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Gender in Early Colonial India

Part II Paper 26, Week Two. Topic 3: Imperial Transitions: Race, Gender and Culture c. 1757 – 1840.

Why and how was the status of women significant for early colonial reformers?

Studies into women in early colonial India have had a growing place in the historiography since the 1980s. Initially focussing on the European female in a colonial context, today there exist a number of in-depth studies into the importance of gender in the context of early colonial rule. At a time when women’s voices were seldom heard in the public sphere, their status, and the ways in which it was to be protected or enforced, became a key issue for contemporary men. British men could justify their own imposed rule by claiming it was for the protection of women. Native men could take interest in the position of women as a means of protecting traditional identities, or as an act of subversion to British rule. This essay seeks to outline how and why early colonial reformers chose to use women in their discourse, and to show the huge impact this made both in the colonies and back home.

From a British perspective the treatment of women by native societies was coming to be thought of as directly correlating to how advanced and ‘civilised’ that society was. Thus the people of Tahiti, who treated their women folk well, were believed to be superior to the Maori who excessively burdened their women, and committed violence against them. By the time of early British rule in India then it was established that women, or at least higher class women, ought to be protected from the rigours and harsher side of life, as were their European counterparts.

A good example of how this worked in practice can be seen in British reactions to the practice of ‘sati’, a Hindu custom whereby the widow of a recently deceased man would volunteer to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Modern research has shown that before colonial rule it was a relatively rare practice, and confined to the higher castes. However contemporary British journals such as the ‘Missionary Register’ framed their accounts in such a way as could not fail to incite horror. In the early years of the nineteenth century the Missionary Register stated: ‘Let every Christian woman who reads the following statement, pity the wretched thousands of her sex who are sacrificed in India to a cruel superstition…’ Eyewitness accounts from respectable Europeans, such as Francois Bernier served only to highlight the gruesome nature of sati.

“It is true, however, that I have known some of these unhappy widows shrink at the sight of the piled wood; so as to leave no doubt on my mind that they would willingly have recanted, if recantation had been permitted by the merciless Brahmens; but those demons excite or astound the affrighted victims, and even thrust them into the fire.” – Francois Bernier, 1667. 

The implication here is that India is being held back from modernization by clinging to these outdated ‘superstitions’. Sati provided the British with another reason for insisting that religious law be codified. In principal the British acceptance of native law seemed a sign of fair practice. In reality however such formalization of laws which had once been flexible made things more difficult for native peoples in India seeking redress. On the issue of sati British officials used less known scripture framed by the likes of Ram Mohan Roy to try and curtail its use; for example in 1813 sati’s voluntary status was cited as justification by the British for outlawing it for girls under the age of 16, or for women who were pregnant or intoxicated, as they were not deemed capable of making such a decision. Here we see how a way of rule, seeming to agree with custom and tradition, but in fact making major changes under its banner, is tried out and refined using the issue of women as a cover. 

The status of women was thus an important issue for native men too. Sati was something that had its fate discussed and, ultimately, decided by men. There is evidence that as the British began to restrict its use, some widows came under increasing family pressure to go through with it, a defiant act of traditionalism in the face of British ‘modernity’. The number of recorded instances of sati certainly rose; in 1815 there were 378 cases, by 1818 this had risen to 839. Until it was finally outlawed in British India in 1829 it could serve as a constant source of antagonism, made worse only by its close association with tradition and religion. Women were rarely involved in the discussion, unless their words were recounted by European men, often detailing how they seemed to have been drugged, or were simply too fearful not to go through with it. Else European women might be encouraged to campaign on behalf of their colonial cousins, as Ward’s ‘Farewell Letters’ put it: ‘these females doomed to a horrible death’. Primarily however women were excluded; this was a discourse about them, not one for them to participate in.

If sati provided a platform for native and European men to disagree, popular culture provided one on which they had common ground. Sumanta Banerjee describes how before colonial rule Bengali women found entertainment in songs, such as agamani and vijaya songs sung in celebration of the goddess Durga Puja. Other categories of songs such as the kheur which were lively and lighthearted, often somewhat risqué in nature. As the nineteenth century got underway the rising Bengali elite, the bhadralok, began to take exception to these forms of entertainment. Increasingly members of the bhadralok received a British style education, and modeled themselves on British elites, wearing western style clothing for example. In this they began to form self identity along the same principles of hard work and moral purity of the British middle classes. As a result of this more emphasis was placed on women’s moral worth, and opposition to such popular entertainment grew. Here we see British cultural values appropriated by the educated sectors of the Bengali population, and applied against what they viewed as their own ‘low’ culture.

