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'These are not ordinary women': Empire, famine, and labour in Second World War India - 4 May 2022

Please note that this event has passed.

Chair: Dr Mark Condos, Lecturer, War Studies Department

Speaker: Urvi Khaitan, DPhil student in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford

About the event

Hidden beneath traditional historical narratives of the Second World War are the profound effects of war and famine on women in British India. Low-caste and indigenous (Adivasi) women disproportionately bore the effects of galloping inflation and the burden of starvation.

With a colonial state that failed them, these women were not simply passive recipients of charity but actively looked for ways to survive, and in doing so, became part of an immense global supply chain supporting the Allied Second World War effort. These working women, key actors in a transnational wartime economy, were at the frontline in a battle for survival.

Attempting to understand how large-scale socio-economic upheaval impacted women’s work and survival, this event will focus first on the women abandoned or sold by their families in the wake of the Bengal Famine of 1943, who found themselves in the Labour Corps. Here they worked as manual labourers building roads, ports, and aerodromes for the British and United States militaries by day, and as sex workers by night. The second part of the event will trace the story of colonial India’s women beneath the surface – over 77,000 women miners who played a pivotal role in solving an Allied coal crisis while battling famine, inflation, and an increasingly coercive labour regime.

Speaker biography

Urvi Khaitan is a DPhil student in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford. Her research looks at gender, labour, and empire in twentieth-century South Asia. Urvi’s doctoral project examines the ways gender, caste, class, and empire interacted and shaped women’s participation and experiences of the wartime economy in colonial South Asia during the Second World War.

2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Department of War Studies by Sir Michael Howard, and provides an important opportunity to both reflect and build upon his remarkable achievements and legacy. Sir Michael Howard’s greatest contribution to the history of war was his insistence on moving beyond the battlefield in order to examine the wider political and social contexts in which wars were fought. He also wrote about the legal, moral, and philosophical implications of war, and throughout his distinguished career sought to develop new approaches to understanding the impact of war on society.

At this event

Mark Condos

Mark Condos

Senior Lecturer in Imperial and Global History

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