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Zenana Mission


Zenana Mission short for the 'Ladies' Association for the Support of Zenana work and 'Bible women' in India, in connection with the Baptist Missionary Society', established in England in 1867. It was formed as an auxiliary branch of the Baptist Mission Society, a Protestant society founded in England in 1792 for the purpose of missionary work overseas (the Serampore trio William Carey, joshua marshman and William Ward were the first overseas missionaries of the BMS). The function of this body was to send Christian women missionaries to India to do proselytising work by becoming peripatetic governesses to women of the upper classes who were otherwise inaccessible to missionaries. In 1880 the Zenana Mission added medical work to its ministry and came to be called the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission.

Zenana is a Persian word meaning 'woman'. The term is also used to denote the private part of a household that is reserved exclusively for women. Zenana and Zenanamahal are interchangeable terms used for women or women's quarters. The upper classes of both Muslim and Hindu communities took pride in preserving the purity of their women by means of such seclusion. Thus girls from these families did not attend the schools established by the missionary societies. This posed a problem of proselytisation among the upper classes. The problem was tackled by sending women missionaries as peripatetic governesses to the homes of persons wishing to give their female wards an English education. Thus, under missionary initiative, the old tradition of home teaching gained the new cognate 'zenana education'. Zenana work is thought to have begun in Jessore of Eastern Bengal by Mrs. John Sully in the early 1840s, although there is some confusion about the exact date. The peripatetic governesses were assisted by local converts, mostly from the lower classes, who were called 'Bible Women'.

The zenana education scheme complemented government and private efforts to spread female education and enjoyed government patronage after the Indian Education Commission of 1882, popularly known as the Hunter Commission, recommended that peripatetic governesses may receive grant-in-aid. The pioneering work of the Zenana Mission in Bengal prompted almost all Christian missionaries of various denominations to take up zenana education in their pursuit of conversion, thus increasing demand for women missionaries in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the turn of the 20th century there were about forty such mission organizations working in India.

The other Societies engaged in proselytizing the women of Bengal through imparting education were: Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, established in 1834; Ladies' Society for Female Education, Free Church of Scotland, established in 1837; Women's Union Missionary Society, established in 1861; Baptist Female Missionary Society, established in 1870; LMS Ladies' Committee for Missions in India and China, established in 1875; Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, established in 1880.

The missionaries failed to achieve their goal of winning over the womenfolk by giving them vernacular and English education so as to enable them to question the validity of 'heathen' belief and social practices. The Hindu revivalism of the late nineteenth century and the rise of nationalist feelings forced the missionaries to retreat into the background. Economic stringiness during WWI and the changed global socio-political environment of the post- World War I era also weakened Christian missions. The government recognized the futility of peripatetic zenana education tours and abolished the system in 1933. [Asha Islam]