Friday, 24 September, 2021

Colonial Representation: The Other Side of History

Atia sanjida sushoma

The colonial rulers in the Indian subcontinent have affected our cultures and norms in many ways. Many of us praise the colonial rulers because they are considered to be more liberal and more importantly glorify their role for banning Satidah culture and Initiating widow remarriage. This is what history presented us. But is history always true? It is very significant to understand history critically since production of knowledge is political in nature and it more likely serves those who are positioned in the upper class in the power structure. The discussion is not about whether banning Satidah or reforming other local cultures is right but it is about for what intention did they actually initiate these reformations.

Gendered Norms

Colonial rulers are more likely to be presented as the initiators of women empowerment. But do they really believe in women empowerment? Different scholarly articles suggest that the division of labour in the public-private sector was actually initiated by the West. As Banerjee. N (cited in Sangari. K. 1989) argued that in the pre-colonial era, the local Indian women were comparatively empowered since they were engaged in different financial activities which were performed in local area and even in the household  such as- selling processed foods, traditional ornaments, working (woman who helps in childbirth) etc. However, public-private distinction was not established as a discourse in the pre-colonial society of the Indian subcontinent. After initiating capitalistic and profit oriented business, the colonial rulers made distinction between public and private sector. Their discourse rejected women's unpaid care work as a productive work and replaced the traditional economic activities with profit-oriented business. This affected local women severely and since their traditional economic activities and work in the household sphere has no market value, their financial activities got hampered. However, the rise of nationalism also played the role in establishing public-private dichotomy. As Chatterjee. P (cited in Sangari. K. 1989) argued that the nationalist politics set new role for women for personal adjustment in the colonial society. They gave women educational opportunities, allowed them to go to cinema and even work outside. This may seem that they are initiating women empowerment but if viewed critically, it will be found that they actually introduced a new patriarchy. This new patriarchy let women be educated not because of women's empowerment but for the personal adjustment of men. Back then, the local men had to learn English and do colonial jobs. As a result, they such women as their partner who will know English, support them, manage household works, take care of children and maintain religious activities. The new patriarchy gave new additional role to women i.e. she need to know to manage both public and private life. She can be educated but in a limited way. She should not behave like the western woman since it will ruin the spirit of nationalist culture, nor like the local lower class women who are more likely to use slangs, promiscuos and quarrelsome. She should be modest and polite in nature. These established norms are still prevailing today and there is still a long way to diminish the public-private dichotomy.

Representation of the Colonial Rulers by History

We are all well familiar that Raja Rammohan Roy played an important role in banning Satidah culture along with the colonial rulers and he is well known for initiating Bengal Renaissance and modernity. However, modernism refers to a secular society. But in case of banning the Satidah culture, they acted completely in a different way. As Mani. L (cited in Sangari. K. 1989) shared in her arguments that the colonial rulers and indigenous discourse gave a religious explanation behind banning Satidah culture. They argued that since Satidah is not allowed by certain religious scriptures, it is necessary to ban this acts. The argument is all around whether the religious scriptures allow Satidah. They could have at least ban Satidah because it is an inhumane act. But they acted in such a way that the local individuals are less aware of their own religion. However, if the colonials were so aware of the local community, they would take steps to diminish caste system, class division but they did not do that rather they established religion as a codified discourse. For example, in the pre colonial period, homosexuality was present in the society, but it was not codified as a criminal act. The colonial rulers established the penal code whose Section 377 criminalizes the act of homosexuality. Moreover, the white colonial rulers have more tendency to use feminism as a tool to civilize the colonized countries while they themselves are reluctant to use feminism in their white society. Moghissi. H (1999) shared in one of his statements that one of the British men went to Egypt and criticized them for being too rude to their women while in his country he is one of the founding members women's anti-suffrage rights. But the history presented the colonial rulers in such a way that they are civilizing the colonized countries.

Many of our gender norms, cultures are being affected by the colonial rulers. The colonial rulers considered themselves modern and suppressed the colonized countries in the name of a civilizing mission. However, their own European cultures also have a history of women's oppression such as witch burning which is familiar with widow burning (Satidah) culture of the Indian subcontinent. They established public-private dichotomy which still prevails today. We are still struggling to give recognition to women's unpaid work, sharing and redistribution of household works and so on. Very few of us know that all of these are the effects of colonial rule. So it will be very problematic to address the colonial rulers as modern and liberal.


The writer is a student of the Department of Women and Gender Studies, University of Dhaka