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Gender and Race in Colonial India

also successfully moves out of the historiographical double-bind of having to frame non-western ideas as either derivative/ universal or authentic/particular






an important source of information on

Gender and Race in Colonial India
Indian women, though they are from a

female colonial perspective. Sen’s work is also important because it Lata Singh destabilises the category of white women

as a homogeneous group, with a uniform ender is emerging as an important or shared ideology. In varied encounters

Memsahib’s Writings: Colonial Narratives on category in the analysis of Indian Indian Women edited by Indrani Sen (New Delhi: with colonised women, European women history and society. It is intrinsic Orient BlackSwan), 2008; pp 313, Rs 650. were positioned diversely by their personal,

to the formation of class, caste, race and ethnicity. A number of studies have highlighted that not only are patriarchal systems class differentiated, and open to constant and consistent reformulations, but they are also crucial to the formation of classes and dominant ideologies. Recent feminist studies have also been drawing attention to the inextricable links between caste and gender. Women are no longer seen as a homogeneous category but as located within a specific class, caste and race. It is being emphasised that even though generally women belong to a subaltern category and are subordinate to a larger social structure, they become implicit in the subordination of underprivileged sections of women due to their privileged locale.

Gender and Race

Indrani Sen’s study is very significant in forefronting gender and race, an area which has remained understudied in feminist writings. The work highlights facets and nuances of gender relations across the race divide during India’s colonial period. It is now recognised that while white women suffered marginalisation and gender disadvantages with regard to white men they were also beneficiaries of imperialism and enjoyed the race and class privileges that went with belonging to the ruling elite. White women who benefited from the colonial power in India played a crucial role in reinforcing imperialism, and the race factor far outweighed gender issues. However, despite the inextricable link between race and gender, there have been very few works on the memsahibs’ experience of colonial India. Moreover, most of the existing studies either fall in the Orientalist paradigm, with accounts of household events, naked fakirs and other Indian “exotica”, or of the memsahibs’ interaction with her servants. Sen’s work moves the focus from Indian exotica and also corrects the widelyheld impression that white women’s writings were silent on “encounters with Indians – other than their servants”. The work highlights the intricacies of white women’s interactions with a wide range of colonised women, underlining different facets of native women’s lives and their customs. The book is divided into various sections, ranging from “nautch girls”, princesses, “ayahs”, to health, education, social reform, purdah and other social issues. The writings are

october 31, 2009

religious and professional backgrounds as evangelical proselytisers, sexual competitors, imperialists, maternalist reformers, secular missionaries, domestic employers and educationists. The work underscores the immense diversity in white women’s writings, which were riddled with contradictions, tensions and complexity, and did not display a monolithic perception or generalisation. More signi ficantly, Sen tries to locate the British memsahibs’ writings in the historical context, highlighting how the shift in colonial power gets reflected in their writings.

Internalising Caste

One of the interesting aspects that comes through in their writings is how religious, regional, class and caste identities played an important role in colonial perceptions and how certain regions, classes and religions were preferred over others. In this context one can see their accounts of women belonging to the royalty which are replete with descriptions of priceless jewellery, gorgeous clothing and grand home furnishings. Their writings on these royal women do not show a reformist or disparaging attitude, as they do towards other sections of Indian

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Economic & Political Weekly


women but are full of awe instead. The section on wet nurses underscores the heightened element of class and race exploitation in their relationship with these women. Their writings on “ayahs” bring out the internalisation of the caste element by the colonial power. In fact, studies on colonialism have underlined how colonial rule rather than challenging traditional structures of power in India reinforced it and Sen’s work adds an interesting dimension to if from the gender perspective.

Sen’s book gives a fascinating account of the white women’s encounters within the zenana as well as the perceptions about the practice of seclusion. One significant aspect that emerges from the writings on women’s lives in purdah is its implications for their health, as it caused depression and other diseases. This aspect is worth exploring further as it will add an important dimension to studies on women’s health.

