ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

‘It was not always easy for girl students to work with the boys’: gender, nationalism and student activism in colonial Bengal (1930s-1940s)


Tumiotto Maria - The University of Manchester, History, Manchester, United Kingdom


03 – Changing Forms of Gendered Participation in Politico-ideological Movements in South Asia: Histories, Networks, (In)Visibilities


 India’s surging nationalism from the 1920s onwards relied on the participation of students. Though there is historiographical consensus on their crucial role in the making of post-colonial countries, student activism in colonial India is marginal in mainstream narratives on nationalism. The role played by schoolgirls is even more elusive, due to their subalternity to male peers: schoolgirls were subjected to male tutelage, and relegated to secondary tasks replicating traditional feminine activities.

However, affected by the exposure to the public environment of colleges, female students refused mere ‘domestic’ roles, and sought ways to actively participate in nationalism yet maintain their respectability. By looking at personal accounts left by Bengali bhadramahilas activists, like Kalyani Das and Kalpana Dutt, this paper will analyze female students’ forms of agency and gender negotiation in the nationalist movement, in particular female-only student associations. It will show how these associations worked not only as part of the Indian nationalist movement, but also as safe spaces which allowed bhadramahilas to fashion a new identity comprising nationalism and traditional femininity, free from the patronization of their male peers, and without endangering their respectability by acting alongside them.

This paper will thus contribute to the historiography of colonial India’s often diverse student movements and the pioneering role played by female-led associations in them.