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Women in imperial spaces

Women in imperial spaces

By Taha Kehar

India’s encounter with imperialism was initially depicted through the blinkered lens of a male-centric logic. There was an inflexible view among historians that British men who served as public officials were the key players who had spearheaded the Subcontinent’s colonial project.

As a result, male narratives on Britain’s attempts to build an empire largely dominated historical accounts about this period. However, the subtle involvement of British women – who were plucked out of their cold, little island to accompany their husbands, siblings and fathers to India’s tropical climate – in shaping power struggles within the empire was conveniently edged out of the debate. Initial scholarship on the matter has failed to represent the role of British women in supporting colonial adventurism for two reasons.

First, there was a deep-rooted bias against the testimony of women; this directly stemmed from their status in society. As a result, there appears to be an academic lull on the contribution of British women towards building the colonial empire. The bias was influenced by a cluster of historical and political factors. For several years, women who accompanied British men were considered to be an unwanted burden. The accounts of most women who accompanied their families to India did not coincide with the official narrative. Their contribution was, therefore, dismissed as an alternative, personal trajectory rather than a rigid, official retelling of historical events.

In a similar vein, the East India Company (EIC) was, at first, reluctant to allow any of their members to be accompanied by their spouses. These perceptions evolved after the company realised that Protestantism was steadily losing ground among its members in India. The EIC decided to increase the wages of its members and permitted them to bring their spouses to India. However, the role of women in the social sphere still remained fundamentally inferior to men. Their experiences have thus been pushed to the fringes of scholarly discourse.

Most women who moved to India from Britain were also subjected to cruel stereotypes that reinforced inequalities in power and accentuated the divide between the colonisers and the native. Ronald Hyam, in his book, ‘Empire and Sexuality’, explores how most British women were billed as memsahibs. While the term was commonly used for a European married woman, it was often used in a derogatory sense to show how racist, passive and inane they could be. According to Hyam, memsahibs were widely believed to be “narrowly intolerant, vindictive to the locals, despotic and abusive to their servants…cruelly insensitive to Indian women and hopelessly insulated from them”. Such ruthless perceptions contributed to the ignorance shown towards the role of British women in creating an imperial space.

Second, British women – once they arrived in India – predominantly contributed to the colonial project through the domestic sphere rather than the political realm. They created an imperial space within the home and initiated a small-scale colonial project. Imperial domesticity – like most forms of domestic work – was frowned upon even though it is difficult to ignore the impact of the private sphere on public life.

Although their versions of Britain’s past of empire-building have been dismissed as an alternative reality, it is still important for us to understand their relevance to the colonial experience. We must peel back the layers of mystery surrounding this dimension of our past as it will help us assess how colonisation reached our shores in a subliminal manner and the extent to which it was able to sustain its imperialistic logic.

British women perpetuated racial prejudices by writing diaries, travelogues and household guides. They also wrote a string of letters to their relatives back home which influenced perceptions about India and its people.

During the 18th century, India had not been colonised to a vast degree. In her article, ‘Power and Gender: British Women’s Role in 19th Century Imperial India’, Mary Densmore states that there was “a sense of exploration and configuration with the foreign culture and land [rather] than infiltration and settlement”. Driven by the burning desire to chronicle their experiences of discovering new terrain, many privileged white women began writing what later came to be known as eastern travel literature.

A majority of these books were steeped in a strictly Eurocentric, imperialistic gaze and made the East seem all the more exotic and aloof. For instance, Maria Graham’s book, ‘Journal of a Residence in India’, highlighted the absence of a sense of home and belonging in India. By publically recording the sights and sounds of India in a foreign, detached manner, British women managed to ‘other’ a country that would eventually become the jewel of the British Crown.

Britain had maintained a strong degree of economic engagement with India and therefore needed to wield influence on its people. In order to achieve this, the wives of company members who were encouraged to create a microcosm of the British culture in India. This was achieved by publishing household guides that instructed women on how to introduce imperial domesticity in a foreign land. These manuals sought to create a class of Indians that would absorb British culture by vilifying native practices. ‘The Englishwoman in India’ refers to “native morality” as a savage concept that should be done away with.

In addition, most British women considered their relationship with their domestics – who were invariably native – to be a yardstick of what other Indians were like. Many women allowed the religious, linguistic and cultural differences they had with their servants to make generalised, bigoted statements about India’s people. This was subsequently conveyed through letters to their loved ones in Britain and fuelled prejudice against Indians. Their mistrust for Indians intensified when the War of Independence in 1857 pricked their conscience and made them wary of their colonial subjects. This cycle of suspicion was conveyed by British women through letters written to their families back home. It strengthened the roots of colonialism and made it difficult for imperialists to view their subjects beyond racist, intolerant lines.

It is often believed that the role adopted by British women in India’s imperialist project was minimal and, at best, ineffective. While their contribution to the imperialist agenda represents an alternative truth, its effects were far-reaching. The experience helped them adopt positions and carry out tasks which were hitherto unknown to them. Such developments later helped British women embrace the first wave of feminism in their country.

However, there is a pressing need to build on these narratives as well. Most women who travelled to India to accompany their siblings, husbands and fathers continued to operate within British socio-political values and did little to deviate from these accepted moral standards. Historians must use their insights on India’s colonial project as a starting point and examine how the second and third generations of British women in India – who grew up in the country – responded to colonisation.

Academics must understand how their perspectives on the colonial prejudices varied from previous generations. Scholarly investigations into this facet of our imperialist past will determine how colonial mindsets evolved during the long years of the British Raj. It would also be useful to consider if subsequent generations of British imperialists understood the terror and complexities of growing up in a country that was colonised by their forefathers. The guilt-addled narratives, if any, about an exploitative colonial past would provide a suitable point of departure for such an analysis.

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