Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal

Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal

by Mahua Sarkar



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822342151
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/25/2008
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 3 Months

About the Author

Mahua Sarkar is Associate Professor of Sociology and a faculty member of the Women’s Studies and Asian and Asian-American Studies programs at Binghamton University.

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Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal
By Mahua Sarkar

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4215-1

Chapter One


The Merchant, the Soldier, the "Writer" (Clerk), Their Lovers, and the Trouble with "Native Women's" Histories

* * *

It is not possible to know today who [or how many women inhabited Sikander's] ... antahpur [in the first half of the nineteenth century].... [Of the three whose names are known] Ishwari [Khanum] was Muslim ... [another,] Manu, was ... Hindu ... [and] Sofia was Christian ... possibly Anglo-Indian....

[Sikander is believed to have fathered] eighty two children, but there are no records ... of his marriage ... [to any of] his "companions." ... Ishwari's grave is still there in Hansi, as is Manu's, since she eventually converted to Islam-but who will account for the others?-How will such accounting happen?

In her recent research on "colonial companions"-consorts of British colonial servants-in the eighteenth century, Durba Ghosh has argued that in much of the existing historiography of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent the figure of the "native" female companion is "presumed" but "specific information about the women themselves" is missing. Consequently, as Ghosh puts it, none of the existing accounts of "the Anglo-Indian encounter can be extended to describe the quotidian lives of 'native' women and the Europeans with whom they cohabited." I begin my discussion of native women in colonial discourse with Ghosh's work because her observations on the colonial archive touch on issues that are central to the concerns of this book, that is, the appearance/disappearance, visibility/invisibility, and centrality/marginalization of women, especially women of nondominant groups, within written history.

Ghosh herself seems to approach the absence of "colonial companions" from written history mainly as a "problem of sources"-the combined effects of the practices of partial naming and name changing of native subjects in general and the silence of native women in particular in colonial records, which makes it difficult to retrieve "subaltern subjects from the archives." Another recent work, in which the author admits to drawing on sources that conventional historians "normally avoid and consider unworthy of discussion," similarly points to the problem of the disappearing "companion" of Europeans in eighteenth-century India. And yet, as the research of these writers demonstrates, the information on native women in colonial archives is not insignificant in volume even if it is dissatisfying in terms of detail. In other words, the marginalization of colonial companions within the written history of colonial rule in the subcontinent cannot be simply a consequence of lack of information about them. Besides, are we to assume that a more complete or greater presence within the colonial archive, or, indeed, the expansion of the archive itself to incorporate other, perhaps less conventional historical sources, as Sripantha would have it, would have guaranteed more visibility and voice for colonial companions in the official history of colonial India? Or does their absence or insignificance as subjects point to the need for a more complex understanding of the connection between what archives carry and historical accounts foreground beyond the matter of the presence or lack of adequate information or the scope and definition of archives? Indeed, not to beg the question, why should we care about colonial companions at all?

Ghosh is well aware of some of the questions that frame, or ought to frame, any project of recovery. For she also writes, rather provocatively, that "the histories of these women, who lived with, married or were the sexual partners of Europeans is ... [treated as] tangential [in the existing historiography]." Taking up this latter suggestion, which inheres in her work, and anticipating something of the arguments I make later in the book regarding the problem of the invisibility or victim image of Muslim women in the written history of late colonial Bengal, I would propose that the marginalization, if not disappearance, of colonial companions-many of whom were Muslim and hence of particular interest to the current project-within the existing historiography of colonial India should not be treated as an oversight that simply awaits correction but as symptomatic of a tendency to present sexual relationships as epiphenomenal to (colonial) history, the mere by-products of the physical needs of European men stationed in the colonies without access to the company of European women, that systematically devalues the sexual and domestic labor of native women and the significance of these relationships as constitutive of the social fabric of colonial India.

As the following discussion will show, in the first century of British colonial rule in the subcontinent, relationships between native women and British or other European men were in fact central to the very reproduction of the East India Company's workforce in an alien world. While relationships with women from aristocratic families helped forge important political connections for the Company's servants, liaisons with women of lesser status-some of whom may have been "slaves ... [who received] their freedom on the death of their master"-also provided a host of quotidian services and comforts that were taken for granted but invaluable. Neither the relationships nor the women involved in them should be treated as incidental pleasures of the colonial enterprise, notwithstanding what an uncritical reading of colonial archives-which undercuts the importance of native women and their sexual and domestic labor-might suggest to us.


