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Colonialism and the Policing of South Asian Women

by in Identity on 17th March, 2021

Over the past few years, countless Muslim women have lamented the lack of support, judgmental accusations, and in some cases, pronouncements of takfir, that they have increasingly faced on social media – by their Muslim ‘brothers’.

Women, especially those visible on social media, often find themselves the focus of moral outrage and questioned for their life choices by men they have never met (take a look at the comments section on any Muslim fashion blogger’s posts and you’ll see what I mean). 

In an environment that is often already hostile, such men ensure that Muslim women are left facing a battle on two fronts: Islamophobia and misogyny, the latter of which also manifests through the questioning of their religiosity. Many will have also noted the double standards that exist, whereby well-known Muslim public figures are defended for their ‘mistakes’, while women are not afforded the same generosity for lesser ‘indiscretions’.

The reasons behind this are no doubt complex and far beyond the scope of this piece to explore. But within a South Asian context at least, the disproportionate moral scrutiny endured by women should not come as a surprise; in fact, it is part of a historical trend that dates back at least two centuries. This historical framework, and the circumstances that created it, need to be better understood if we are to address the issues faced by women in any meaningful and lasting way. 

The “Indian Woman”

The “Indian woman” (since the roots of this are pre-partition), was used repeatedly and consistently as the grounds upon which colonisers and nationalists alike, made their moral arguments and constructed their colonial ideologies. 

When Britain colonised India, it required a moral imperative to justify what was, ultimately, the looting of a country and the subjugation of its people. It learned quickly that in order to further its expansion and impose tighter controls on the native population, it needed to target Indian women.

New laws were introduced to police the behaviours of Indian women, irrespective of religion. One of the most infamous ways this took place, was through the redefinition of prostitution – only upper-caste Hindu marriages were considered valid, other marriages were not and so the women in them were considered prostitutes. Muslim women who had taken the Nikkah, Hindu upper-class widows (who were not permitted to remarry), women in polygamous Hindu marriages, among others, all fell under the new definition of prostitution. Their male counterparts remained unaffected. Muslim women were viewed as particularly depraved owing to a number of Orientalist tropes that referred to their “dangerous promiscuity” and “insatiable sexual appetites” as one British magistrate described them. 

While Indian women (as well as Hijra communities) were put under the lens of colonial moral scrutiny, no such laws targeted (heterosexual) Indian men, who were able to conduct marital and/or sexual relationships without the interest or intervention of the state. It is not unrelated that the cooperation of Indian men was also necessary for the continued progress of the empire. 

British colonisers, while seeking to control and organise Indian society through female sexuality, also portrayed themselves as the defenders of women’s human rights. Sati, or widow immolation, whereby a widow would throw herself upon the funeral pyre of her dead husband, was criminalised by the British in 1829. The rite, in reality, was rare in India and only practiced by upper-caste Hindus, but the British deliberately set about portraying it as widespread and essential to the Hindu religion. 

As historian and writer Lata Mani and numerous others have shown, the aim here was not so much to protect vulnerable women from a cruel and deplorable ritual, as it was to portray the customs of Indians, of all religions, as barbaric and in need of civilising. This allowed the colonisers to justify more laws effectively allowing the British to claim more land and tighter controls to further subjugate the native population. 

British Feminists 

Alongside male colonisers, British feminists had their own agenda to enact, and did so at the expense of Indian women. 

While calls for female emancipation were met with hostility at home, British feminists used the imagined “Indian woman”, portrayed as downtrodden and imprisoned by ‘Eastern’ customs, as a crucial part of their own liberation ideology. 

They compared the gender inequalities they faced at home in Britain, with the conditions supposedly endured by women in the ‘East’, and particularly, Indian women, who they saw as wretched and trapped in their Zenanas. This comparison was used to bolster support among British men for their own emancipation, claiming that not to do so would be behaving in an ‘Eastern’ manner, and lead to the decline of Western civilisation. 

