Raj constructs of women

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

Woman and Empire: Representations in the Writings of British India (1858-1900) (New Perspectives in South Asian History) by Indrani Sen; Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2002; pages 211, Rs. 450.

THE colonial construct of India in the 19th century founded itself on several ideological premises - economic, political and cultural. However, there were several others that escaped the deliberate and focussed attention of the colonial enterprise, which was notably hegemonic and masculine. With the consolidation of the Empire, these undercurrents surfaced in written discourse, revealing the gender-power dimensions of Raj representations. Indrani Sen's Woman and Empire: Representations in the Writings of British India (1858-1900) delves into the interstices of the great colonial monolith and scrutinises how imperialism of the late 19th century represented women. Her study projects the representation as an enabling challenge to the unquestioning haughtiness of colonial ideologies.

Power determines and shapes the colonial landscape. The dominant binaries are exploited/exploiter, moral/immoral, order/disorder, and so on. Indrani Sen's analysis points towards the reshaping of the power relationship by locating women within these colonial binaries and traversing a deconstructive path that exposes the inherent contradictions. She deals with a complex matrix of forces that straddle the historical and the fictional. Indrani Sen has put under her scanner a vast literature of fiction and non-fiction, which includes newspaper articles, journals and other `minor' writings of the period.

The book charts out its analysis across six sections. Sen outlines the issues of representation of women in British India between 1858 and 1900, a period of Victorian value systems based on a sense of morality and `duty' to the Empire. In a quick walk through the invention of the White Woman, beginning from the early colonial interface, the discourse of gender representation focusses on the Victorian social code of the 1860s onwards and its impact on the concept of the "New Woman". However, while perpetuating the gender hegemony, the colonial dimension creates a privileging of the white woman over the "natives". Indrani Sen discusses the problematics of the transition of the English Victorian woman to a memsahib in the British Raj. Even as she is appropriated into the larger imperialist agenda, she continues to be a subject of male anxiety and often there is a perceived threat of deviancy in the construct of the memsahib. What gets highlighted is the moral question of inter-racial mixing between the English and the Indians, the question of sexual vulnerability of the one to the sensual seduction of the other. These perceived threats, interestingly enough, create a `purdah' for the white woman in the Raj, a creation of seclusion so as to protect them from the corrupting intermingling with the natives.

In the second section of her analysis, Indrani Sen posits Anglo-India in the context of the Indian woman. A combination of the Orientalist construct of the other and a gender binary of values is inscribed in the notion of India itself. Maud Diver's description exemplifies the gendering of the colonised subject itself when she refers to India as a "woman country". It becomes a cultural subordination of a `feminine colony' by a `manly' colonising culture. Colonies were represented as effeminate and racial/regional binaries were invented as evidence, further strengthening the masculine nature of the colonial enterprise. Race, colour, religion, community, caste and region become pointers to not only cultural, political or physical superiority but inevitably also gender superiority.

Although inter-racial liaisons between Indian women and white men were acceptable and common before 1857, the sense of insecurity and insularity of the English post-Mutiny reduced the liaisons, which were now perceived as threats. Additionally, Eurasian women become invisible and marginalised during this period, almost as if they were representing colonial anxiety and embarrassment. Colonial exclusivity became a hallmark, and even the traces of inter-racial intercourse are attempted to be pushed back into oblivion.

Another aspect that receives attention is that of the Zenana - the private, domestic domain of the Indian woman. The construct of the Zenana fuels curiosity and criticism and comes to represent the indolence, idleness and neurosis of Indian women. That this perception has linkages with the class dimension is often ignored and, as in several other generalisations that go towards the construction of the colonial subject, this too colours the Indian woman as incapable of acquiring intellectual merit. Instead, what is often recalled and emphasised is the sensuality of the Indian woman, a commentary on her morality based largely on appearance.

Sensuality is problematised further with the glorification of gentle and sacrificing `womanliness', a Victorian favourite, a moral attribute that received great approval. Marriage and loyalty to the husband was foregrounded as a central virtue for women.

SET in the midst of such constructs of colonial discourse, Indrani Sen moves on to representations in the fiction of the late 19th century with detailed references to Philip Meadows Taylor, Flora Annie Steele and Rudyard Kipling. She also surveys a large body of `minor' texts, a lot of them rare and rarely included in the critical ambit of colonial literature. The genre of station romances revolves around the heroine's appropriation into the imperialist domain. As Indrani Sen mentions: "The focus is clearly on the process of shaping and educating the young heroine for `memsahib-hood' and marriage in the colonial context; in other words, it deals with the `making of a memsahib'." A theme that clearly dominates is that of bringing order to the `disorder', a process of taming of the white woman so that the colonial contours are not destabilised. A detailed study of another Raj genre, the Mutiny novel, foregrounds the perplexities of the colonial experience. The Mutiny brings to the fore an altered reality and hence a sensibility notably different from the station romance. However, Indrani Sen's reading connects both these genres under the larger canvas of writings of the Empire and particularly so in the context of gender representation. Her scrutiny of Taylor's Seeta (1872) and Flora Annie Steele's On the Face of the Waters (1896) brings out some of the ideological complexities that are aroused by the Mutiny and events that surround it. These novels reaffirm a certain abiding faith in the role played by the colonial Englishman. While Taylor's novel projects him as a saviour of Indian women, Steele's novel makes the Englishman a protector of white women.

An author who came to represent Anglo-Indian literary discourse at the turn of the century was Rudyard Kipling. Indrani Sen points out how Kipling in his fiction was unsparing in his construction of the memsahib, a process of demonisation which was often juxtaposed against the toiling, hardworking Anglo-Indian men, `in pursuit of duty' to save and protect the colony: "These die, or kill themselves by overwork or are more worried to death, or broken in health and hope in order that the land may be protected from death and sickness, famine and war." This contrast of representations of gender furthers the perpetuation of the myth of the white woman as a tragic exile in the colony who becomes an obstacle in the process of the masculine imperial enterprise. Kipling does focus on some of the marginal sections of white women, like barrack wives. For him Indian women are the colonial `Other'. Additionally, he is almost silent on issues related to social reform.

Woman and Empire is, as the author mentions in the epilogue, as much about the "axis of race (inventing the `Orient')" as the "axis of gender (constructing women)". The interlinkages of the paradigms of gender and power in the colonial context with the attendant issues of Victorian morality and class identity define the representations in both literary and non-literary texts. If representations of women in station-life romances "betrayed colonial anxieties about disruptive effects of female sexuality", the Eurasian woman was perceived as a "threat to imperial identity". In the mutiny novel, "the white-woman-as-predator is replaced by the white-woman-as-nation, who was sexually vulnerable to interracial rape". Such are the dimensions and complexities of the construction of women within the construct of the colony.

Indrani Sen's volume is rich in analysis and detailed survey of hard-to-come-by texts. Most important, it generates a feminist critique of the colonial enterprise by close readings of texts generated in the period under scrutiny. The crosscurrents of cultural paradigms where the white woman was to be tamed into submission to the masculine colonial order and where the Indian woman was largely a construct of the sensual `Other', the discourse of the Raj teems with an abundance of gender-power issues. The recuperation of these in Indrani Sen's work is what makes this volume a valuable addition to the growing literature related to the Raj.

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