It is a well known fact that man is superior to woman in every respect. He is a representative of God on earth and being born with His light in him deserves the respect and obedience that he demands. He is not expected to show his gratitude or even a kind word of appreciation to a woman: it is his birthright to get everything from her. “Might is right” is the policy of this world.– Iqbalunnisa Hussain, Purdah and Polygamy (p. 49)
In the late nineteenth century and after, Indian anti-colonialists and nationalists argued that social and familial norms were in need of reform and that they, rather than the British, should be the men to undertake such efforts. The British had been wary of legislating Hindu and Muslim family laws, but once they moved against the Hindu practice of sati in 1839, “reform” was firmly on their agenda and became a cornerstone of their putative civilizing mission. Hindus and Muslims, both because they were wary of further colonial intervention in domestic matters and because reformers within each religion were active against corrupt and discriminatory practices, reexamined women's lives and gender relations as they imagined the future. The remarriage of widows and the marriage of underage children became topics for furious discussion – as did, particularly for Muslims, the practice of polygyny. Muslim men were not the only ones to take multiple wives in India, but, as Asiya Alam reminds us, “polygyny came to be inextricably linked to the social identity of Muslims” (635–6). Colonial administrators had written critically about Muslim polygyny, and such criticism, Alam shows, intensified ongoing discussions among Muslims about theological and historical justifications for, as well as the abuses of, polygyny. The primary question was at what pace – if at all – to accommodate changes in Muslim social practices, particularly since such changes were seen as associated with British (and increasingly Hindu) forms of sociality.
Debating Purdah and Polygamy
For the most part, reformers as well as traditionalist defenders of purdah and polygamy debated each other in pamphlets, prose tracts, and fiction written in Urdu.