Gender, Language and Learning collects articles published over the last thirty and more years, by a scholar who is among the most eminent Americans ever to have studied the history, life and culture of Indian Muslim.
The themes that have characterized Gail Minault's scholarship are all in evidence here: Indian Muslim women's rights and self-expression, Urdu as a language of cultural politics and Identity, and education as a vehicle of social change among Indian Muslim. There are richly textured glimpses into social history through Minault's studies
of the extended family, of women's magazines and of girls'
Schools. An educative and closely observed study of women's talk provides fresh insights into the lives of Urdu-speaking families in nineteenth-century India. Also included is her well-known and frequently-cited essay (co-authored with David Lelyveld) on the campaign for Aligarh Muslim University.
This volume will be invaluable for anyone interested in the development and trajectories of Islam in South Asia.
GAIL MINAULT is Professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India (1982), and Secluded Scholars: Womens Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India
THE THEMES OF GENDER, LANGUAGE, AND LEARNING HAVE been part of my life and prominent in my scholarship for most of my career. The articles collected here touch upon these themes, often in overlapping ways. Certainly, gender infuses many of the articles throughout this work, for gender is not isolable, either in life or history. Learning, the overt theme of the final section, also permeates the discussions of language, the search for sources, and the transmission of knowledge. As for language, Urdu sources form an essential part of all the scholarship contained here, quite aside from the reflections on Urdu modes of expression and the emergence of Urdu as a vehicle of public discourse.
Collections such as this give the author an opportunity to present a kind of
intellectual autobiography, tracing the meanderings of one's research interests through the subjects of articles published, in this case, over more than thirty years. The articles themselves retrace that odyssey, for my work on gender history began with involvement in scholarship that recognized the role and importance of women in history. My interest in language is life long, for I came from an immigrant and bilingual background-discussed below-that gave me a curiosity about the ways people express themselves. Finally, the association of learning with cultural identity and political power has intrigued me from the beginnings of my study of history, even as an undergraduate at a women's college (a fact that surely contributed to my later scholarship on women's education). Emerson held that, "There is properly no history; only: biography," and while that may not be entirely so, it is certainly true that one's own biography has a great deal to do with the subjects one chooses to write about. An
autobiographical narrative, therefore, seems in order as an introduction to this collection.
By what trajectory does an American of French ancestry become a
historian of lndo-Muslim culture? It is by no means obvious, especially
since courses about India were not staples of American undergraduate
education when I was growing up, and courses about Islam focused
on the Middle East, not on the majority of Muslims who live else- where. Becoming a historian, furthermore, was far from my imaginings of what I wanted to do with my life. I majored in history as a way of exploring my European roots, but to actually profess history, as a scholar and teacher, did not occur to me. On the other hand, being
the daughter of two teachers probably predisposed me to pedagogy,
and my bilingual upbringing also opened my eyes, and ears, to other
In a short autobiography presented in a series at the University of
Texas, I reflected on a significant early experience:
The moment I realized I was bilingual came at the end of my junior
Year in college. I had spent the year in Paris, living in a French family,
speaking only French, and taking courses at the Ecole Nationale des
Sciences Politiques (known to its students as "Sciences Po"). The acid
test, however, occurred in London, where I planned to meet my (very French) father. He telephoned ... and I answered in French. He was both startled and delighted. In retrospect, this should not have been at all surprising. I had been taught French as a child, and had studied it in school and college before embarking on my year in France. But having my father confer his approval on his self-doubting elder daughter had a profound impact on my sense of self and my future abilities to cope in other cultures. From that moment, I felt that I could truly communicate in two languages, which also meant being able to look at the world through a different set of lenses. Thereafter, in my life and in my scholarship, the ability to communicate in different languages and to analyze different cultures has been central to what I have tried to accomplish.
During that year in Paris, my courses at Sciences Po had included a course in European diplomatic history from 1870 to 1914, a periodization that betrayed its Eurocentrism, as did its discussion of "the Eastern Question," the relationship of the Ottoman Empire to various European powers. I returned to Smith College for my senior year, thinking myself very sophisticated and, bored with the usual courses
in European and American history, I signed up for several courses in what they called "nonwestern" history. One of them was a multi- college course, including students from Smith, Amherst, University of Massachusetts, and Mount Holyoke. We were bused to Amherst for lectures by the faculty of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies: Sir Hamilton Gibb among them. It sounded interesting. I had no idea what I was getting into.
The inevitable question came in time: what would I do after college? A history degree and fluency in French did not qualify me for much of anything, except perhaps diplomatic service, but I was sure I could not pass the entrance exam. I took it, however, and much to my amazement, passed. After some training in Washington, I was assigned to Beirut, Lebanon. I could not believe my good luck. French was a useful language there, and I had actually studied some Middle Eastern
history. In fact, I had written a term paper about Arab intellectuals at the American University of Beirut and their role in Arab nationalism. Little did I realize that a year later, I would find myself living down the street from the American University.