Until well into the eighteenth century, the English East India Company (henceforth, the Company), founded in 1600, was merely one of several European companies trading in Asia within a dense competitive network that also involved European free traders and Armenian and other diasporic merchants. By all accounts, the English company was not the most successful among the European joint stock enterprises. Until the 1740s, that distinction belonged to the Dutch East India Company (known as VOC), which had established early control over the lucrative spice trade based in the Malay archipelago. What marked a reversal of fortunes for the English company in the subcontinent was not so much a windfall in trading as a crucial battle that it fought and won against the minor nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, in Palashi (also known as Plassey in British sources), Bengal, in 1757. Indeed, Palashi not only changed the position of the English East India Company in South Asia but ushered in a major change in the geopolitical and economic position of Britain in the world. For the plunder that followed the victory at Palashi, and the subsequent accession of the Company to the diwani (stewardship) of Bengal in 1765, initiated a most spectacular transfer of wealth from the subcontinent to Britain, estimated to have totaled between a hundred million and a billion pounds over the next few decades. This infusion of funds allowed Britain, first and foremost, to pay off its national debt (most notably to the Dutch), "leaving her [it] nearly free from overseas indebtedness when it came to face the great wars" with its chief competitor, France, beginning in 1793." Some would even argue that the "gentlemanly capitalism" of the East India Company was more influential than industrialization in shaping Britain's imperialism in the eighteenth century. In time, the continued plunder of Bengal, now increasingly disguised as commercial ventures and tribute, would underwrite a sixfold increase in public expenditures in Britain between 1792 and 1815 and a resultant tremendous boost to British industrial development. What is more, the acquisition of Bengal provided the British with a crucial territorial foothold that facilitated all its subsequent conquests, eventually creating an empire that would, in turn, supply vital demographic and fiscal resources for Britain's overseas adventures and ensure its hegemonic status in the world throughout the nineteenth century.

In the 1770s, however, Britain's dominance of the world was far from a fait accompli. The outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 and the capture of seven West Indian islands by France signaled a (temporary) loss of Britain's commercial and military hold over the Atlantic. Access to the vast resources of Bengal, and through it to those of large parts of the subcontinent, was thus of critical and increasing importance to Britain in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Not surprisingly, it was around this time that British attitudes and official policies toward the subcontinent and its peoples and cultures underwent a significant change.


Unlike their predecessors, Company employees who came to the subcontinent in the late eighteenth century were sent not just to trade but to lay the foundations of a lasting empire. They were, therefore, required to "think and act like ... Asians." Indeed, in these early years of Company rule, "going native"-widely understood in Britain to be both pleasurable and profitable even if not quite respectable-was often not so much a matter of choice for Company representatives as one of political necessity. It gave the Company legitimacy in the princely courts and allowed it to successfully secure trading rights and alliances to further its interests. Moreover, as William Dalrymple recently pointed out in his study of eighteenth-century Hyderabad, the continued relationships between women in the household of the Nizam and those in the households of East India Company officers were of seminal importance in this process of building and brokering political relationships.

The intellectual content of this shift in attitude is reflected in the works of early orientalist scholars such as William Jones, Henry T. Colebrooke, William Carey, Nathaniel Halhed, and Charles Wilkins, which are marked by a certain drive to accumulate and organize knowledge about the subcontinent-its languages, culture, and history. Understanding Indian culture was to be the basis for a "sound Indian administration," and mastering local languages was a key element in this process since it would reduce, if not eliminate, British dependence on local informants and translators over time. As Gauri Viswanathan puts it,

Underlying Orientalism [the official policy of early British rule] was a tacit policy of what one may call reverse acculturation, whose goal was to train British administrators and civil servants to fit into the culture of the ruled and to assimilate them thoroughly into the native way of life.... [The] exhaustive research [produced by the orientalists] had ambitious goals ranging from the initiation of the West to the vast literary treasures of the East to the reintroduction of the natives to their own cultural heritage.... [But] there is no denying that behind Orientalism's ... immense scholarly achievements ... lay interests that were far from scholarly.

