Women and Power in Indian History

Spring 2015

HISA 3121

Women and Power in Indian History

Richard Barnett

Purpose  This course addresses women’s roles and statuses, means of gaining and using power, and contributions in political and other realms, during four millennia of South Asian history.  With emphasis on the modern, but with relevant background in Indian mythology, classical history and literature, medieval Islamic chronicles, autobiographies, and eyewitness accounts, we will examine original sources, social science studies, fictional works, and secondary material on the following issues: √origins, persistence, and revision of socially and religiously constructed gender identities; √typologies of autonomy vs. dependence, security vs. risk, oppression vs. liberation; √medieval and modern women as political actors and exemplars; √female infanticide, self-immolation of widows, and bride-burning; √education, health and workplace; √ Western and Asian feminisms; and √women power brokers in what is now India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.  No previous acquaintance with South  Asia, or with history, is assumed.

Approach & Focus     In this course we will read and write about, report on, and discuss topics concerning gender in South Asia, assessing the various ways in which subjects exercised power (or not) and—whether colludingly, unthinkingly, or defiantly—how they defined their roles in history. 

Requirements Evaluation will rest on class discussion (30%),  ten-minute presentations on individually-assigned readings (20%), a book review (20%), and three quizzes (30%).  No presentations may be postponed without either 24 hours’ advance notice or a life-changing emergency.  Presenters will write a one-page outline of their oral presentation, copied and distributed to classmates. Signups for oral presentations and book reviews must be on my syllabus copy only, to avoid duplicate choices.  (Write your name clearly on the LEFT margin of my syllabus copy to sign up) Written reviews to classmates are of books whose titles are at the end of this syllabus; tell me your choice, and sign up on my syllabus, sooner than later.

     Note:  the purpose of both oral presentations and book reviews is to impart the content of more source materials, and hence information, to classmates.  But your assessment and evaluation is just as important as conveying the author’s purpose, style, method, and degree of success.  Both your 10-minute talk and your book review must be polished, edited, original, pledged contributions.  The book reviews are due in hard copy to me on or before the last class day, and must be posted on the class web page in Collab.

The importance of informed discussion  This is not a lecture class, so don’t be passive.  Class participation, focusing on and asking questions about the readings and presentations, is vital to the success of this course, so diligence in reading all assignments in advance is expected without exception. All are very strongly urged to read ahead of the topics.  Asking in an uninformed way about something that is clearly presented in the readings or reports will blatantly reveal what you have not done, and will reduce our level of comfort.  See the criteria for evaluating class participation in the graphic at the end of the syllabus.  I will try to call on a wide varisty of classmates for purposes of equity.

            Instructor will learn names and faces in 2 or 3 weeks, so consctruct a name flag to help him do so.

            Moreover, class attendance is vitally important—for each unexcused absence beyond three, the course grade will therefore be reduced by 20%.   In place of a final examination, there will be a final quiz, one that will include essay questions.

Texts and assignments:     The following are available from UVa Bookstore and on line.

  •   Shahla Haeri, No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women (Syracuse, 2002) 
  •  Elizabeth Bumiller, May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons (New York & Delhi, 1990) 
  •  Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India (Cambr. Univ. Press,1998)

            A required book of photocopies is on sale at N. K. Print & Design (formerly Brillig Books), 7 Elliewood Ave., selections being cited below as “PH-COPY.”  Its table of contents will guide you to the assignments.



Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
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Charlottesville, VA 22904

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