‘Wife’, ‘Husband’ And ‘Widow’ as subjects of law,
Dr. Rashmi Pant,
Historians have flagged the emergence of a new legal-normative vision of the family in colonial India prioritising the individual over the kin-group, and conjugal ties over those of lineage. Colonial regulations on marriage and divorce in the Himalayan region of Kumaon appear to follow this general trend in 19th century India, with the state seeking to replace patrilineal kin as the protector of the individual. Marriage and divorce were thereafter to be regulated through laws rather than through earlier notions of honour and competition for prestige. Kumaon, thus mirrored a general shift in the terms of the Sexual Contract between state and citizen in India.
The paper looks at the consequences of this conceptual shift for women’s status and notions of self in Kumaon from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century.
It studies how peasant men and women negotiated the new mode of sexual governance to address problems of debt and compensation arising from the breakdown of marriage in a marital regime regulated by bride price. Their depositions permit us to see how they learned to occupy the gendered constructions of the legal subject encountered in Law. An important reversal in the status of women followed upon colonial law-makers stepping back from the Liberal idea of equivalence between marriage partners around the middle of the 19thcentury. From this point onwards, judicial officers chose to focus on ameliorative measures within the family rather than enabling women to leave an unsuitable marriage and contract another. This recalibration of the wife’s subject-position in law demonstrably reinforced women’s passivity and victimhood in self-representations before the Law. The widow on the other hand acquired considerable liberty by the annulment of rights of extended kin over her person. In contrast to the wife, the widow is represented as exercising her agency to form new connubial partnerships.
Lastly, culture marked an important limit for Law’s capacity to normalise social transgression by women. Cultural (but not legal) norms decreed that a remarried woman and her children remain in a state of social and ritual degradation until the claims of her earlier marriage were settled, of which an important part was return of jewellery. Consequently, the frequent contests over ornaments between remarried women and their kinsmen, described in criminal records, may be read as signalling women’s continuing and traumatic concern with falling into a state of ‘dishonour’.
Dr. Rashmi Pant has taught history for over thirty years at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi, Delhi. Her research interest is in colonial intellectual history, specifically in the areas of caste, gender and law. Some research papers have been published in Indian Economic and Social History Review, and in Contributions to Indian Sociology. More recent work done on Law and Gender in Kumaon as a Fellow at NMML since 2013, is in progress.