The work also highlights the interconnection, however oblique, between the “native female’s uplift” or “modernisation” programme and British cultural imperialism and how most of the white women knowingly or unknowingly were drawn into it. It also throws light on the interlinkage between imperialism and patriarchy. This can be seen in their espousal of female education and social reforms. White women’s writings are replete with accounts of their experiences of teaching the women in purdah, and describing the nature of resistance that female education faced from Indian society. Literacy was looked upon as a characteristic of a nautch girl, an “immoral” woman. What is also significant is that while white women were championing female education there was also a voice of caution, lest it challenged the patriarchal structure. Education was not meant to impart professionalism but to train women to be noble wives and mothers. Hence, they were not advocates of higher education for women. Besides they considered western education unsuitable for “eastern” girls. Thus education was not meant to confront the patriarchal structure but rather to reinforce it.

The excerpts from the writings of these white women highlight their fascination of the Hindu female model of the devoted and self-sacrificing faithful wife and was

Economic & Political Weekly

october 31, 2009

clearly meant to counter the growing selfassertiveness of western women.

The New Indian Women

Sen’s work brings out how on one hand the white women admired the new Indian women and on the other were apprehensive of an undesirable variant of the new women, that is, the excessively “Anglicised” Indian women. In fact, the upliftment of Indian women premised on a western model and feared during the early 20th century for being “too westernised” underscored the paradox of their modernity.

White women’s discourse created a binary between Indian and western women. However, the significance of Sen’s work lies in destabilising this binary by bringing to light how one of the earliest types of interracial interactions was sexual in nature and revolved around contact between white man and “native” women though there is a class angle to this sexual and racial exploitation. One of the most vilified groups was that of Eurasians, people of mixed race belonging to the lower social orders. They were victims of both race and class prejudice and treated with contempt by both the English and Indians. Beneath all the ridicule and contempt, Sen points out, there may have been an underlying fear among the colonisers that people of mixed blood posed a potential threat of bridging the distance between the ruler and the ruled. What is noteworthy is that it is people belonging to this most despised race and class who contributed very significantly as artists to the formative phase of films and “modern” theatre in India. Sen’s work provides an interesting backdrop to scholars working on the social history of the early actresses in India. It is in this connection that one would also like to underline the significance of Sen’s account of white women’s writings on nautch girls, the most educated and cultured women of their times and also the pioneer artists. There have been general writings on nautch girls, but Sen’s work highlights colonial women’s diverse and complex perception of them, which ranges from fascination to revulsion.

Thus white women’s perception of Indian women signify that there is no one monolithic “other” as far as they were concerned. Interestingly, Sen’s work draws our attention to Indian women’s perception of white women as the “other”. The coloniser-colonised relationship was not a simple one of colonial domination at every level. As Sen’s work emphasises, the perception of the colonised people, or the Indian “gaze” was often disdainful and superior and therefore subversive of colonial power at a psychological level. White women were conscious of a profound sense of being rejected by the people whom they ruled. From the perspective of caste, they existed outside the caste system and were considered “untouchable”.

The book has an interesting section on dress where the author has tried to foreground matters like clothing as a site of power. In fact, a clash between different styles of clothing is often symbolic of a wider conflict between different cultural and social values and norms. The changing attitude of white women towards Indian female attire, especially the sari, denoted the shifting colonial ideologies and perception.

Thus by foregrounding gender and race Sen adds a significant dimension to feminist historiography.

Lata Singh ( is Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

Centre for Studies on Environment and Sustainable Development (CSESD), Rabindra Bharati University (Emerald Bower, 56A, B.T. Road, Kolkata - 700 050) will organise an International Seminar in collaboration with the CHEM, RBU and IIDS) on Forest Management and Sustainable Development: Economic and Environmental Issues during Feb 27-28 (Sat-Sun), 2010 and invites Abstracts (within 300 words) on any aspect of the theme for consideration to be sent to and with a hard copy within Dec 31, 2009. Selected authors will have to submit the full paper by e-mail with a hard copy before the Seminar and selected papers will be published in the form of an edited volume in due course. There is a token Registration fee of Rs. 300/- only for all delegates which includes Seminar kits and modest boarding and lodging (for outstation delegates only) from 26 Feb (afternoon) to 1 March (morning) (to be informed within 15.2.10). There is no TA for the delegates (vide Web site: for details).

Professor Raj Kumar Sen (Ph. 033-2555 5613(R), 09432364604 (M) Director CSESD, RBU & Chairman, IIDS

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