Assam’s little-known feminist collective which pushed for fixed meal times, women’s leisure

Northeast Lightbox shines the light on Assam’s little-known feminist history by documenting the story of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti 

One morning in July 1948, a group of women convened somewhere in the quaint riverside town of Tezpur in central Assam. They met often but the outcome of this meeting was unlike any other: a stream of angry letters to the editor, a fair amount of name-calling, and fodder for a long-running joke among the townsfolk. An idea this crazy could come only from Tezpur, someone had said, alluding to the town being home to one of the country’s oldest mental asylums. The cause of this flutter?

The ladies had proposed that families in Assam adopt “fixed mealtimes” in order to enable “women’s leisure”. “Women have to keep themselves busy with kitchen work all day long and as such are not free to join any activities outside the domestic sphere…in order to…take their part in cultural activities they must have sufficient leisure”, the resolution [in Assamese] stated. Making a case for lunch by 12 PM and dinner by 10 PM for towns across Assam, it asked for “public cooperation”, and added: “No meal should be served after one hour of the proposed time.”

The resolution was reproduced in several Assamese dailies, as well as The Assam Tribune, the state’s oldest circulating English language newspaper. Public outrage followed. “What is the duty of a wife towards such a husband who toiled the whole day in scorching sun… Is it her duty to stop his meals when his belly is burning of hunger? Is it her duty to go for social work when he needs someone dearer and nearer to share his exhaustion… and invigorate his losing spirit and energy?” wrote a particularly angry gentleman from Guwahati in his letter to the editor.

Another dismissed it as “occasional entertainment”. He added: “No amount of participation in cultural activities would be able to compensate a woman for the loss of happiness at home.”

It is unlikely that the Tezpur resolution was implemented, but 75 years later it stands out as among the many examples of quiet rebellion that make up the storied history of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti, one among the few pre-independence ‘women’s collectives’ that had sprung up in towns across Assam. 

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in March 2023. Full article here.