If one would go through the references of the mass of academic work centered on gender issues published post 1960’s till date, Leela Dube is a name one would encounter with an astounding regularity.
Lovingly known as Leeladee by many, she was a stalwart of anthropology and gender studies. Pioneering the inclusion of women in the fields of Anthropology and Sociology, Dube expressed how leading a gendered life made her susceptible to gender issues, of which the male-dominated academia was blissfully unaware.
Living the phrase ‘personal is political’, Dube’s journey as an anthropologist is a reflection of how her family life and upbringing impacted the development of the discipline.
Dube worked at a time when anthropology had not yet acknowledged the significance of women as subjects and moved towards removing its androcentric biases.
Born in a traditional, middle class, Brahmin family, which can be considered fairly modern for its time, Dube’s childhood was spent under the care of affectionate parents and four siblings. Her autobiographical essay titled as Doing Kinship and Gender talks of instances where her mother would invariably mention how girls must know how to cook and care for their families. Her admiration for women of her time who chose not to marry is very evident.
However, Dube knew that marriage was unavoidable. So, she took matters into her own hands and decided to find a groom of her choice. On her quest to find ‘an intelligent man with nationalist inclinations’, Dube encountered Shyama Charan Dube while pursuing M.A in Political Science at Nagpur University. S. C. Dube was an anthropologist, and thus began Dube’s tryst with the discipline.
It was S.C Dube who suggested her to study the Gond community in Central India. Later, in 1953, Leela Dube’s PhD dissertation was on the three specific tribal groups with emphasis on women in the community.
Dube’s early work on the Gond community gave her insight into the deep nature of gender disparities, the degree of relative freedom of women, the nuances of their disabilities and the strategies women use in circumventing the restrictive system. Dube studied the women’s folk songs which expressed sexuality, desire, passion and lust. Her time spent studying the Gonds truly shaped her as an anthropologist and instilled the urge to deeply look at gender disparities in society.
Dube’s observations on condition of women, power relations, sexualities and the techniques used by women to negotiate patriarchy may seem like common sense in the contemporary times. But, this was not the case then. Dube worked at a time when anthropology had not yet acknowledged the significance of women as subjects and moved towards removing its androcentric biases.
Motherhood and Matriliny
Pursuing professional passions was not an easy task for Dube. With a household to handle and two children to raise, her career was often interrupted and sidelined. Dube notes how,
“My destinies were tied to my husband’s moves. In a way I had become an adjunct of S.C Dube, temporarily teaching in his place, helping him in his fieldwork and its analysis, being his research associate(2000)“.
However, being married to an anthropologist did have its advantages. Dube could always access the libraries and documents, and their home was always a place of open discussion. However, being in her husband’s shadow didn’t last long. Today, some may even say that she is more renowned than her husband.
By 1960, Dube was teaching at Saugar University. But at this point of time doing fieldwork was next to impossible, since she had to manage home and raise her children. Instead, she supervised the fieldwork of her students.
A.R. Kutty, having a masters in anthropology, approached her with a petition to supervise his research on a community living on the Lakshadweep which practiced matriliny and was Islamic. Dube was extremely intrigued but the island was hard to reach with no ferry service and she had a family to take care of. While Kutty visited the Island for fieldwork, Dube did research of her own on matrilineal communities.
Dube was not satisfied of Kutty’s examination of matrilineal and Islamic laws. It was somewhat vague and Dube was also interested in the meaning and content of marriage in Island culture. Dube’s professional and personal were conjoint in marriage. Kutty’s research thus became Dube’s key interest in anthology. When in 1969 ferry service to the Island was started and her son was eight, Dube undertook her field research in the Lakshadweep.
However, again due to certain circumstances, Dube could not immediately work upon her manuscript on return.
In 2005, Leela Dube was awarded the UGC National Swami Pranavananda Saraswati Award and in 2007, she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Indian Sociological Society.
Developing Feminist Anthropology
It was when Dube was assigned as a member of Committee of Government of India that she drew upon her capital of knowledge to asses the status of women in India. While working on issues ranging to religion, sexuality to prostitution and tribes, she realized the urgency about attending to women’s issues, and that many of those issues could be explored through serious research within anthropology.
‘Towards Equality’ report of the Committee on the Status of Women was submitted to the government in 1974. It was around this time that there was also a growing urgency to recognize women’s lives and experiences as valid for ethnographic data and a beginning critique of anthropology’s andocentric views. Anthropology of women came to be distinguished by the critics, which is now referred to as feminist anthropology.
When Leela Dube became the chairperson of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) Commission on women (1976-1993), she collaborated with various other institutions on women’s issues, conducted numerous researches, sessions and campaigns. Her study which began as a part of UN Project on Women’s Work and Family Strategies in South and South-East Asia resulted in her famous book, Women and Kinship(1997).
Her research work On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India in the Economic and Political Weekly (1988), is still used by women’s groups for study circles and training programmes. The volume Women, Work, and Family (1990) in the series on Women and Households, Structures and Strategies, co-edited by Leela Dube and Rajni Palriwala is taught in various courses in social sciences.
Dube held various fellowships from ICSSR, Teen Murti and Centre for Women’s Development Studies among others. In 2005, Leela Dube was awarded the UGC National Swami Pranavananda Saraswati Award and in 2007, she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Indian Sociological Society.
Dube remained active in academic circles and engaged in debates until her death in 2012. As she summed in her autobiographical essay, ‘My work has a history. It stands at the intersection of accumulating and changing analytical texts, a long anthropological apprenticeship and still longer gendered life’.