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Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 18, 2002)

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 18, 2002)

Many historians of gender have also commented on the profound ideological shifts that British colonialism produced in Indian society. These shifts were twofold.

On the face of it, the British colonial state claimed non-interference in matters of religion and custom. So gendered conceptions of tradition were used to confirm earlier forms of patriarchal control. The British ruled through native authority.

At the same time, "tradition" itself was being re-interpreted by the British as fixed, objectified. This was not the flexible, fluid, localized "tradition" that might have given women more room to maneuver. Instead, the colonial state used the categories of "culture" and "tradition" to buttress its own claims to being an improving, modernizing force, disabling or dispossessing natives from claiming parity with their colonizers.

Thus traditional forms of social life were themselves being changed due to modern conceptions of agency, consent, and individuality. [Tanika Sarkar]

Beginning with the debates about the abolition of sati in 1829, issues of female infanticide, questions of widow remarriage and questions about the age of consent for girls, all of these practices came to be legislated by the colonial state. But because the British claimed they were not interfering in customary practice, we see them converting such practices into crimes against humanity, into barbaric tradition.

In opposition to the reigning bourgeois conceptions of the private sphere as a realm of freedom and interiority, the colonial state in India understood the private sphere in the colony as a space of "barbaric" tradition that required redemption. This produced the structure of the "scandal" or the "crisis" as the mode through which the private sphere was made available to public scrutiny. Through law, patriarchy was reconstituted, through a mélange of old and new practices. So criminalizing cultural or traditional practices was the way the colonial state was able to get out of its own proclaimed stance of non-interference. (Lata Mani, Tanika Sarkar, Uma Chakravarty, Rosalind Hanlon)

Briefly put, we might argue that though colonial governance might have rendered certain spheres of Indian society more free by bringing them into the domain of Western progress and improvement, it did so erratically, without great awareness of the contradictory processes it had initiated in indigenous society. Colonial law's intervention in matters of sexual propriety and caste morality strengthened the sovereignty the colonial state claimed for itself, and it strengthened upper-caste privilege and patriarchy.

Importantly, some women were empowered in this process at the cost of other women. (Lucy Carroll, 1856 Widow Remarriage Act). Sexual freedoms gained at the cost of material security. Middle class women during this period came to have respectability, while their sisters, the peasant women, lost their economic rights.

Veena's book opens up the differences between women that were produced by the colonial state.