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In Session: Considering Gender in South Asia
3: Restructuring the Family: Ashraf Ali Thanwi, Muslim Women and the Construction of New Patriarchy in 19th Century Colonial India
Thursday, March 25, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Dartmouth College, United States
With its investigations into the development of nationalism in India, the Subaltern Studies collective brought to light the role of Hindu nationalist elites in constructing a new patriarchy in colonial India under the idiom of social reform and modernization. While this push towards stricter definition of gender roles mirrored itself in the Muslim community as well, scholars have so far limited their focus on patriarchal discourses emanating from the works of modernist reformers like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and writers like Deputy Nazir Ahmad. This focus on the modernist and nationalist tendencies within the Muslim elites obscures the transformative work of the ulama (Islamic religious scholars) in formulating new sets of patriarchal gender relations. One such scholar from the Deobandi tradition of South Asian Islam was Ashraf Ali Thanwi (d. 1943); an extremely influential thinker who was the first among the ulama to sense the opportunities afforded by print technology. With the adoption of Urdu language (instead of Arabic or Persian), simplification of religious injunctions and print-enabled dissemination of religious knowledge aimed at a female audience, Thanwi succeeded in penetrating the private world of Muslim women hitherto inaccessible to male ulama. This paper analyzes the crucial role played by Thanwi in the formation of modern conjugality, centered on the twin pillars of nuclear family and wife’s absolute submission to the husband. In studying Thanwi’s drive towards standardization of moral conduct for Muslim women, the paper also analyzes the means through which his discourses sought to curb the fluidity, mobility and autonomy afforded to women by traditional family structures and local custom.