Thematic Module 5: Performing Gender
Elena Borghi (Florence, Italy)
Unaided by Men, They Will Discover their Own Strength.
Women’s Associations and the formulation of new norms in late colonial India”(1917-1947)
The research project focuses on Indian women’s engagement in feminist politics in the first half of the twentieth century. Addressing the thematic module “Performing Gender”, the project aims to contribute to the gender history of late colonial India by investigating the process of negotiation of gender norms and roles that resulted from elite women’s direct involvement in the debate on women’s conditions.
From the beginning of the twentieth century, elite women increasingly organised to enter the Indian social and political arena as subjects, claiming a voice in matters that—though directly related to their own bodily and emotional experiences—had so far been the domain of male actors who wished to reform Indian mores. The project aims to shed light on the reformulation of gender norms and roles set in motion by women’s direct engagement by focusing in particular on the first two pan-Indian women’s associations that led women’s mobilisation in late colonial India —the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) and the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC).
On the one hand, such a mobilisation was part and parcel of the practices of the political of which the subcontinent was the theatre in the last century, the anti-imperialist movement in primis; on the other hand, feminist activism in India represented itself as part of the broader international women’s movement, and its members as actors of the global political struggle for gender equality. Both WIA and the AIWC, which counted several thousand Indian and Anglo-Indian members from across the subcontinent, lobbied for women’s rights and constitutional reform, holding to liberal feminist agendas. The importance of these organisations lay, however, not only in their concrete aims and victories, but also—perhaps more importantly—in how they contributed to reshape the gender norms and models of the day. The countless writings, speeches, highly crowded annual meetings, deputations, correspondence and travels in which the members of the WIA and the AIWC engaged during these three decades functioned as political performances, questioning traditional notions about social gender roles, and blurring the boundaries between the “private” and “public” spheres, formulating an idea of Indian modernity of which women were to be the driving forces.
Elena Borghi has recently completed her Ph.D. from the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy). Interested in History of South Asia and in Women’s and Gender History, she focused her research on the origins of feminism in India during the early twentieth century and on the experience of the Nehru women. Her publications include ‘The time has now come for women to review and reform thus system’, and “Women’s movements, Indian anti-colonial struggle”.