Thus, while much has been made of both the "benign influence" of orientalist scholars and the "new kind of civil servant" associated particularly with the administration of Warren Hastings, especially their admiration and affinity for Indian languages and cultures, this new appreciation must be located within both an insistent logic of empire building as a means of realizing Britain's ambitions to outwit and dominate its European competitors and perhaps a somewhat uncertain and defensive moment in that larger process.

While orientalist scholars made significant contributions to the fields of philology, archaeology and history, they were curiously silent on the specific forms of inequality that existed in contemporary Indian society. When they did address issues such as sati, they typically privileged the textual position on such practices and the interpretations of the indigenous literati rather than studying the customs as they were actually practiced. The orientalists were, thus, not only "recuperating" knowledge about India's past but also adjudicating which "facts" and what sources were authentic and significant and what ought to count as culture and what as atrocity, setting the course of future debates in the process, especially debates over Hindu culture and women's position within it.

For a vast majority of the new class of civilian officials who arrived in the subcontinent in the last three decades of the eighteenth century, however, the colonies still represented an opportunity to indulge in the kind of opulent lifestyle that they could not possibly have afforded in Britain. By all accounts, the East India Company representatives in the eighteenth century typically amassed great personal fortunes, lived lavishly, emulated the lifestyles of the local aristocracy, and even called themselves nabobs. As the following doggerel popular at that time suggests, a key element in going native was the company of native women, who thus acquired a new importance in contemporary British discourse.

We are sure to find something blissful and dear And that we are far from the lips we love We make love to lips that are near.

Travelogues and memoirs written around this time routinely invoked images of untold riches and an "erotic East," dotted with seraglios teeming with languid, dark-skinned "syrens" and seductive nautch girls, where "prostitution was a perfectly respectable profession" and women understood "in perfection all the arts and wiles of love, ... [were] capable of gratifying any tastes, and in face and figure ... [were] unsurpassed by any women in the world." Other stories conjured up pictures of helpless women imprisoned in harems, widows sacrificed as sati, and women acting as devdasis who were forced to "sell sex in order to earn revenues for the upkeep of the holy places." As a result, eighteenth-century English attitudes toward Indian women often revealed "a curious mix of erotic fascination and a missionary zeal to rescue them from their societal prison." In the process, the English secured for themselves a self-proclaimed image as saviors and civilizers.

Records show that many Company servants and officers took native mistresses, some had bibis (or "common-law" wives), and some maintained harems or zenanas inhabited by multiple women. According to one eighteenth-century observer of Calcutta society, even ordinary "writers" (clerks) maintained seraglios, although their incomes could hardly have supported such an expenses. While the policy of active encouragement of cohabitation with native women-in vogue in the early years of the Company's presence in the subcontinent-was on the wane by the end of the eighteenth century, even as late as 1814 we find an anonymous British commentator who visited Bengal writing about "exquisitely formed ... hindoostanee women"-a term he used to refer to "both Hindoos and Moslems"-who were like a "cluster of delights." He surmised that "three parts of ... [the unmarried British officials retained] concubines." Indeed, the practice seems to have been common enough even in the early nineteenth century to warrant a whole section of advice in a contemporary guidebook for Company servants on "how to keep a native woman" written by a certain Capt. Thomas Williamson who had spent a considerable length of time in Bengal. Williamson's account reveals something of the quotidian practicalities involved in these interracial relationships, albeit from the British male point of view: Native companions were supposedly faithful; they had clean personal habits; they were not very likely to steal; they cooked, cleaned, and procured provisions; and, most important, they provided "invaluable" attention during times of sickness. However, Williamson also warns his readers that, despite all their positive qualities, native women could be violent, unpredictable, given to opulence, and prone to peculiar habits-signaling that, while interracial cohabitation was thought to be practical, even inevitable, under the circumstances, by the beginning of the nineteenth century native women were increasingly considered less than ideal companions in the dominant British discourse on colonial domesticity.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Writing Difference 1

1. The Colonial Cast: The Merchant, the Soldier, the "Writer" (Clerk), Their Lovers, and the Trouble with "Native Women's" Histories 27

2. The Politics of (In)visibility: Muslim Women in (Hindu) Nationalist Discourse 48

3. Negotiating Modernity: The Social Production of Muslim-ness in Late Colonial Bengal 78

4. Difference in Memory 133

Conclusion: Connections 196

Notes 205

Bibliography 287

Index 331

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