University of Cambridge > > World History Workshop > Women, personal law and property rights: notions of modern citizenship in late colonial India

Women, personal law and property rights: notions of modern citizenship in late colonial India

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The interwar period saw a growing preoccupation amongst Indian legislators with questions of women’s status and property rights under Hindu law. These debates have, hitherto, received remarkably little attention but have been pointed to in studies of Indian women’s history as evidence of the growing influence of women’s movements and more liberal social attitudes in this period. This paper takes an alternative view and argues that these debates were about much more than growing awareness of women’s rights. It demonstrates the ways in which gender formed a cornerstone of many of the key power structures in late colonial society. Against the backdrop of constitutional reform and the development of representational politics in India, reform of Hindu personal law provided an opportunity for many men to redraw relationships of authority and improve their own legal and political power. From this perspective the debates about law reform can be seen as a site on which alternative views of society and its relationship were presented and contested. Focusing in particular on the efforts of M.R. Jayakar, a renowned Bombay lawyer, to reform Hindu personal law, this paper argues that these debates form a window onto the process through which a modern Indian state was coming to be constructed long before 1947.

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