Title

Negotiated identities, engendered lives: Baul women in West Bengal and Bangladesh

Date of Award

2005

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Anthropology

Advisor(s)

Susan S. Wadley

Keywords

Baul, Women, Bengal, Bangladesh, India, Gender

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology

Abstract

In the popular imagination of Bengalis and visitors in West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh, Bauls are generally depicted as a sect of musical mendicants clad in ochre-colored clothes, with flowing hair and an instrument in their hands. Their popularity stems from their mystical songs and their carefree, whimsical behavior. Somewhat less celebrated are certain Baul beliefs and practices: they are fiercely opposed to the caste system and sectarianism and believe, at least in the context of their sexo-yogic rituals, that women and men are equal.

Despite the importance of women among Bauls, scholarly and popular discourses on Bauls marginalize Baul women by depicting the ideal Baul as male and as unfettered by social constraints and worldly concerns. For Baul women, these ideals pose distinct challenges to their position and reputation as women in rural Bengal where gendered norms limit women's activities. However, as musical mendicants hoping for patronage, behaving as a Baul can ensure their livelihood. In this dissertation, I show how Baul women interpret and respond to these various constructions of gender and Baul identity. Based on ethnographic research over a period of twenty months, I examine the intersections of expectations held by Bauls and potential patrons and how this impacts Baul women.

Since being a Baul is an identity that is cultivated through initiation and practice rather than assumed at birth, women who become Bauls in effect choose to be involved and choose the nature and degree of their involvement. Their involvement defies conventional Hindu and Muslim roles and expectations for women in the Bengali-speaking region. Baul women often move between contexts in which they have considerable freedom and those in which they act on local gendered codes of conduct. Focusing on the actual experiences and motivations of Baul women, I demonstrate that they engage in a variety of different strategies to ensure their livelihood, respectability, and a meaningful life. I argue that Baul women negotiate their identity, position, and life choices in light of contradictory views on and expectations of appropriate behavior for Bengali women and for Bauls.

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