interactions between men and women, Hindus and Muslims, and Indian and British representatives. Given the diversity of the Indian Muslim experience, I concentrate on and give examples primarily from the United Provinces, but owing to wider connections between women I also look at other north Indian examples.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge