Spinster, Prostitute or Pioneer? Images of Refugee Women in Post-Partition Calcutta
Title: Spinster, Prostitute or Pioneer? Images of Refugee Women in Post-Partition Calcutta
Author: SEN, Uditi
Series/Report no.: EUI MWP; 2011/34
This paper explores the various images or stereotypes regarding Bengali middle-class refugee women that circulated in post-partition West Bengal. It identifies four main discursive images or constructions of refugee women: as bodies vulnerable to rape and dishonour; as economically and socially marginal members of society who could by definition, not be rehabilitated; as unequal participants in the refugee movement whose contributions were seen as ‘inspirational’ and symbolic, rather than substantive; and last, but not the least, as bread-winners who transgressed the proper role of women as home-makers. Polite society in Calcutta most frequently lamented the fate of refugee women who worked either by highlighting their deprivation of being a spinster, or their ignominy of ‘sinking’ to prostitution. Juxtaposing the ubiquity of these images against census records which show no statistically significant changes in livelihood patterns of middle-class women in Calcutta, this paper argues that these images had little to do with the choices faced and lives negotiated by refugee women. Instead, they reflected the anxiety of Bengali refugees regarding their social status, ideals and traditions in the context of the displacement and social dislocation wrought by partition. This anxiety was inevitably displaced to the bodies of women, whose imagined or real transgressions of ideal social roles were actively lamented, and thus devalued. This paper critiques historical scholarship that reads these images of women earning wages as evidence of reconfiguration of gender roles. It cautions against celebrating partition and its dislocation as a harbinger of women’s emancipation in West Bengal.
Subject: Women; Partition; Bengal; Refugee; Prostitute
Type of Access: openAccess