Learning Femininity in Colonial India, 1820-1932

Subhasri Ghosh (Asutosh College, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, India)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 5 June 2017



Ghosh, S. (2017), "Learning Femininity in Colonial India, 1820-1932", History of Education Review, Vol. 46 No. 1, pp. 108-111. https://doi.org/10.1108/HER-10-2016-0036



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

Tim Allender’s Learning Femininity in Colonial India, 1820-1932, is an engrossing account of state-sponsored education for women and girls in colonial India and how the same delinked itself from the state to develop its own autonomous space, over a 112-year period. Taking female education in colonial India as the backdrop, the author argues that “the interaction between state and schoolgirl created a powerful and distinctive symbiosis that evolved over time” (p. 3). In the long run, such interaction, Allender points out, demonstrated that the “colonial project remained capable of evolution, producing broader outcomes that both accentuated and reconfigured race and class and gender boundaries as they related to women and girls in India” (p. 3), a reiteration of the argument that he has made in his preceding monograph “Ruling through Education: The Politics of Schooling in the Colonial Punjab” (2006), where he made the point that colonial policies were neither uniform or preconceived and that these evolved over time. In Learning Femininity, Allender echoes the same contention.

Allender’s work on female education, hinging on the study of the “labours of women educators and female learners operating in local schools and medical domains in colonial India” compliments a corpus of work that engages with the colonial women-subject from various angles sometimes with regional specificities. Neatly divided into nine chapters prefixed by a detailed introduction and suffixed by a conclusion, the book traces the shifts and turns in colonial education policy from a time when civilising mission was the overarching theme of imperial rule in India in the early half of the nineteenth century, right up to 1932, at a time when nationalism with Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movement had reached its apogee. The first enunciates how, in spite of having a “vibrant, diverse and sometime contested and exclusive” female learning space in pre-colonial period, the administration faced teething problems in carving out the modalities of female education, the type of curriculum, the medium of instruction, funding issues, but at the same time failed to address the need or the necessity to accommodate the variations and diversities regarding female education. The latter was treated as a part of the colonial project of disbursing the white man’s burden of civilising “barbaric” India, the fulcrum of which was women’s emancipation to be refracted through the prism of education. The Revolt of 1857 decelerated this monolithic colonial endeavour with the officials turning to “earlier stereotypes developed by the European missions about supposed Indian cultural backwardness and the reluctance of the Indian female to learn” (p. 66). Chapter II, with a somewhat overlapping time-frame, concentrates on the making and shaping of a Eurasian moral body between 1840 and 1867 – a new marker of socio-cultural configurations by the state, where the education of Eurasian girl-children born out of union between European men and Indian women, was mediated through a new medium – the military asylum – where education was essentially “accomplishment education” imported directly from Europe. This accomplishment was essentially premised on a novel narrative, i.e. training of women to be ideal teachers, Mary Carpenter being the chief proponent of this new ethos. Chapter III and Chapter IV deal with the evolution of this new discourse, how it gained upper hand ahead of education of Indian schoolgirls and its manifestation in the form of missionary schools under state directives as also individual missionary endeavours focused towards zenana – Indian women/girls who became the sites of change. The next two chapters digress from missionary teachers to zenana healthcare under the aegis of missionary medical carers geared towards providing better facilities in terms of hygiene, sanitation, pre-natal and post-natal care and how the state funded such efforts, leading to an animated interaction between missionary doctors and nurses and the needy Indian women and girls. Reverting to the teachers in Chapter VII, Allender points out the shifts in educational policy towards the production of teachers, so long being the prerogative of the missionaries, “Instead of the missions being left to oversee the production of female teachers as moral guides, the raj now looked to educational commerce […]” (p. 31). Fillip was given to private-venture schooling. With the rising nationalist sentiment from the second half of the nineteenth century, Chapter VIII examines the work of the women teachers – European and Eurasian – and how they grew apart from the Raj and the way they negotiated with the growing national consciousness of Indian women. The gradual emergence of the concept of politicisation of the domestic space and domestication of the political space, led these women teachers to realign their praxis in order to adapt to the new cultural sensibilities that were at loggerheads with the colonial rule. The chapter, thus highlights, two separate spheres, that of the clash between the coloniser and the colonised – the British Administration and the nationalist leaders, especially Gandhi – over female education and the other with women teachers, often operating independent of the colonial framework. The latter was further bolstered, as the last chapter portrays, throughout the early half of the twentieth century when the ruler and the ruled were on the warring path and with the colonial rule on the retreat, female education outside the aegis of the state flourished and prospered, one of the brightest examples being that of Loreto. Ultimately, as Allender shows, such enterprises survived the colonial rule and Partition to serve generations of indigenous women, who could partake of western education.

