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US historian tracing harassment of women at workplace in colonial India

She is focusing on industries such as jute and cotton mills, tea plantation, teaching and healthcare.

kolkata Updated: Jan 19, 2018 17:11 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Geraldine Forbes,State University Of New York,Harassment
There are almost no records of harassment of women at workplaces in colonial India, says Geraldine Forbes. (Photo courtesy: Jim Russell/SUNY Oswego)

Geraldine Forbes, Distinguished Professor Emerita at the department of history, the State University of New York Oswego, is known for her pioneering work on women in modern India. Her books include ‘Women in Colonial India: Essays on Medicine, Politics, and History’, ‘A Historian’s Perspective: Indian Women and the Freedom Movement’ and ‘Women in Modern India’. HT caught up with her before a special lecture at Burdwan University, titled “#NotAPartOfHistory – Sexual Harassment in Colonial India”.

HT: What drew you to the subject?

GF: The contemporary upheaval on sexual harassment in the workplace – from the Nirbhaya episode and its aftermath to the #MeToo movement and the controversial list of harassers in India’s top academic institutes. I began to wonder what I might find if I looked for sexual harassment in colonial India?

HT: And what did you find?

GF: The research is in its initial stage but one thing is clear – it is extremely difficult to find documentation, since sexual harassment is a modern term and even the concept was not conceived of as an issue. Colonialism transformed the traditional economic system and, in the process, fundamentally changed the non-agricultural, village-based economy. The decline of the local economy and with local services and industries affected both men and women. Both lost employment and the new opportunities, but under radically different circumstances.

I started from the 19th century, when tea plantations and cotton and jute mills began to employ both men and women, while traditional industries and agriculture faced a decline. Women, mostly widows and from the lower strata of the society, joined the workforce in both Industries. Due to lack of records on working women, I tried to extract details from other types of records, for example, criminal records and official reports on topics such as health. And, I rely heavily on the work of other historians.

HT: Could you elaborate?

GF: Suppose, there was an altercation in an industrial unit. If, following the incident, an inquiry was initiated, the resulting report might reveal sexual harassment. In trying to find out how and why things went wrong, reports often documented the lives of workers.

HT:Give us some examples.

GF: First of all, there was a common notion that ‘respectable women’ did not work in the mills. Those who wrote about the jute mills said most of the women workers were widows. And, they were paid less than men. There are references to male workers sending money to their families but no reference to female workers doing the same, which suggests those women had no connections to their families. In the workers’ lines, most women lived with men who they were not married to. One report says women wanted to work near the men they lived with to be protected from unwanted advances. When male workers abandoned them, for another woman of to go back to their native places, the women would then start living with another man. These facts reflect that women felt unsafe to be alone.

HT:Was it same for plantations?

GF: Records on sexual harassment on tea plantations are difficult to find as well. There are details of conflict in the tea gardens that throw some lights on the state of women workers. In more than one case worker violence against managers was triggered by harassment of a female worker. In any case, women had no way for redressal.

HT:Is there an absence of records on the state of affairs in teaching and medical professions as well?

GF: Almost no records. One bright exception is a memoir written by Haimabati Sen, one of India’s early women doctors. I chanced upon her unpublished memoir nearly two decades back. She was a rare woman who had written about harassment she faced on duty. Otherwise women, irrespective of societal background or professional position, feared complaining of harassment in the workplace. They tried to cope with the situation in one way or the other. However, the research is still at an initial level and I hope to extract more details from various documents.

First Published: Jan 19, 2018 17:11 IST