Nov. 18, 1999
Contact: Marianne Kunnen-Jones

[Barbara Ramusack]

Cincinnati -- Fitting 4000 years of history into 107 pages proved to be frustrating, but the University of Cincinnati's Barbara Ramusack did it. The result is part of the first published volume that synthesizes the history of Asian women into one general overview.

Ramusack, UC history department chair, co-wrote the text, Women in Asia, with Sharon Sievers, professor of modern Japanese history at California State University -- Long Beach. Their book, part of the Restoring Women to History series published by Indiana University, replaces what has been up to now a group of teaching packets published by the Organization of American Historians.

An expert on women's history in south Asia, Ramusack writes on women in south and southeast Asia, examining the status and lived experiences of women, in addition to the construction of gender from the early states to the 1990s. The region she covers for the new volume is diverse, encompassing Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam as major religious influences.

One goal she has had in mind since beginning the project in 1984 is to dispel lingering myths the Western world clings to about women in Asia. Among them:

  • Asian women are passive and subservient. "I've attempted to show that women in south and southeast Asia do have agency as managers of households, and they have a great deal of authority in the home." After all, India has had a woman head of state, Indira Gandhi, and Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan. It's true both of these women came to power through powerful fathers, Ramusack notes, but the so-called "liberated" United States has never had a woman president.

  • Harims place women in a solely sexual role. Ramusack points out that harims, or zenanas, are sites where women exert significant influence. They shape children's lives in terms of education and also in the area of their children's marriages.

  • Women walk around with their heads veiled and bowed. Prior to the 20th century, this was true among some groups, but in recent decades few women, especially in urban areas, are wearing veils.

  • All marriages are arranged by parents, not based on mutual love. Ramusack said arranged marriages are common, but not as common as they once were. There is a lot of variation, however, with some couples matched by parents but allowed to meet frequently before marriage or couples who have fallen in love and ask their parents to arrange a marriage.

  • Hindu widows must commit sati, or ritual suicide, by throwing themselves onto the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. Prior to 1800, sati was a Hindu practice because a widow was considered "inauspicious" and therefore was excluded from society. It was unlucky to invite a widow to any social gatherings and certainly such a woman would not be considered a candidate for remarriage. But sati has been outlawed since 1829. According to Ramusack, there was one report of of it in 1987, for the first time in decades.
  • Because of the broad nature of this book, Ramusack's research focuses mainly on secondary sources and her own frequent research trips to India. In the process of delving into women's overall history in Asia, she discovered that historians have much work that remains to be done, particularly in the period were little is known between 1000 and 1800 A.D.

    Her work was funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution and the Charles Phelps Taft Memorial Fund at UC.

    Other volumes in the series focus on women's history of the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa.


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