Leela Dube Infuses Study of Anthropology in India With Gender Sensitivity

The Indian academic universe and the women’s movement have lost a doyen with the passing away of Professor Leela Dube. Not only did she add greatly to the discipline of anthropology and women’s studies with her deep scholastic insights, she was able to provide the women’s movement many glimpses into the gendered hierarchies of Indian society.

As a mover and shaker within the Indian Sociological Society and The Indian Anthropology Association in the 1970s, she was responsible for introducing women’s studies as a discipline into mainstream sociology and anthropology. In the process, a light was thrown on important social trends. The World Sociological Congress held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1984 comes to mind. Both women activists and feminist academics came to play a dominant role within Research Committee 32 – or RC 32 as it came to be termed – during that conference.

Leela Dube had chaired a panel on a disturbing phenomenon that is now familiar to every Indian: The declining sex ratio in India in the World Sociological Congress in 1986 in Delhi. It was a revelatory moment. Dr Ilina Sen, now professor of Women’s Studies, at the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Wardha, Maharashtra, had provided a historical overview of the deficit of women in India using Census data. Professor Vina Majumdar passionately spoke about the findings from the ‘Towards Equality’ Report that she, Dube and others had authored a decade earlier. I talked about how sex selective abortions constituted a misuse of amniocentesis. To this day, I remember how well Dube summed up the session with her insightful comments on son preference and its close links with Indian traditions.

Her strength lay in her ability to synthesise complex issues and she made sure to provide an analytical framework with which to understand them in a lucid and convincing way. This ability was apparent in the debate on sex selective abortions that was carried in the pages of the prestigious ‘Economic and Political Weekly’ in the early 1980s. Her contribution to that debate was immense and the projection she made of the direct relationship between intensified violence against women and the deficit in their numbers was proven right in the subsequent years.

Thanks to the efforts of women’s studies scholars – with Leela Dube in the forefront, of course – RC 32 got institutionalised within the World Sociological Congress. Dube invited many activists for the 12th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences at Zagreb, Croatia, in July 1988. I was included in that list of activists and presented a paper on the ‘Codification of Customary Laws into Family Laws in Asia’. At that Congress, Dube’s speech on the work of feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock provided new insights into the departure that feminist anthropologists were making from their colonial legacy that had ‘big brother’ watching over them. Leacock had questioned the power relations between the North and South in the construction of knowledge and the hegemonic presence of the ‘etic’ approach that looked at issues in a culturally neutral manner. Leacock’s perspective was one that Dube agreed with and she, in turn, propagated the “dialogical approach” in anthropological and ethnographic research.

Much her junior, I found myself respecting her from a distance. I was too awe-struck to get too close to her but always appreciated her sharp, witty comments during academic sessions and during the tea and lunch breaks at innumerable seminars, workshops and at the conferences of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies that were held in the country bi-annually. She, on her part, was appreciative of the efforts of the women’s movement and especially the campaign against sex selection.

Over a decade, from 1981 and 1991, I got to understand her work better by listening to her speeches and arguments more closely. On a few occasions I also happened to be a rapporteur, at the conferences she presided over. Each time I heard her, the more I was motivated to read her papers and later her books. Her work on a matrilineal Muslim tribe of Lakshadweep island was an eye-opener, as was her deconstruction of polyandry in the Himalayan tribes in the context of women’s work that involved collecting fuel, fodder, water, and looking after the livestock and the kitchen garden in the arduous mountain terrain. She also traced the links between the high level of maternal mortality and the adverse sex ratio.

The volume, ‘Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development’, that Dube co-edited with Eleanor Leacock and Shirley Ardener, and which was published by the Oxford University Press in 1986, provided an international perspective on the anthropology of women, with the focus on India, Iran, Malaysia, Brazil and Yugoslavia.

In a meticulously researched piece she wrote in April 1988 for the ‘Economic and Political Weekly’, entitled ‘On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India’, she showed the interconnection between the various factors responsible for the social construction of women’s sexuality, fertility and labour, while situating it firmly in the country’s political economy. I remember how widely it was used by women’s groups of that time for their study circles and training programmes. If activists found her work useful, so did scholars. The volume in the series on ‘Women and Households, Structures and Strategies: Women, Work, and Family (1990)’ that Dube co-edited with Delhi-based sociologist Rajni Palriwala, has proved an extremely useful addition to the women’s studies curricula.

Dube was constantly refining her ideas. In the paper, ‘Women and Kinship: Comparative Perspectives on Gender in South and South-East Asia’, that she did for the Brookings Institution Press in 1997, she argued that kinship systems provided an important framework with which to study gender relations in the personal and public arenas.

Many of these ideas came together in her masterly ‘Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting Fields’, which was brought out by Sage Publications in 2001. The volume is considered a landmark contribution to feminist anthropology. It examined gender, kinship and culture by sourcing a variety of distinct and unconventional materials such as folk tales, folk songs, proverbs, legends, and myths to construct an ethnographic profile of Indian women. In this volume, she provided a nuanced understanding of the socialisation of the girl child within a patriarchal family, in the context of the “seed and soil” theory propagated by Hindu scriptures and epics, which symbolised the domination-subordination power relationship between men and women.

To my mind, Professor Leela Dube comes only next to the legendary Professor Iravati Karve, author of expositions like ‘Kinship Organization in India’, which came out in 1953, or the 1961work, ‘Hindu Society – An Interpretation’, in terms of infusing the study of anthropology in India with gender sensitivity.

Like Karve, she leaves behind a formidable legacy of scholarly work that will long prove a vital resource for academics and activists alike.

(The writer currently teaches the Economics of Gender and Development at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, and has been active in women’s movement since the early Seventies.)