Men-Women Relationship in Nineteenth Century Bengal | The Daily Star
01:38 AM, March 06, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:43 AM, March 06, 2017

Men-Women Relationship in Nineteenth Century Bengal

REVIEWED BY DR. ANM MESHQUAT UDDIN; Publisher: Bangla Academy, June 2013

The story begins like this. Dr. Bilkis Rahman read the autobiography of noted author Mir Mosharraf Hossain and discovered a rosy picture of a very happy life with his wife Bibi Kulsum. But when she examined the personal diary of Bibi Kulsum, she found a different picture. Bibi Kulsum described her mental predicaments due to her husband's extramarital relationship with other women and absence of any respect for her as a wife. This prompted Dr. Bilkis to undertake a research study and find out the actual conditions of women in the nineteenth century Bengal. She has compiled her findings in this 268-page book, titled:Unish Shatake Banglay Naripurush Shamparka.

The book is organized into five chapters.  Three chapters focus on conjugal relations, men-women relations before marriage, and extramarital relations.  The other two chapters examine the impact of traditional values and transitional family values on men-women relations.  In the preface of the book, Professor Anisuzzman acknowledges that the findings of this book are based on various authentic documents, deeds and agreements that were not used by previous researchers.  Although the men-women relationship in the middle-class families of the nineteenth century Bengal was primarily determined by religious rules and contemporary social values, Dr. Bilkis's research has unveiled various new dimensions that were not known to us before.

Undivided Bengal comprised of today's Bangladesh and the Indian province of West Bengal in the nineteenth century and was under the British rule. The Hindus and the Muslims represented a large majority of the population. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, religion played a vital role in determining the nature of men-women relationship. Religious rules both in Islam and Hinduism were in favour of men; women were given a lower position in both religions in terms of their relationship with men, right to property and social status. Dr. Bilkis was surprised to discover that both religions allowed men to have multiple wives, while a woman could have only a single husband. In addition, men were allowed to have sexual relationship with prostitutes, maids, concubines and other women.

Most of the previous studies on women were based on data and information obtained from autobiographies, personal diaries and letters, and family documents.  In most of the autobiographies, the authors skipped their conjugal relations and sex life, either intentionally or inadvertently. Thus, much of the information about the deplorable conditions of women vis-a-vis a colorful sex life of men in general remained unknown to us. In addition to the above sources, Dr. Bilkis also examined the marriage deeds (kabinnama for Muslims and patipatra for Hindus), deeds of spouse livelihood support, wills, divorce letters, court records such as lawsuits related to marriages and property inheritance, deeds of donation, loan agreements, and documents related to land exchange. Information was also obtained from autobiographies, letters, diaries, newspapers, periodicals, books and magazines, government records, reports of civil and criminal cases, magistrate reports, police reports, education reports, medical reports, district records, and census reports.

Dr. Bilkis discusses three theories that explain the nature of sexual relationship between men and women.  The first theory postulates that the relationship between men and women is primarily based on physical relationship.  A man looks at female body as a cultivable land.  A child is the fruit of this process.  The second theory is based on feminism that denounces absolute domination by men.  It recognizes female freedom and independence regarding a woman's sexual communion with a man. It states that a woman will decide whether she will participate in sexual intercourse with a man, and she can even choose a female partner for sexual gratification. The third theory is based on equality between men and women.  It postulates that physical attraction between a man and a woman is natural, and sexual relationship is a matter of choice and love between the two persons.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the men-women relationship was based on the first theory.  Thus a man would feel attracted only to a woman's body and not to her as a person. There was no love in conjugal relations; the wife was treated as a machine to produce children.

Dr. Bilkis addresses different aspects of sexual relationship between men and women.  Childhood marriage was quite common during that time.  In most cases, girls were married before the age of puberty.  Hoimaboti Sen had to marry a 45-year old man when she was 10. She woke up and started screaming when her husband started to take off her clothes while she was asleep.  Her husband used to have sex with a prostitute in their bedroom in presence of Hoimaboti.  An 11-year old girl died after being raped by her husband.  Another man beat his wife to death because she refused to have sex.  Harimohon Maiti raped his 10-year old wife and she died.

This book also focuses on economic and social rights of women during that period. According to the Muslim law, a daughter was entitled to some of the property of her father and her husband. But the Hindu law deprived the daughter of her father's property.  However, the father, in both Islam and Hinduism, had the option to donate his property to his daughter through a will before his death.  Toward the second half of the nineteenth century, men undertook several initiatives to ensure financial security of their wives and daughters, and married women became more conscious about their rights as wives.  An examination of marriage deeds, divorce letters, and relevant court verdicts reveals that stringent conditions were included in these documents to protect the rights of women.  Dr. Bilkis cites some specific marriage deeds where it was clearly mentioned that the husband would treat his wife with due respect, allow her to visit her parents regularly, and would not remarry without her permission. In the kabinnama, the husband would assure that he would not marry another woman, and even if he did, the first wife would have the power to divorce the second wife on behalf of her husband and the husband would accept it.  If the husband had any children from his second wife, they would be deprived of his property. If the husband left the country and stayed overseas for four years, or did not have sexual intercourse with her for six months while living together with her, the wife would achieve the right to divorce her husband.  The condition of women in Muslim families was a little better.  There were fewer child marriages; widows would never get remarried in most cases. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, some women became fairly educated and involved themselves in business and other economic ventures.

Dr. Bilkis Rahman's book is not based on stories from other people.  She has used multiple authentic sources to unfold the true status of women in our society in the nineteenth century.  She examined the conjugal relations between men and women in the middle class families of the nineteenth century mainly from the perspective of the efforts and initiatives undertaken by men to help women become self-dependent and thus ensure their financial and social security. The book used ample quotes from other studies and cited sources for the data and information she used in her study in the footnote form at the end of each chapter.  I believe this will serve as an invaluable document for the future researchers in women and gender studies.  It will also remain a useful handbook for those who are interested in the history of evolution and revolution of women in our society.

The reviewer is Professor, Southeast University.

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