On The presentation on “Women, Beauty and the Public Sphere: A case for absences in Nineteenth-Century Bengal”, by Samata Biswas

The presentation on “Women, Beauty and the Public Sphere: A case for absences in
Nineteenth-Century Bengal” by Assistant Professor Samata Biswas explored the location of
nineteenth century women within the private or public spheres as the case may be, their
transporting from one to the other, but more importantly the loss of the woman’s body proper in
the process. The paper explored how the discourse on the female body disappeared from
colonial Bengali society; with the exception of it being subject to arbitration and relegated as
either desirable femininity or lascivious vanity. The paper further investigated the relationship
between the (disappearance of) discourse on (the female) body as an instrument of sexuality or
as an object of it, and the regulation and instruction of women’s behavior. It contends that the
discourse on the body found its place “in the spaces constituted by women uninterrupted by
men”. It suggests that discourse could be found in the very absences, at the quite evident and
active avoiding of narrative on the female body.
Professor Biswas first theorizes that women of the 19 th century Bengal inhabited private
domains, which in this context is synonymous with domestic settings, and it is the then
reformers who reclaimed the public domain for women. Published in 2017, Sanchayita Paul
Chakraborty’s “Crossing the Threshold: Women in Colonial City Space” argues that Bengali
women reclaimed the public spaces of education and work, inhabiting a sphere that was
erstwhile composed entirely of men. Professor Biswas highlights and postulates that as a
consequence, women were both forced to rid themselves of their sexuality in the public sphere
(and uphold a Foucauldian privatization of sexuality), and that the patriarchal society regulated
behaviors associated with the female body as a means to retain governance. Through various
19th century Bengal literature and journalistic publications, visual arts, and music the professor
demonstrated the disparity between pre-colonial presentations of women and their bodies in
society, versus what was being imposed in contemporary times, and how the colonial feminist
reformers forewent the body in public spaces in order to share the same.
While the paper thoroughly explored the disappearance of sexual desire and the “covering up”
of the female body in nineteenth century Bengal, it failed to highlight the contradiction within
which the idea developed. The problematizing of the female body emerged from a colonial
discourse and assimilated itself within the contemporary native Indian patriarchal society. While
the same society accepted and normalized female body and sexual desire, this was now
restricted as a tool for inhibiting women. However, in reforming society and reclaiming public
spaces for the women, women continued to actively remove the female body from public
discourse, and instead directed it to a shared privacy as Professor Biswas holds. The notion
that such a reformation furthered the absence of female sexuality within the public domain albeit
unexplored within this paper, is a dichotomy that should be considered.
The paper presented earlier by Research Scholar Sneha Pan brought to light that the norm of
defaming the female body as an object of sexual desire and sexuality was a concept introduced
by the Victorian colonizers. Professor Biswas continued on from that idea and added that while
male controlled literature such as the Bamabodhini Patrika criticized the ‘flaunting’ of the female
body, female authorship and artistic creation the body was reclaimed. She then proposes that
while this discourse may have ceased to exist in the cohabited public domain, it discovered its
place with the “spaces constituted by women uninterrupted by men”.
Her characterization of a separate space within which female sexual desire, the unsexualized
female body rid of moral subjections, continued to live, is an interesting one. The existence of
this discourse in a space exclusive of men although does nothing in terms of equalizing the use
of public space, it allows these notions to be possessed by women themselves. This in itself is

an empowering potentiality derived not only from such possession, but also from the concept
that there existed a (non-physical) public space created by women for their sole utilization.


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