Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 3, January 2000

Enrica Garzilli, editor

Journal of South Asian Women Studies,

Milano: Asiatica Association, 1997
ISBN 88-900226-0-4 xxviii, 241. [ISSN 1085-7478]
(This review is cross-posted from H-ASIA and copyright is retained.)

review by Frank Conlon, University of Washington.

  1. In the autumn of 1995, the Journal of South Asia Women Studies founded and directed by Dr. Enrica Garzilli of the University of Perugia, emerged as a significant new electronic publication dedicated to the production of scholarly papers and research resources related to the lives, culture and condition of women in the South Asian subcontinent, both in the past and the present. Dr. Garzilli stressed in the initial number, that along with publication of scholarly works on South Asian women, that JSAWS would promote international debates on the subject, bridge gaps between scholars and the media and activities of NGOs, and to develop resources and lists of materials for further studies and, utilizing the internet and world wide web, to disseminate these items rapidly throughout the world. JSAWS also created a Directory E-mail Book in which subscribers and supporters could be registered with indications of their scholarly appointments, public activities, research interests etc.
  2. Dr. Garzilli notes that the initial readership of JSAWS was to be found primarily among academicians of the 'computerate' countries of Australia, Europe and North America. The appearance of a hard copy of the e-format publication occurs because of requests from scholars who do not use computers, whether due to lack of training, or - particularly in the subcontinent - lack of institutional support for internet access and upgraded computers capable of fully exploiting the resources of the world wide web. While electronic publication offers advantages of 'time and manageability,' the drawbacks of accessibility may be particularly acute among the subjects of this journal. The present hard copy version reproduces exactly a printed format of the exact contents of JSAWS Volumes 1, 2 (nos. 1-4) and 3 no. 1, and the editor notes that 'we have tried to change the original as little as possible.... Our style reflects the needs of e-mail and the www.' (p. xiv).
  3. Articles within the JSAWS have reflected interests of participating scholars. The first papers published in the series were drawn from talks presented at the International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning held at the Harvard University Law School in 1995. Thus some of the contributions have more the nature of a public lecture than a scholarly paper. Such may be the case with the first item in the initial number. Sita Kapadia's 'A Tribute to Mahatma Gandhi: His Views on Women and Social Change' offers a conventional review of Gandhi's views on women and their potential as leaders of satyagraha without addressing significantly the gender-relations issues which have been discovered by others in the story of the Mahatma. Subhadra Chaturvedi, an Advocate of the Indian Supreme Court, 'Whether Inheritance to Women is a Viable Solution of the Dowry Problem in India.' Chaturvedi reviews crime statistics to establish the scope of 'dowry death' and documents the virtual monopoly of male control of property in India, and argues for an expansion of inheritance rights for women as a means of eliminating the excessive demands of dowry before and after weddings.
  4. Further papers from the Harvard conference appeared in Volume 2 beginning with Enrica Garzilli's most interesting 'Stridhana: To Have and To Have Not' which reviews Hindu women's rights to property, the development of the stridhana concept in dharmasastra texts and continuing up to the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, and provides a well-documented analysis of long-term problems, with reference to Sanskrit texts, as well as colonial and contemporary scholarship on legal history.
  5. Jayaraj Acharya contributes 'Sati Was Not Enforced in Ancient Nepal', which examines evidence (and silences) from the era of the Licchavi dynasty in the 4th-9th centuries C.E. The surviving inscriptional evidence is read to suggest that sati was not practiced widely, if at all. Bandita Phukan, a pioneer woman engineer in Assam, reports in 'The Daughters and Hindu Rites' on her own efforts to conduct the shraddha ceremonies at her father's funeral, rites traditionally restricted to sons. Her account notes that if daughters could be generally included as being eligible to conduct such rites, their parents would value them more highly. Within her short essay, there are no opportunities for considering the potentials of her suggestion within the comparative circumstances of Hindu daughters in other regions of India or in the diaspora. Himendra B. Thakur, an organizer of the International Society Against Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, offers 'Practical Steps Towards Saving the Lives of 25,000 Potential Victims of Dowry and Bride-Burning in India in the Next Four Years' which includes tables from the National Crimes Bureau of the Indian Home Ministry showing geographical distribution of deaths of women which are recorded as 'dowry deaths.' One table indicates a significant increase in the number of deaths reported as dowry deaths over the 1987-1994 period. The author does not speculate on the extent to which this documents an absolute increase in such violence or to increased awareness and reporting of violence against women under the category. A second table on geographical distribution of dowry-deaths per million Hindu population reflects a similar increase, and in the eight-year averages, a sort of league table of shame appears to emerge in which Delhi comes first, followed by Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. What the statistics may really show is less than clear. And, for example, the tables count almost no dowry deaths in Goa in this period, yet in Julia Leslie's article (see below), the Goan journalist Frederick Noronha is quoted in 1995 reported that in the preceding 20 months, 109 women had burnt to death. Clearly crime statistics may or may not be keys to analysis.