Colonial education in India has essentially been studied from various viewpoints. Institutionalisation and policy-making have been studied extensively by Aparna Basu (Essays in the History of Indian of Education, Concept Publishing Co., New Delhi, 1982), S.C. Ghosh (History of Education in Modern India, 1757-1986, Sangam Books Ltd, New Delhi, 1995), S.P. Chaube (Landmarks in Modern Indian Education, Himalaya Publishing House, Mumbai, 1997), Krishna Kumar (Political Agenda of Education: A Study of Colonialist and Nationalist Ideas, Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1991) and Mushirul Hasan (Knowledge, Power and Politics: Educational Institutions in India, Lotus Collection, New Delhi, 1998) have analysed the political context and compulsions which resulted in English education. Hayden J.A. Bellenoit (Missionary Education and Empire in Late Colonial India, 1860-1920, Pickering & Chatto, London 2007), covering roughly the same time-span as Allender, aims to grant the missionaries a central role in the history of South Asia. Foregrounding missionaries who had a more intimate contact with the Indian society, i.e. those who worked for decades in villages, Bellenoit, attempts to integrate missionaries in South Asian historiography. However, the gendered nature of education in Bellenoit’s work, featured under the umbrella of “educational enterprise” and not the pivot. From a gendered angle, Ghulam Murshid’s “Reluctant Debutante: Response of Bengali Women to Modernisation, 1849-1905” (Sahitya Samsad, Rajsahahi University, Rajshahi, 1983) looks at the response of Indian women to institutional education carried under the initiative of “men” – whether British or Indian, Dagmer Engels’s Beyond Purdah: Women in Bengal 1890-1939 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996) catalogues the growth of female education centring Bengal that operated within the state fold and outside the state fold under the initiative of the enterprising individuals of the indigenous society, with not so much of a concentration on missionary endeavours. Gendered medical education and healthcare has been accorded a separate place within this rubric of female education. Samiksha Sehrawat (Colonial Medical Care in North India: Gender, State and Society, c. 1840-1920, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 2013) and Sujata Mukherjee (Gender, Medicine and Society in Colonial India: Women’s Healthcare in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Bengal, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016) have delineated women healthcare in colonial India, with regional specificities – the first one deals with North India and the more recent one with Bengal. While Sehrawat concentrated on the role of state in medical care and argued how the state increasingly moved to a minimalistic role at the turn of the twentieth century – a point Allender too makes in terms of female education – Mukherjee traces the growth of hospital medicine in the nineteenth century, with special emphasis on the role of Brahmo Samaj. Maneesha Lal (Women, Medicine, and Colonialism in British India, 1869-1925, available at: http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations /AAI9712958, Pennsylvania, 1996) delves on the interface between colonial state, semi-voluntary organisations, medical missionaries, nationalist women groups to cull out how each set their own parameters to define women’s health in colonial India.

In that sense, Allender’s work premised on the notion that a separate sphere emerged in the terrain of female education, unhinged from state control, is a significant contribution in understanding the nuances of pedagogic imperial history. Allender deftly intertwines medical education and training with the overarching theme of female education under missionary initiative to argue how education for women, be it teachers’ training or medical, was boosted by the enterprising female missionaries who operated independent of the state, and generated their own fund at a time when state interest and initiatives were on the wane. Some questions remain unanswered though. Allender points out, while noting the success of Loreto, that post-First World War that there was a drying up of imperial interest in educational project, a point previously made by Engels who, too notes, that in 1931, an aided girl’s school received a fund of Rs33 to Rs38 per year which was not sufficient to run the schools. By 1890, there were around 2,238 girls’ schools, mostly government-funded with roll strength of nearly 79,000 students. The reader would have liked to know what happened to these schools, once the state funds started to dry up from the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, the proselytising zeal of the missionaries has always been put to question by the Indian bhadralok – loosely termed as the serviced middle-class – who were at the forefront of the national movement. Thus, how could Loreto, with its distinct missionary stamp hold on to its own and flourish in an era of growing nationalism? Leaders like Gandhi were invoking the images of “ideal” Indian women by harking back to mythical characters like Sita and Savitri and questioning British officials as to whether “their” education system would make better mothers out of Indian girls. Especially from the second half of the nineteenth century, there was an increasing concern towards protecting the domestic sphere from “externally wrought” reform. Reform of the womenfolk would be guided by their male guardians in the form of father and/or husband – a group whom Partha Chatterjee terms as the “new patriarchy” who had a distinct disdain for external interference/intervention in the inner space symbolised by women. Under the circumstances, the question remains, as to why Loreto found favour in an otherwise anti-colonial, anti-white set-up? Is it because of its Irish origin, since Ireland, too, was fighting British colonialism and many Indian nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak were influenced by Irish Home Rule Movement and demanded something similar for India? Why did a stalwart like Rabindranath Tagore send his newly married wife to Loreto? Is it because of the order’s emphasis on piety and philanthropy that would help these women become better mothers, wives and companions – an agenda that the “new patriarchy” too endorsed? One would have liked to see these connections fleshed out in a more cogent manner in the text.

Even then, Allender’s work is a compelling account of evolution, growth and development of female education in colonial India which originated within the framework of the state but went on to develop apparatus operating independent of the state that survived and outlived the colonial machinery.

Related articles