Invisibility and Marginal visibility It is a fact that the discipline of History, at least until the eighth decade of the twentieth century, was an extremely male-dominated subject. The main characters, whether they were warriors, writers, rulers, philosophers, or scientists were almost invariably male. Granted there were a few exceptions, but as the saying goes, these exceptions only proved the rule. Women characters like the South Indian monarch Rudramadevi or the European philosopher Isabella d'Aste can be mentioned as isolated islands in a sea dominated by male characters. This invisibility or marginal visibility (call it whatever you want) was so well entrenched in the subject of History that until a couple of decades ago, no one even seemed to question it. The research on women related issues has been relatively lesser. Even when such research was done, women were sometimes presented as the helpless victims of social oppression and at other times the research relating to male-female relationships wasn't done properly.
Coming to the topic at hand, the situation in Assam in the 19th century was somewhat distinct from the rest of the country. This was because there was a certain amount of difference in the way the Brahmin and non-Brahmin (both tribal and non-tribal) women were treated by their male counterparts when compared to the rest of the country. While Brahmin women here faced the usual discrimination as in the rest of the country (pre-puberty marriage, a hellish life as a widow, lack of access to education and restrictions on remarriage) the non-Brahmin women were slightly better off at least as far as choosing their husband and the age of marriage is concerned. But as far as the domestic division of labor and the general status of women was concerned, non-Brahmin women weren't much better off either. Nevertheless, there was somewhat more inter-gender equality in Assam compared to the rest of the country.
Winds of change The nineteenth century and the first half of the twenty-first are one of special mention as several new factors came together in this period to create conditions for change. Three factors are of particular importance – the coming of the British and the spread of a new educational system in the region, secondly, the activities of the Baptist missionaries in the region and thirdly the rise of Gandhian mass agitation from the 1920s onwards.
The new education system meant the rise of a new generation of educated youth – Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, Gunabhiram Baruah, and Hemchandra Baruah – were probably the best representatives of this change. Anandaram Dhekial Phukan proposed three important changes in the prevailing system of marriages – firstly the difference of ae between the groom and the bride should not be more than five years, secondly all marriages should be registered and thirdly the prospective groom and the bride should have some time for courtship so as to know each other better. The work of Gunabhiram Baruah and Hemchandra Baruah in the field of promotion of widow remarriage is well known in the region.
The contribution of the missionaries is also quite important in this context. The missionaries were mainly charged up with the zeal of spreading Christianity and completing what they saw as the 'white man's burden'. To do this, they had to spread education among all sections of society. This led to an emphasis on the education of women. The progress was much better than in the rest of India, although the overall effect was still quite negligible. The missionaries had to adopt some innovative methods to get around the restrictions placed on upper-caste women. They started giving 'Jenana' education, in which missionaries went to the houses of the women and gave them lessons. There are individual cases of success but at the macro level, the effect was not very huge. The same can be claimed of the efforts by the individual reformers mentioned in the previous paragraph. As always happens, the grip of conventions and customs was so strong that even if these few individuals were to shout at the top of their voice, their voice would still get drowned out by the conservative voices.
The cry for freedom A considerable change came with the coming of Gandhi into the Indian political scene. It should be remembered that Gandhi made his frost visit to Assam in the year 1921, at the height of non-cooperation. Since Gandhian protests didn't require weapons, women were as eligible as men to participate in these. Some women came forward to form political organizations of their own while others participated in the less glamorous 'constructive' work that mainly included the promotion of khadi in the household. Among women of the former category, the most notable representative was Chandra Prabha Saikiani, whose fiery speeches were considerably influential in inspiring a fresh generation of freedom fighters, both male and female. Another phase came with the starting of the Quit India agitation. Now women were firmly into the nationalist circle, carrying the national flag in processions (Kanaklata was the most notable example) and sometimes even engaging in revolutionary violence, mostly sabotage activities.
After independence India became independent in 1947. Whether this Azadi (freedom) was jhoothi (false) or not is another matter altogether, but the post-independence period has been somewhat chequered for women in general and women of Assam and the North-East in particular. On the one hand, there have been numerous schemes and laws to help women with various grievances while on the other hand, there seems to be no end to the cases of crimes against women. This is especially true of strife-torn areas like Manipur where there are allegations of the army personnel had engaged in rape and molestations in the garb of anti-terror operations. Not too dissimilar allegations have been raised (since the colonial times in fact) about cases in the tea gardens where female workers are routinely subjected to sexual violence by their supervisors or the managers and owners of these establishments. Gender equality in the North-East is indeed somewhat better than that of other places in the country. Yet there are challenges for us moving forward, as there were before the reformers of the 19th century.
(The primary input for this article was the ideas gathered at the 9th Lakshmi Devi memorial lecture delivered by Professor Priyam Goswami)