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Professor Leela Dube

Professor Leela Dube


I met her in 1988 during the 12th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences held at Zagreb. She had organised a session on ‘Codification of Customary Laws into Family Laws in Asia’. Hearing her for the first time I was awed by the power in the presentation of this petite, beautiful woman. She spoke of the contributions of Eleanor Leacock and how their co-edited volume on ‘Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development’ had challenged stereotypes and the male bias in anthropological research and writings. Hegemony of western thoughts and the colonial legacy of ethnographic research troubled young researchers of our generation. Her presentation echoed our discomfort and painted a striking picture of power relations between the North and the South. She focused on dialogical and experiential research in which women’s voices in reflexive texts and not through the external voice of male metaphors mattered. Her individual publications and edited volumes challenged the construct of the Asian model of women’s position and gender relations. 

She contributed her might to promoting women studies as a part of the World Sociological Congress in 1984. It was the spirit behind making the Research Committee on Gender Issues a voice to reckon with. She chaired a panel on Declining Sex Ratio in India in the 1984 World Sociological Congress and made a power-packed presentation on ‘Son preference in India’. In recognition of her contributions, the Indian Sociological Society honoured her with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Her publication on ‘Sex-Selective Abortions’ in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) compelled policy planners to examine the issue of the glaring gender gap in Census reports of 1981 and 1991.  

Her writings reflect her erudition and the fact that she was endowed with the exceptional attributes of a researcher and writer who was far ahead of other researchers of her time in addressing the issues of women’s marginalisation in post-colonial India. Her research and innovations are mirrored in her rare scholarship and ability to examine issues not a part of the routine academic agenda of her time. She was an embodiment of humility. A picture of perfection without any pretensions as she was a ‘wife, a mother and an autonomous academic without being a rebel or a revolutionary’. 

For a most befitting closing tribute I offer the one quoted by T.N. Madan: I am one of those who wishes to walk hand in hand, not a step in front or a step behind. (Justice Leila Seth, Talking of Justice: 2014).

Prof Leela Dube (1923-2012) was born during the British regime in Sagar to her judicial officer father and orthodox mother. One of five siblings, all of whom (four daughters and a son) were given a western education. Rooted in the Hindu traditions her mother socialized them into the Hindu cultural belief system. After completing her formal education in Nagpur Leela met S.C. Dube just after his return from Jaipur where he had gone to do his Ph.D. in anthropology. He had come to collect his scholarship when she saw him and decided he was the man she wanted to marry and did so in 1945. She broke several social and cultural barriers. She completed her Masters in 1946 and she rejoined her husband in Chhattisgarh and recalls in her 1975 essay how the Kamars ‘welcomed’ her as the “wife of a friendly outsider”.

She recalls in 2000, “My destinies were tied to my husband’s moves”. Her achievements are endearingly described by T.N. Madan in an apt tribute titled “The Two Lives of Leela Dube” in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies (2017): “It is an account of the engagement of an intelligent and highly educated person with two distinct — in some respects discrepant — worlds without completely separating them. Happy to be a homemaker with a family, she also carved out a place of distinction for herself as a scholar of kinship studies and the anthropology of women.” She was self-motivated to pursue her Ph.D. In her 1975 essay she says she was provided a horse cart and a maid as well as a peon by her father-in-law, a government official in Madhya Pradesh, to encourage her to study the Gond women in villages that were accessible and closer to the roadside. She submitted her Ph.D. in 1954 and was awarded the degree by Nagpur University in 1956. She immersed herself in ethnography and focussed on issues of women and Kinship. 

Academically she started as Honorary Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, University of Sagar in 1954. She went on to serve as Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology from 1957 to 1960. Earlier she had worked as a Research Associate under the Cornell University India Program, Saharanpur and Ithaca as also from 1952-53, as Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Osmania University, Hyderabad. 

In 1961, her research scholar A.R. Kutty, brought data from Kalpeni in Lakshadweep Island (off the Kerala Coast) on matrilineal kinship among the Muslims. It was the beginning of classic work on kinship and marriage, a tradition evoked by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Nur Yalman. Her individual analytical skills were at their zenith. 

Leela Dee, as she was popularly addressed, went on to become a pioneer of women studies in India. In 1971-74 she was nominated as a Member, National Committee on the Status of Women, Government of India and then Member, Advisory Committee for Programme on Women's Studies, ICSSR from 1975-76. She was Member, Advisory Committee, Programme on Women's Studies, SNDT Women's University, Mumbai’ from 1975 to 1981 and from 1976 to 1993, she was the Chairperson, IUAES Commission on Women and then from 1986-90, she became the Vice-President, International Women's Anthropology Conference (IWAC). She held several such distinguished positions on national and international bodies. 

In 1975 she came to Delhi, and in 1980 joined as senior faculty at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand. At IRMA, she introduced a course on Rural Environment and innovated a ‘business management techniques programme design’ for generating information on rural society through a methodological design in rural ethnography. Her foresight has been substantiated by three additional courses currently applicable at IRMA. 

She was worked on shaping the 1974 report on ‘Towards Equality’ as a member of the committee constituted by the Government of India for gender parity. Several departments of Women Studies were started by the UGC and the ICSSR on the recommendations of this report. She made feminist anthropology integral to contemporary teaching in sociology as well as social and cultural anthropology. 

Some of the contributions of Prof Leela Dube are listed:

Gender studies:

Dube, Leela. “On the construction of Gender: Hindu girls in Patrilineal India”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.23. No. 18 (April 30,1988).  

Dube, Leela. Women and Kinship: Comparative Perspectives on Gender in South and South-East Asia. (1997) United Nations University Press. 

Dube, Leela. Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting Fields. (2001). New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Women Studies Edited volumes

Dube, Leela, Eleanor Leacock and Shirley Ardener (edited). (1986). Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 

Dube, Leela and Rajni Palriwala (edited). (1990). Structures and Strategies: Women, Work and family. New Delhi: Sage Publications. 

Other Works

Dube Leela. (1969). Matriliny and Islam: Religion and society in the Lakshadweep. Delhi: National Publishing House.  

Recommended Readings 

Abraham, Janaki. ‘Setting Sail for Lakshadweep: Leela Dube and the Study of Matrilineal Kinship’ Indian Journal of Gender Studies · (October 2017) 

Dube, Leela. 1994. Kinship and Gender in South and Southeast Asia: patterns and Contrasts (9th J.P. Naik Memorial Lecture, 1994 ).

Dube Leela (1988) ‘On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India’. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 23 (18). pp. WS11-WS19. 

Dube, Leela. 2001. “Doing kinship and gender: An autobiographical account”. Economic and Political Weekly, 35(46), 4037–4047. 

Madan, T.N. 2017. ‘The Two Lives of Leela Dube Introductory Remarks on her Life and Work’ Indian Journal of Gender Studies 24(3) pp.380–395. Sage Publications.

Contributed By

Prof. Shalina Mehta 

Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology (retd) 

(Opinions expressed in this write up are personal and UIAF is not responsible for it.) 

Date of Birth 27th March 1923

Date of Death 20th May 2012

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