Furthermore, they sought to convince their countrymen that female emancipation would aid the project of the empire. British feminists such as Mary Carpenter and Bayle Bernard sold themselves as ‘white saviours’, ready to help the down-trodden, wretched Indian woman and take on the ‘white man’s burden’. 

Some, including Carpenter, created education programmes for Indians, and encouraged their fellow Englishwomen to aid their ‘sisters’ in any way they could. Though such attempts may well have been sincere, in effect they ensured that the feminist project placed itself firmly in line with imperialist ambition. 

“The Indian Woman” then, became both the target of humanitarian concern as colonisers sought to frame her as a victim of her culture and religion, and simultaneously, a morally depraved character and a sexual deviant. She was ultimately a colonial construct, a convenient tool to further the project of colonialism and British feminism. 

Indian Nationalists 

In the mid-nineteenth century, nationalist ideologies started to emerge in the struggle against colonial dominance. The role of women was central to the nationalist discourse, and in time, a nationalist construction of a ‘new’ Indian woman, began to take shape. 

Her identity centred around the need to preserve the inner-core of India itself. As the scholar Partha Chatterjee has shown, while the materially superior coloniser had subjugated and dominated India’s material, outer world, he could not reach its spiritual, essential identity, which remained intact.  

While overcoming colonialism would require the adoption of aspects of Western material culture, the spiritual core needed to be preserved and protected. In its application, the former was considered the domain of the male, and the latter the female. 

With this new nationalist meaning attached to what were traditional, pre-existing concepts, a framework emerged, whereby womanhood, through feminine virtues, was connected to the very essence of the nation itself. 

Thus emerged a new patriarchy that contrasted itself with modern Western society, and somewhat ironically, with precolonial patriarchy—the same tradition that had been subjected to colonial scrutiny. 

This construction of a new Indian woman excluded women of lower classes, who remained ‘vulgar’ and ‘sexually promiscuous’, in opposition to the purity of the former. 

Once the spiritual virtues of her femininity were defined, which related to all aspects of her life, from dress, social demeanour and eating habits to her religiosity, this new woman was given access to the outer world, including education and work.

Meanwhile, the Indian man, in adjusting to the new conditions and rapid social change that was occurring outside the home, had been forced to make changes to his traditional habits and religiosity. Chatterjee contends that these capitulations had to be compensated for by an assertion of “spiritual purity on the part of women…They must not eat, drink or smoke in the same way as men; they must continue the observance of religious rituals which men were finding difficult to carry out.” 

By tying the task of female emancipation with the goal of sovereign nationhood, women were subject to a new subordination, and those that fell outside these definitions of acceptable womanhood were considered a deviation from the norm. Behaviour was thereby controlled, however subtly. 

Muslim Reformers 

This sort of thinking was not limited to conversations on national identity either; it was mirrored by some Muslim religious thinkers and reformers (since our focus here is Muslim women in particular) of the period also. 

The late colonial period saw what has been termed the ‘revivalist’ or ‘modernist’ movement, led by ‘reformers’ who, among other things, sought to reform the condition of women, primarily through education. This resulted in the emergence of curricula designed specifically for women by male religious scholars. Behaishtizewar (1905) by Ashraf Ali Thanawi is perhaps the best known. 

The main focus of this education was to ensure that women were competent enough in religious knowledge to fulfil their roles as mothers. Even the celebrated reformer, philosopher and poet, Muhammad Iqbal (1877 – 1938) considered education beyond this purview, not simply unnecessary for women, but potentially damaging for society. (Ref: Schooling the Muslim Nation: Muhammad Iqbal and Debates Over Muslim Education in Colonial India by Iqbal Singh Sevea, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2011).  

