THE IMPACT OF BRITISH COLONIAL RULE: WOMEN AND FAMILY AFFAIRS
Writing on the impact of British colonial rule on women and family affairs is rather a difficult job as one has to frequently challenge accepted notions of what represents reliable evidence for the writing of history of colonized women. Distinctions between public and private histories, on the one hand, and historical and literary study on the other should be made. One can argue that “domestic space” undoubtedly has had a significant role on political issues of colonized land, but it is something which has an ambiguous history as often the available narratives are reflective of the relationship between women, family and the colonial rule.
Gayari Spivak suggests that the representation of the so called third world women has housed her in an "identifiable margin" which by marginalizing the third world women has stresses upon superiority of the first world ones: "when a cultural identity is thrust upon one because the center wants an identifiable margin, claims for marginality assure validation from the center (Spivak, 1993: 55).
In order to justify British colonial rule and depict it as a moral imperative the colonized women were represented only as victims of a male chauvinistic society that have no agency or resistant role in their social transformation. This approach tends to marginalize the so called colonized women and therefore, they need saviors, i.e., the Westerns, to emancipate them from colonized men. This according to Spivak is the case of "white men saving brown women from brown man" (Spivak, 1999: 303). According to Leela Gandhi the Western feminist approach toward non-western and Oriental women is a type of neo-Orientalism (1998: 88). This means that the constructed discourse surrounding the Orient and colonized territories is for the purpose of the imperial consumption and creates a self-congratulatory and self-consolidating project for the Western feminism and consequently the issue of the so called "third world women" leads to a double-colonization.
At a time when women in the West did not have an active agency in their own society and were deprived of equal legal and social status, traveling to the East with their husband colonizers or as missionaries could constructs and juxtaposes their identity with their colonized counterpart as the superior one who plays an emancipatory role in colonized lands. As Talpade Mohanty puts it: "without the 'third world woman', the particular self-presentation of western women… would be problematic…the definition of the 'third world woman' as a monolith might well tie into the larger economic and ideological praxis of 'disinterested' scientific inquiry and pluralism which are the surface manifestations of a latent economic and cultural colonization of the 'nonwestern' world (1994: 215-16). In this way the, as Trinh Minh-ha argues a hierarchy is established between the third world women and their Western counterparts in which the white woman plays the rule of savior for the Oriental women: "the patronizing attitude towards unfortunate sister creates an insuperable division between I-who-have-made-it and You-who-can-not-make-it" (1989: 86).
According to Leela Gandhi the colonizer’s approach toward non-western and Oriental women is a type of neo-Orientalism (1998: 88). This means that the constructed discourse surrounding the Orient is for the purpose of the imperial consumption and creates a self-congratulatory and self-consolidating project for the Western feminism and consequently the issue of the so called "third world women" leads to a double-colonization. On the other hand the hegemonic feminist discourse silences the "native women" as according to Spivak: Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears not into a pristine nothingness, but a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the 'third world woman' caught between tradition and modernization (1988: 306).
Regarding the impact of British rule on women and families in colonized territories one should keep in mind that British imperialism was more pragmatic one and its motivations were rather economic than evangelical. According to Angus Maddison as far as the mass of the population were concerned, colonial rule brought few significant changes. The British educational effort was very limited and there were no major changes in village society, in the caste system, the position of untouchables, the joint family system, or in production techniques in agriculture; on the contrary class division was encouraged by British as it made it easier for the colonizer to deal with an elite caste whose interests was closely tied with that of the colonizers. Many of the benefits of colonialism, such as education, were restricted to specific classes of individuals, usually based on skin color or ethnic origin. This segregation lead to a natural segregation throughout colonized countries and established the foundation for a racially segregated future. As an example, the extreme racial segregation in South Africa, known as the apartheid, is a partial result of African colonialism. The education segregation left an economic disparity in South Africa that resulted in continued segregation after the colonial period and a legacy of poor civil rights and human atrocity. British impact on economic and social development was, therefore, limited. Total output and population increased substantially but the gain in per capita output was small or negligible.
Colonial encounters between colonized women and European women have frequently been studied through the lens of domesticity. This perspective emphasizes that colonial and missionary institutions played an important role in diffusing Christianity, European languages, and Western norms throughout colonized land. This focus on domesticity also emphasizes the role that colonial and mission policies played in socializing colonized women into European gender norms and "appropriate" forms of social organization.
Among major effects of colonialism on women (whether in Africa or India) was the introduction of wage labor. This meant that the women (and children) of a village or community were forced to leave their daily duties in order to work for European farmers, particularly during the peak seasons. In addition to robbing these women of their established identity within their society, this forced labor was also often accompanied by physical and sexual abuse. Such abuse was inflicted, in part, by the Europeans, but also, in many cases, by their own husbands, who saw their renewed roles as an indication of their worthlessness, and resented them for neglecting their homely duties.
As they were no longer cultivating their own fields and caring for their own homes, their economic situation became critical, forcing them to become more and more dependent on the European colonialists for their very survival. The African males began to leave their homelands, going to the cities and towns in search of more formal employment. Migrant labor had its own added set of implications, many of which left wives, children and families in the unpleasant position of being left alone, worried about the men of their society.
Despite all odds family institution in colonized lands played a significant role resisting colonialism. As Antoinette Burton argues the institution of the family, together with the home inhabited by it, came to assume enormous political significance, as the 'Indian-ness' that both were presumed to represent was debated long and hard by reformers of one sort or another. To successive generations of Indian nationalists, for example, the home provided evidence of 'authentic' India and the nascent Indian nation. By the late nineteenth century, domestic space had become the centerpiece of public debate, and the home and those associated with it - women - had become closely associated with resistance against 'the materialist values and incursions of a Western, colonizing culture' (p. 33). Women in Africa displayed their resilience and resisted, by protesting and standing up for their rights. They adapted as they needed to, and were determined to preserve their identities. An example of taking such initiative to regain their ‘voice’ is the British West African Ladies Club, established in 1929 in Nigeria. This organization was designed to encourage women to express themselves and to give them a platform upon which to do so. Such responses to colonialism demonstrate the resilience and determination that continues to identify African women.
Gandhi, L. (1998). Postcolonial theory: A critical introduction. New York: Columbia University Press.
Maddison, A. (1972). Class structure and economic growth: India and Pakistan since the Moghuls. New York: Norton.
Mohanty, T.C. (1994).Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourse. Reprinted in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, eds Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman, Columbia University Press, New York.
Spivak, G. C. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason: Toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Trinh, T. M.-H. (1989). Woman, native, other: Writing postcoloniality and feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.