The connections between gender and literature have a long history. Looking only at English literature, we can trace them back to Mary Wollstonecraft's 1794 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Written in the aftermath of the French Revolution, that tome brought out the ideological underpinnings of literary representations. By the time we come to the early twentieth century, we see a host of writers and critics commenting on women writing and women as they were written about. Between Wollstonecraft's 18th century Vindication and Virginia Woolf's 1924 A Room of One's Own, English writing had spawned numerous women authors – poets and novelists – allowing for examinations of issues of love and romance, of sexuality, of the domestic sphere – of the 'woman question' in short.
As women were being drawn into the literary realm as a separate category in the west, questions of gender were also being put through critical lenses. Questions of class and race entered the discourse, complicating the gender terrain. Also, notions of the fluidity of gender and of identity further muddied waters, questioning the sex-gender divide, and viewing all identities as constructed and therefore subject to change. In the South Asian context, the notion of freedom and nationality was absolutely connected with the question of identity, and women's roles and the way the woman question was addressed in nationalist discourse formed the dominant concerns of feminist scholars. Such concerns had the effect of changing the way they were approaching literary texts. But as they began redrawing these two concepts – gender and literature – feminist scholars everywhere started looking at disciplinary boundaries, trying to bring the humanities and the social sciences closer, reexamining the methodologies that defined them, and working towards devising new methodologies, or cross-fertilizing old ones.
In the conference organized by the Department of English and Humanities at BRAC University or ENH at BRACU, my colleagues and I and participating scholars were interested in crossing other divides. While English departments have concentrated on the study of literatures in English, the organizers of the conference tried to make it a bilingual one, with not only writings in Bengali being discussed, but having panels in both languages. Indeed, linguistic issues were part and parcel of the conference; for example, one of the plenary papers looked at the status of minority languages in India
As the concept of literature is now going beyond the written to the spoken word, to performance, media of all kinds and to filmic representation, some of the scholars participating brought in issues relating to other mediums, especially film. In fact, one of the moderators commented on this tendency, and said that the organizers should have termed the conference 'cultural terrains'.
Amongst all these changes, there is a final change I would like to draw attention to. We organizers had designed the panels to combine young emerging scholars as well as older established ones. We were astounded at the number of abstracts we received from them. It was obvious to us that we now have a large number of young people entering the literary field. This can only be a good thing, as many minds set to work, and we work towards creating a rich and varied field for the cultivation of literary studies in the country.
But as organizers we were encouraged also by its regional and international dimensions. Our opening key-note speeches, for instance, were wonderful we thought, as they brought in contemporary concerns and merged them with established literary ones. The Chaucer scholar Professor Ruth Evans, of the University of St. Louis, concentrated on the concept of 'relatability' in the first of the key-note speeches. She began by talking about the prevalence of sexual assaults on women in campuses around the US. It is within these contexts such as Chaucer's has to be brought alive now. Peppering her talk with quotes from Chaucer, she showed that the point is to make the text speak, and to enthuse students with the ways in which literature brings alive social issues.
Professor Niaz Zaman recounted her own story as a writer and Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. Weaving together the personal and the professional, and her growth as a writer, Niaz Zaman showed how women have to traverse different spheres in order to establish themselves as well as to engender their disciplines. She also highlighted the issue of rape and assault on women, and commented on how important it is that the gender scholars/writers reflect these concerns in their teaching and writing. Her deliberations were especially interesting to the audience, as many of us had been part of the curriculum changes in English departments, either as students as our syllabi underwent immense changes in 90's, or as professors and academics involved in refashioning the way in which the discipline of literature was emerging out of its Leavisite stranglehold into a broader and more inclusive field then.
We were especially very happy to have Susie Tharu, from the University of English and Foreign Languages of Hyderabad, India, who is being featured separately on this page. I would like to say a few words about why we thought it was important that she ends the conference. She is somewhat of a pioneer in the field of women's studies in the region, as the very influential Women Writing in India 600 BC to the Present bears out. The two volumes came out in the 90's, marking a watershed in Indian and, in fact in South Asian, literary studies. Perhaps as interesting as the works collected in the two volumes, are the introductions to the researched sphere. The introductions piece out the thorny questions that have beset the sphere of feminist literary criticism, including the question of whether women write differently. There is no direct answer to this question. The stress now is on why women have been occluded from literary history, and on tracing the history of a particular manuscript to show how issues of sexual respectability pertain to how women are included into the “literary”. As literature delves into spheres that are not commonly talked about – exploring unconscious desires, or protesting injustices—it is the literary space that gives women the opportunity to explore these spheres. And yet all the while, the spectre of women voicing their dreams and aspirations is seen as subversive of dominant norms and ideologies. These submerged voices need to be re-excavated, as including these writings does indeed redraw the literary map, showing up the gaps in established literary spheres.
Listening to Professor Tharu I felt that all the old concerns of what happens to the literary space when we engender it is still relevant today, but has taken on such varied dimensions. Her own work has led her to excavating Dalit writing, and it reminded me of Shaheen Akhtar's anthology of women's writing in Bengal, - Sati o Satantara – during the compilation of which she felt inspired to add a third volume, concentrating solely on oral expression. The many forms of literary expression, the connections between orality and the written word – these are only some of the issues that emerged as we examined literary and gender connections.
I have tried to use this write-up to reflect on why we organizers had thought this to be a timely intervention in our field. The decision to intervene was based on a review of changes that had occurred in the 80's and 90's, and looking back at the last 25 years to understand where literary studies stands today. At that juncture, the stress had been on drawing bridges between the social, the cultural and the literary. We are perhaps at another critical juncture as the concept of gender keeps undergoing many reviews and changes, and while changes in technology and modes of expression open up newer avenues to explore. The oral, the pictorial and the written seem to be juxtaposed in new ways these days; exploring this brave new world is now the task of the literary scholar. And if the scholar is a woman, or if it's the question of gender that is being explored (whether by a woman or not!) – we need to be there with sharpened and exciting new critical and creative tools.
I do think it was an exciting conference, and a good time was had by all!
Firdous Azim is the Chairperson, Department of English and Humanities, BRAC Unversity.