But while access to education may, to some extent, have helped improve the condition of Muslim women in India for the better, some have argued the drive to reform and ‘Islamise’ women was shaped primarily by the changing social needs of Muslim men. As men found themselves exposed to colonial realities in the outside world in which they had no control, the Muslim woman was required to take on the moral burden for society’s sake. As Faisal Fatehali Devji asserts, she had to be shielded from the corrupting outside world, rendering her “into a sort of guardian of orthodoxy whose task was to ‘save’ men from the wickedness of the public” and prevent “a corruption of Muslim manhood.” 

He goes on: “And so just as the British were proceeding to ‘reform’ the character and actions of their exotic, irrational Indian subjects through education, these same Indians were engaged in an identical task with their own ‘others’.” 

The enduring legacy of policing women

For more than two centuries, the behaviour of South Asian women has been scrutinised, regulated and policed in turn, by British colonists, feminists, Indian nationalists and Muslim reformers. 

Given all of this, isn’t it possible that the scrutiny we see South Asian women – and more specifically in this context Muslim women – subjected to on social media, is a continuation of that same legacy? Isn’t their behaviour also being judged and policed according to predetermined standards of womanhood?

Male critics of a woman’s behaviour often assume a sense of entitlement over her by the mere virtue of her being a woman, or perhaps rather, not a man. While she is berated for her choices (assuming they fall short of this predetermined standard) a man is rarely, if ever, subjected to the same level of moral scrutiny. While she is held up as a representative of her religion/nation/culture, the same standard is rarely, if ever, applied to a man. 

Such misogyny has meant that public male figures, including religious scholars, can have their ‘mistakes’ overlooked, even when abusive in nature, but no such generosity is reserved for women, who are demonised for even small ‘infractions’. In other words, the “Indian woman” is still forced to assert her “spiritual purity”, to compensate for the shortcomings of men. 

Some may accuse me of unfairly associating such behaviour with South Asian Muslim men specifically, but I don’t need to convince anyone here of the misogyny that has existed, and still exists in the subcontinent and in diaspora communities in the West (those who will require facts and figures to be convinced will still look for excuses to deny its existence). As children of the subcontinent, even if we haven’t experienced it personally within our own families, we are well aware of its existence in our communities, mosque and even online spaces. 

That the misogynistic treatment of women can be located in such a recent historical trend – one with clear ideological purposes – should serve as a wake-up call to our ‘brothers’: you are not following the example of the Prophet ﷺ, you are continuing the legacy of the coloniser. Your morality is not attached to the behaviour of a random woman on Twitter, and her ‘purity’ does not compensate for your shortcomings.  

Men must do better. There is a dire need for introspection among men, and those who espouse misogynistic views must be challenged by men. For far too long, women have been used as ideological tools, always at the expense of their own needs. It is time that framework was dismantled once and for all.  


References 

  • Chatterjee, Partha. “Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialized Women: The Contest in India.” American Ethnologist, vol. 16, no. 4, [Wiley, American Anthropological Association], 1989, pp. 622–33, http://www.jstor.org/stable/645113.
  • Antoinette M. Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915, University of North Carolina Press, 1994
  • Malik, Aisha Anees. “Gender and Nationalism: Political Awakening of Muslim Women of the Subcontinent in the 20th Century.” Strategic Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, 2017, pp. 1–16, https://www.jstor.org/stable/48537543.
  • Mani, Lata. “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India.” Cultural Critique, no. 7,
  • University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp. 119–56, https://doi.org/10.2307/1354153.
  • Forced to undergo genital exams in colonial India https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-54528868
  • Durba Mitra, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, Princeton University Press, 2020.  
  • WAHEED, SARAH. “Women of ‘Ill Repute’: Ethics and Urdu Literature in Colonial India.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 986–1023, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24494611.
  • Faisal Fatehali Devji (1991) “Gender and the politics of space: The movement for women’s reform in Muslim India, 1857–1900,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 14:1, 141-153, DOI: 10.1080/00856409108723151
  • Iqbal Singh Sevea, “Schooling the Muslim Nation: Muhammad Iqbal and Debates Over Muslim Education in Colonial India,” Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2011)  
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