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HIS3326 : Women in Colonial South Asia: Tradition, Reform and Modernity

  • Offered for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Samiksha Sehrawat
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


Students who are interested in non-European history or in gender history will enjoy this module, which uses lectures, seminars and film screenings to discuss a very important aspect of Asian societies: gender discrimination. There is a strong tradition of gender discrimination in India with women often receiving poorer education, health care and being at the receiving end of different forms of violence. The Delhi rape case in 2012 has been in the news internationally but is unfortunately not an isolated occurrence. Indian women’s position has also been historically important for British rule in India.

Women were at the heart of debates about ‘traditional’ Indian society and efforts to reform and modernize it. British rule over south Asia was justified in terms of the low position of women in Indian society and the colonial state intervened through new laws to act as saviours of Indian womanhood. British Rule in India was known for the banning of Sati in the early nineteenth century. Sati was the practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands and was believed by missionaries to signify the low position of women in Indian society. Laws were passed by the British colonial government to prohibit Sati or widow-immolation and to prevent child-marriage. This course will examine the debates that this created regarding women in South Asian society. Upper-class and upper-caste male reformers debated with the British the grounds on which reform would proceed. Attempts by missionaries to use these issues to encourage conversion to Christianity and the colonial state’s intervention were perceived by the orthodox as an attack on Indian society.

This module will examine the issues that arose in these debates through an examination of themes such as widow-remarriage, women’s education, purdah (practices of veiling women) and what it meant to be a good wife and mother. The course will discuss whether women’s participation in the anti-colonial nationalist movement was based on the understanding that women were the repositories of Indian ‘tradition’. It will ask what light women’s writing throws on their position in these debates and issues.

As this is a special subject, there will be extensive use of primary sources to reconstruct the viewpoints of different historical actors, including British colonial administrators, missionaries, South Asian male reformers, Hindu and Muslim women and British women.

The aims of the module are:
1) To understand how the position of women in India became a subject of both colonial and nationalist discourses and explore the role that gender can play in fashioning identities.
2) To provide an opportunity to acquire a sound general knowledge of the subject, reading widely and critically in the primary and secondary literature associated with it and to develop the capacity for independent study.
3) To provide an opportunity to investigate in some depth selected problems in South Asian history, including the appraisal of selected source material and the critical examination of current historiography.

Outline Of Syllabus

Week-by-week topics may differ from the following:

- Sati: Debates, Government Regulation and Reformist Discourses
- Widow-Remarriage and Social Reform
- Advice Literature for Women and Domesticity
- Women’s participation in the nationalist movement and the role of Gandhi
- Indian Women’s Education and Missionary efforts
- Women and Social Reform in Islam, North India
- Ideas of Conjugality and the Child-Marriage controversy
- Purdah: Veiling and segregation of women
- Indian Women’s Autobiographies

Teaching Methods

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.

Assessment Methods

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.

Reading Lists