  6. In Volume 2, number 3, the JSAWS incorporated material from beyond the subcontinent in Carolyn Brewer's 'From Baylan to Bruha: Hispanic Impact on the Animist Priestess in the Philippines' which examines the linguistic evidence of suppression of indigenous traditions of spiritual leadership.
  7. The following number returned to the theme of domestic violence toward women. Ranjita Bunwaree-Phukan's 'Domestic Violence: A Daily Terror in Most Mauritian Families' offers suggestions as to why 'wife-beating' persists in Mauritius, why women have been slow to resist it, and how it might be curtailed. Julia Leslie is well known for her works on textual and historical perspectives on women in Hinduism. Here, however, Dr. Leslie's 'Dowry, "Dowry Deaths" and Violence Against Women' looks at current views found in the Indian press and shared with her by Indian informants on the extent of dowry-related deaths, the degree to which it was an urban, middle-class phenomenon, who was blame, were men ever victims of dowry and how the dowry problem might be addressed. This is followed by a very brief commentary by Ram Narayan Tripathi 'Hindu Marriage System, Hindu Scriptures and Dowry and Bride-Burning in India' which offers a summary of ideal-typical generalizations regarding these topics and, in light of idealized views of ancient scriptures, wonders how dowry and bride-burning may be explained. Tripathi suggests that it is a reflection of a long period of decadence and degeneration. After this, the reader turns with relief to Professor Michael Witzel's 'Little Dowry, No Sati: The Lot of Women in the Vedic Period,' which offers a short scholarly account of textual references regarding women's status and privileges, or lack thereof. Witzel concludes 'unlike what is sometimes described in glowing terms as a golden age of democratic egalitarianism, the lot of Vedic women was more or less congruent [with] what Manu and others have summarized in the famous verse indicating that a women (sic) is never independent; as a young unmarried woman she is 'protected' by her father, then by her husband, and if he should die, by her own sons.' He notes that most sources deal with Brahmans and that other norms might be discovered in the core of the Mahabharata or the Buddhist canon.
  8. In the final number printed here, Volume 3, No. 1, the focus shifts to the Bangladeshi writer and activist, Taslima Nasrin. She had presented a talk at Radcliffe College on April 26, 1996. JSAWS here reproduces a transcript of the taped lecture session, with an introduction by Carolyn Wright, who has worked on the translation of some of Taslima Nasrin's poetry, which also appears here. The lecture is followed by questions and answers which create a vivid vignette of an 'event' including interrupted thoughts, small comments rather than questions, and a bit of heroine-worship. Between this and a subsequent interview between Dr. Garzilli and Taslima Nasrin, a picture of what might be called 'the presentation of Taslima Nasrin' emerges. It may serve to give us all a better perspective of what happens when an abuse that touches many becomes personified in the name of one famous and, perhaps heroic, figure. We owe Enrica Garzilli a debt for making this possible.
  9. Appearance of a print edition of an electronic journal raises certain questions which must, I think, be addressed before long. If an electronic journal is 'virtual', what is its print incarnation? More than terminology is relevant here. Among the virtues of electronic publication will be found the capacity to relatively rapid distribution and the possibility of supplementation of materials including notices of conferences and symposia. Web-based publications may offer links to other sources and sites. Is a printing out of the virtual journal, as is done here, really desirable from the point of view of content and scholarship? I suspect that it is not. However, verbatim reproduction may be economically the only viable option. Still, if the Journal of South Asian Women Studies is to continue to provide a hardcopy print option, I believe that the focus should be on the substantive content with the elimination of time-sensitive ephemeral materials. Perhaps within a shorter time than might have been imagined even five years ago, the 'computerate' audience will grow in South Asia itself, opening further opportunities for JSAWS to carry on its mission even more broadly, and exclusively in an electronic medium.
  10. Dr. Garzilli and her editorial team are to be congratulated for the effort they have expended in bringing the Journal of South Asia Women Studies into existence. Much of the content is timely and stimulating. I am obliged to observe that for long-term realization of their goals, the editors of JSAWS should seek actively to produce proceedings of other scholarly conferences, to encourage presenters to take a little time to provide annotations and citations in order that a growing audience will be better placed to take up the issues under discussion. Timeliness of publication need not mean that all the ephemeral items will be preserved, but electronic media do allow notice of calls for papers to be more widely broadcast. JSAWS may find a special niche, in what might be a mixture of Manushi and Signs, but the editors and the readers will have the ultimate voice in that matter.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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