Marriage in transition : gender, family and Muslim social reform in colonial India

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2013-05

Authors

Alam, Asiya

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Abstract

This thesis examines how marriage amongst Urdu-speaking Muslims of colonial India was transformed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The thesis illustrates this transformation by investigating changes in public debate on key familial issues such as consent in marriages, appropriate marriageable age, women’s education, polygyny, separation and divorce. Discourses on these questions are explored in hitherto unanalyzed archive of Urdu print culture particularly women’s magazines, novels, pamphlets and commentaries published during the colonial period. Examining the various debates conducted in this space of Urdu press, this thesis makes three major arguments. First, the various reformist efforts and ideas expended in improving and remaking women during the colonial was driven by the larger push to redefine family, and that the ‘women’s question’ triggered in social reform was, in effect, an agenda to remake and re-imagine the family. Secondly, these debates generated normative discourses of ‘good wives’ and ‘good husbands’ inhabiting an ideal familial space where relationships were supposed to be harmonious. These norms were centered on notions of ‘respectability’ and produced new role models for men and women. At the same time, these debates also raised questions about the nature of the ‘respectability’ ideal, criticized the silence and complicity of reformers in generating social norms, and emphasized financial autonomy and choice for women. Thus, the social order envisaged in these debates cannot be called ‘new patriarchy’ of colonialism but involved forms of emancipation as well as control. Finally, this thesis argues that these familial and social changes were held together by a common desire to actualize and fashion a new form of ‘Muslim self.’ Islam and notions of Muslim identity were central to social reform, and there were varying opinions on it producing new dilemmas and predicaments about the colonial present. These discussions thus illustrate not just changing family history of South Asian Muslims but also a dynamic Muslim intellectual culture during the colonial period.

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