This is an example of a shifting awareness of the definition of status. Before colonial intervention higher caste women were kept separate from men. For example Hindu women in a zanana would cover their faces when a man entered the room, and would not go outside unchaperoned. However the arrival of the Europeans sees an increasing emphasis on internalized behaviour, as well as its outer manifestation as a marker of status. Women’s clothing for instance became an important issue. The wearing of a sari represented a continuation of traditional practice, and it was the norm for wives to continue wearing it even when their husbands adopted the western mode of dress. Yet the introduction of more substantial undergarments could be said to reflect the concern with morality. 

Women’s status could attract the attention of early colonial reformers in other ways. Protestant missionaries for example focused on the problems of nudity amongst lower caste converts to Christianity. Under customary law women from these castes could not cover their upper bodies. However upon conversion the idea of demure clothing spread quickly and women rebelled against what was expected of them. In Travancore in the 1820s Christianized Nadar women were beaten and stripped in the streets for wearing the Nair breast cloth. Under pressure local rulers, such as maharaja of Madras, made concession and allowed Nadar women to wear the kuppayam, the traditional tight fitting jacket worn by Syrian Christians. Whilst many Nadar women continued to flout such rulings, and wear the Nair cloth regardless, it does show how European men could use women as a vehicle to prove their own influence in early colonial India. Schools were set up to teach Nadar girls how to make European style lace, the income from which allowed them to buy their freedom from their landlords. Outside religion, under the control of men, could thus subvert the traditional power structure.

Women themselves however rarely gained from early colonial intervention. Nirmala Banerjee in her essay on working women in colonial Bengal describes how the female workforce was made worse off. British legislation on the cloth industry for example saw a huge decline in the number of spinners. In 1812-13 there were 330,000 spinners in the Patna and Gaya districts. By the time of the 1881 census there were only 200,000 spinners in the whole of Bengal. Artisans were finding themselves discriminated against, such as the singers who were now falling foul of the bhadralok expectations of women, Women workers were pushed into the agricultural sector, or out of work altogether. This again may reflect the new acceptance of British moral culture amongst Bengali men, suggesting that women’s status was a way in which both groups of men could find common ground over.

The status of British women was also significant for early colonial reformers. Upper and middle class women arrived in India had to be protected from the natives, for example the importance of wearing full dress, including flannel undergarments, was stressed. If women did not presumably they were open to moving backwards in terms of civilized behaviour. They were used as an example to the increasingly westernized section of Indian men of the way their own women should behave. Also their safety and protection formed a means of justifying harsh and restrictive sanctions against the Indian population, in the aftermath of the Indian mutiny for example.

Sometimes the status of women could act as justification for a lack of reform. European men for example might describe in their accounts the health and vitality of women’s bodies, rather than highlighting the fact it is their lack of clothing that allows them to observe this. Cohn points out that European’s often cited the difference in skin colour as a reason as to why it was less shocking to see a half naked Indian than it would be to see a similarly attired fellow European. In this context Indian women are framed as ‘exotic’ and perhaps excused from the reforming zeal of the Europeans around them.

In conclusion the status of women was very significant for early colonial reformers. By flagging up instances of oppression of women they found justification for enforcing their own rule. The reverse is also true; instances where native women were treated well provided justification for allowing the continuation of some traditional and religious practices. Women’s status provided ways in which the British could show their authority; the ultimate outlawing of sati for instance. At the same time it could give British men and their Indian counterparts common ground; the education of Bengali women was something strove for by missionaries and the Bhadralok alike. Overall the status of women was an issue which gave early colonial reformers a platform from which they could prove the need for, and the success of their reforms, thus allowing them to widen the scope of their activities. 


  • Ghosh, Durba. "Gender and Colonialism: Expansion or Marginalization?" The Historical Journal 47, no. 3 (2004): 737-55. 
  • Sangari, Kumkum, and Sudesh Vaid. Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 
  • Documents on ‘sati’ at the following website: 
  • Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. 
  • Mani, Lata. Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 

Supervision Comments - Overall, an engaging exploration of the topic that touches on all of the major themes. The conclusion is particularly clear and strong. You might perhaps focus a bit on writing style: some of your important points are lost in slightly confusing syntax. For revision, read the introduction to Malavika Kasturi's book on Rajput lineages, Embattled Identities, which deals with another key colonial intervention around gender, female infanticide. Comparing the anti-infanticide campaigns to those against sati suggests that sati, as a less-followed practice than infanticide presented a soft target to early reform efforts. You should definitely include more about the Utilitarians and Liberal reformers and the battle between Orientalists and Anglicists over how British India should be ruled.


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