Obituary: Leela Dube, pathbreaking anthropologist (1923-2012)

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OBITUARY: Prof. Leela Dube (1923-2012)

by Vibhuti Patel
Professor and Head, Department of Economics, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai-20. 

In passing away of Prof. Leela Dube on 16th May, 2012, we have lost a stalwart who enriched a discipline of anthropology by bringing insights of women’s studies and enriched women’s studies as a discipline by brining sharpness and technical expertise of an anthropologist.

Dr. Leela Dube’s academic career began in 1960 at Sagar University and she moved to Delhi in 1975. She played a crucial role in shaping Towards Equality Report: Committee on Status of Women in India (1974), GoI discussion of which in the Parliament of India brought women’s studies centre stage in the Indian academia via UGC and ICSSR. Dr. Leela Dube successfully executed innumerable research projects for both these apex institutions for higher education.   She was a mover and shaker in Indian Sociological Society in the nineteen seventies and was responsible for introducing women’s studies concerns in the mainstream sociology. She played crucial role in World Sociological Congress in 1984 in which women activists and women’s studies scholars played dominant role thro’ Research Committee (RC 32). Leeladee chaired a panel on “Declining Sex Ratio in India”, in which Dr. Ilina Sen gave a historical overview of deficit of women in India throughout history of Census of India, Prof. Veena Mazumdar passionately spoke on the finding of towards Equality Report and I spoke on “Sex Selective Abortions-An Abuse of Scientific Techniques of Amniocentesis”. Leeladee summed up the session with her insightful comments on tradition of son preference in India. Her greatness lay in synthesising complex concerns and providing an analytical framework in a lucid and convincing way. In a debate on sex selective abortions carried out in EPW during 1982-1986, her contribution was immense and her predictions about direct relationship of deficit of women and increased and intensified violence against women has proved to be true in the subsequent years.

Due to team efforts of women’s studies scholars (that included Prof. Leela Dube), RC 32 got institutionalised in World Sociological Congress. She invited many activists (that included me too) for an 12th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Zagreb, 24-31 July 1988 to present paper on “Codification of Customary Laws into Family Laws in Asia”. In the Congress, Leedadee’s speech on feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock provided new insights into departure of the feminist anthropologists from its colonial legacy of “Big brother watching you”. Power relations between the North and The South in construction of knowledge and hegemonic presence of ETIC approach in academics were questioned by Leacock as well as Leeladee who propagated “dialogical approach” in anthropological and ethnographic research.

I respected her from distance. I was too awe-struck to go close to her but always appreciated her sharp, witty comments during academic sessions and tea and lunch breaks at innumerable seminars, workshops and Indian Association of Women’s Studies conferences held every two years. She was appreciative our campaign against sex selection. During 1981 and 1991, I got to listen to her speeches, deliberations and arguments as I used to be one of the rapporteurs in most of the programmes in women’s studies held in Mumbai and Delhi. Each time I heard her, I got more motivated to read her papers and later on her books. Her work on Lakshadweep island’s matrilineal Muslim tribe was eye-opening, so was her deconstruction of polyandry in Himalayan tribes in the context of women’s workload of collection of fuel, fodder, water, looking after livestock and kitchen gardening in mountainous terrain resulting into high maternal mortality and adverse sex ratio. She showed interconnections between factors responsible for social construction of women’s sexuality, fertility and labour rooted in the political economy.

A co-edited volume Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development by Leela Dube, Eleanor Leacock and Shirley Ardener and Published by Oxford University Press (1986) provides international perspective on the anthropology of women in the context of socio-political setting of India, Iran, Malaysia, Brazil, and Yugoslavia

Her meticulously researched piece “On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 23, No. 18 (Apr. 30, 1988)   has been used by women’s groups for study circles and training programmes.

Volume in the series on Women and Households, Structures and Strategies: Women, Work, and Family (1990) Co-edited by Leela Dube and Rajni Palriwala has been extremely useful in teaching women’s studies in Economics, Sociology, Geography, Social Work and Governance courses.

Women and Kinship: Comparative Perspectives on Gender in South and South-East Asia by Leela Dube, Brookings Institution Press in 1997 argues that kinship systems provide an important context in which gender relations are located in personal and public arena.

Her highly celebrated book Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting Fields (2001)  by Sage Publications is a landmark contribution in feminist anthropology in India. It examines gender, Kinship and Culture by sourcing a variety of distinct and unconventional materials such as folk-tales, folk songs, proverbs, legends, myths to construct ethnographic profile of feminist thoughts. She provides a nuanced understanding on socialization of girl child in a patriarchal family, “seed and soil” theory propagated by Hindu Scriptures and Epics symbolizing domination-subordination power relationship between men and women,

Her last publication was in Marathi; Manavashastratil Lingbhavachi Shodhamohim was published in 2009.

After Prof. Iravati Karve, Prof. Leela Dube was the only scholar who made a path-breaking contribution in anthropology with gender sensitivity. Leeladee made a mammoth contribution in bringing academic credibility for women’s studies thro’ her scholarly endeavour.

In 2007, Leela Dube was conferred on the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Indian Sociological Society, and in 2005 she was given prestigious UGC National Swami Pranavananda Saraswati Award. She remained intellectually charged and busy with scholarly pursuit till the end.

Corrigendum: Mukul Dube informs us that Leela Dube passed away on May  20th, not 16th. “Leela Dube died on the 20th of May, 2012, not the 16th. I was with her at the time.” We apologise for the error.

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