At the embassy, I worked as a junior cultural officer, dealing with educational and cultural exchanges. I started learning conversational Arabic, and traveled in the region whenever I could: by taxi to Damascus, by road to Jerusalem (via the West Bank, which was then part of Jordan), and to Cairo. In the early 1960s, Lebanon was peaceful in spite of its mixture of religion and politics, the heritage of the Ottoman
millet system and the confessional politics instituted during the French mandate. Maronites, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians; Sunnis, Shi 'as, and Druzes were only the main groups in the bewildering mosaic of religious identities, tied to a proportional allocation of power, based on a census taken in the 1930s.Itwas an inherently unstable situation, held in place by a gentleman's agreement that included not re- enumerating the population. Lebanon's tenuous communal harmony shattered a decade later and led to a bloody civil war.
By then, I had shifted my attention to another region and another complex set of communal relations. For my next tour of duty, I was reassigned, with the relentless logic of the American government, to Pakistan-a place where they speak neither French nor Arabic-so my meager qualifications were of no use whatsoever. But they needed an assistant cultural officer in Dhaka, so that is where I went. One of my fellow officers in Beirut who had served in India told me that the people there were great, and I would love it. He was right. Dhaka was the provincial capital of East Pakistan at the time-later, of course, it would become the capital of Bangladesh. Being at a consular post was more informal than an embassy, and I soon made many friends, not only diplomats and foreign aid workers, but many Pakistanis from both East and West. Experiencing Pakistan from the East, I soon realized that the Hindu-Muslim divide that had resulted in the creation of Pakistan also contained linguistic and ethnic dimensions that had not been addressed in that communal organization. One did not have to be prophetic to realize that Bengalis were Bengalis, proud
of their language and culture, and that Calcutta was another Mecca. India, in all its polyglot complexity, also fascinated me, and I traveled there whenever I could and began reading its history and literature.
In East Pakistan, I ran the Fulbright program and a student relations office and helped with cultural programming. I traveled all over East Bengal, visiting schools and projects, like the women's program at the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development (PARD) in Comilla, which was organizing women to help themselves. 3 Some women Peace Corps volunteers were there, teaching literacy and income generation. I started learning Bengali and became a great admirer of Tagore's poetry. Fulbright business took me to West Pakistan: Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar. Trips to India took me to Calcutta, of course, but also to Delhi and Agra, Bombay and Ajanta/Ellora, Madras and Madurai. I was beginning to recognize that South Asia was the area I wanted to specialize in, and that to do so, whether as a diplomat or a scholar, I had to go back to school.
I also realized that in addition to Bengali, I needed to learn Hindi/ Urdu in order to get around more generally in India and Pakistan. I went to the head of the Urdu department at Dhaka University, Dr Shadani, and asked him to find me a tutor. He insisted on teaching me himself, and started teaching me to read the script (I had never learned to read Arabic, which I regret to this day). My interest in learning more about the history of India and the emergence of Pakistan grew, as did my sense of aimlessness in the foreign service. I enjoyed my job but realized that I could continue doing the same thing in a number of posts over the years; without a regional specialization, however, it would not add up to much. The foreign service was just as likely to send me to places where none of the languages I was so assiduously acquiring would do me any good.
Then too, there were ominous signs of change. One morning in late November 1963, my cook woke me with tears streaming down his face and the morning paper in his hands-it announced the assassination of President Kennedy. We were all shocked and numb for weeks thereafter. US policies toward the region began to change in ways that I was having difficulty explaining. The conflict in Vietnam had not assumed the importance it would later, but it was an irritant in our relations with India. East Pakistanis were also concerned about our increased involvement in Southeast Asia and how it might affect them. US relations with the Ayub government of Pakistan were good, but Bengalis were increasingly disaffected by the colonial relations between the East and West wings of the country, discontent that would eventually lead to the movement for Bengal's autonomy and, finally, independence. In January of 1964, there were serious communal riots between Hindus and Muslims on both sides of the border. The
precipitating event had been the theft of the Prophet's hair, a relic in the Hazratbal shrine in Kashmir.4 Calcutta and Dhaka were both seriously affected by this rash of violence, and the Hindu minority in East Pakistan, having survived the partition of the country in 1947, now started having second thoughts. In retrospect, I can see how all these trends affected my life, but at the time, I simply had a growing
sense that I was not cut out to be a diplomat if I had to explain, and
even defend, indefensible policies.
Toward the end of my tour in Dhaka, I applied for post-graduate study in South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and received a foreign language fellowship to study Hindi/Urdu. I asked for a leave of absence from the foreign service in order to improve my knowledge and qualifications. My request was turned down, so I quit. It was a good decision. I decided to travel home via the Pacific, and one of the places I stopped was Cambodia, to visit the temples of
Angkor Wat. I spoke French and hired a rickshaw to get around. It was blissfully peaceful. Thinking back on all the various places I have traveled, often alone, I sometimes wonder in was oblivious to danger, or if life really was simpler then.
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