Two images of India that are recognisable to people today in both Britain and the USA are those of poverty and mystery. What ‘sells’ a country like India to the West, as seen in tourism advertisements for example, is its ‘exotic culture’ in the context of its economic poverty. In her exoticism and her misery, the ‘Indian woman’ has embodied the subcontinent itself: attracting and repelling at the same time, she is as absent in the construction of her image as India has been. As Said says: “in discussions of the orient, the orient is all absence, whereas one feels the orientalist and what he [sic] says as presence”. Said’s quote is significant because, as Billie Melman has shown, although he uses examples of the construction of women in literature as descriptive illustrations of orientalist discourses, he does not incorporate an analysis of gender into his conceptual approach. Liddle and Joshi, for example, show how gender formed one of the pillars on which imperialism was built, and that the divisions of gender mediated the structure of imperialism; and Sangari and Vaid demonstrate that both the coloniser and the colonised used the image of Indian women and the notion of Indian tradition in relation to gender to contain political and cultural change in both Britain and India. Although this orientalist discourse was largely constructed by men, Western women also contributed to it.

Feminism, Imperialism and Orientalism: The Challenge of the ‘Indian Woman’

Ramusack identifies the approach of most Western feminists of the time as “maternal imperialists”, including those who supported Indian nationalism but still believed that the colonial government improved the condition of women. As Jayawardena makes clear, they saw Indian women as their special burden, and saw themselves as the agents of progress and civilisation. The subject Indian woman in a decaying colonised society was the model of everything they were struggling against and was thus the measure of Western feminists’ own progress. British feminists saw Britain as the centre of both democracy and feminism, and when they claimed political rights they also claimed the right to participate in the empire, seeing female influence as crucial for the empire’s preservation. They sought power for themselves in the imperial project, and used the opportunities and privileges of empire as a means of resisting patriarchal constraints and creating their own independence.

The truth.

(via mehreenkasana)

 
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