The Instructive Story of William Beveridge’s Mother

Kathryn Tidrick

  • Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History by Vron Ware
    Verso, 263 pp, £34.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 86091 336 8
  • Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation by Mary Louise Pratt
    Routledge, 257 pp, £35.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 415 02675 X

Vron Ware is described on the dust-jacket of Beyond the Pale, her study of the difficulty white feminists have had in being fair to brown races which appear to oppress their women, as ‘a journalist and feminist design consultant’. Footnote 17 on page 256 enlightens. Ware, I discover, is the co-author of At Women’s Convenience: A Handbook on the Design of Women’s Public Toilets. A useful publication, to be sure, but one which reminds me, as I am reminded a dozen times I day in not conducive to a sympathetic reading of Ware’s book, of the vast gulf separating India, where I have been living for almost three years, and England, where women’s toilets apparently disappoint only in their design and not in the frequency of their occurrence.

Indian women of course have greater troubles to bear than the absence of public conveniences which makes a journey through India such splendid training in bladder control for their Western sisters, and Vron Ware’s presumably expiatory ambivalence – memsahibs appear to infest her family tree – towards Western women who draw attention to these troubles inspires me briefly to describe them.

The problems of life begin early for the Indian girl, before birth indeed now that amniocentesis can determine for the sufficiently affluent urban parent whether the precious son, or merely another unwanted daughter, is about to be born. Despite official efforts to stop sex-related abortions, aborted foetuses remain overwhelmingly female. Among the poorer classes, girl babies are sometimes killed at birth, but are more often neglected to a degree which ensures that fewer of them survive to reach maturity than boys. The ratio of women to men in the Indian population has been declining since the turn of the century, standing now, according to the 1991 census, at 93 women to 100 men (in the UK it is 105 women to 100 men, and in sub-Saharan Africa 102 women to 100 men). When the girl reaches the age of marriage she will be paired off with a man of her parents’ choice and given her envoi with an illegal but obligatory dowry which she must hope will be big enough to keep her in-laws satisfied long enough for her to produce a son. If she fails in both these respects and has fallen among particularly primitive folk she might feature in one of those sad little paragraphs in my morning newspaper announcing that so and so, wife of so and so of such and such address, died as a result of burns after catching fire apparently while cooking dinner on the family’s kerosene stove. ‘Bride burnings’ are so common – more than six hundred a year in Delhi alone according to Elisabeth Bumiller in her classic study of Indian women, May you be the mother of a hundred sons – that they now form part of that canonical catalogue of Indian horrors that foreigners living here try not to dwell on too much as they go about their generally very pleasant business. (On the other hand, it must be stated for the record that no position in life could be more delightful than that of a young Indian girl, born to a family living above the subsistence level, who has two or more elder brothers. Such a child is enjoyed without reserve for that very femaleness which, but for the accident of birth order, would have been a curse.)

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