Sunday, January 20, 2013

Colonialism and Gender

Mrinalini Sinha's Colonial Masculinity: The 'Manly Englishman' and the 'Effeminate Bengali' in the Late Nineteenth Century, which I have only glimpsed in pages in Google books, and am yet to read,  shares a them with Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed, which I have read.

I'll quote at length from Leila Ahmed, who writes about Egypt:

The thesis just outlined - that the Victorian colonial paternalistic establishment appropriated the language of feminism in the service of its assault on the religions and cultures of Other men, and in particular on Islam, in order to give an aura of moral justification to that assault at the very same time as it combated feminism within its own society - can easily be substantiated by reference to the conduct and rhetoric of the colonizers.  The activities of Lord Cromer are particularly illuminating on the subject, perfectly exemplifying how, when it came to the cultures of other men, white supremacist views, androcentric and paternalistic convictions, and feminism came together in harmonious and actually entirely logical accord in the service of the imperial idea.

Cromer had quite decided views on Islam, women in Islam, and the veil.  He believed quite simply that Islamic religion and society were inferior to the European ones and bred inferior men.   The inferiority of the men was evident in numerous ways, which Cromer lists at length.

For instance: "The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic;  he loves symmetry in all things....his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism.  The mind of the Oriental on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry.   His reasoning is of the most slipshot description."

Cromer explains that the reasons "Islam as a social system has been a complete failure are manifold." However, "first and foremost", he asserts, was its treatment of women.   In confirmation of this view he quotes the words of the preeminent British Orientalist of his day, Stanley Lane-Poole: "The degradation of women in the East is a canker that begins its destructive work early in childhood, and has eaten into the whole system of Islam."

Whereas Christianity teaches respect for women, and European men "elevated" women because of the teachings of their religion, Islam degraded them, Cromer wrote, and it was to this degradation, most evident in the practices of veiling and segregation, that the inferiority of Muslim men could be traced. Nor could it be doubted that the practices of veiling and seclusion exercised "a baneful effect on Eastern society.  The arguments in the case are, indeed, so commonplace that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them."

It was essential that Egyptians "be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of western civilization",  Cromer stated, and to achieve this, it was essential to change the position of women in Islam, for it was Islam's degradation of women, expressed in the practices of veiling and seclusion, that was the "fatal obstacle" to the Egyptian's "attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization."; only by abandoning those practices might they attain "the mental and moral development which he [Cromer] desired for them."

Even as he delivered himself of such views, the policies Cromer pursued were detrimental to Egyptian women.    The restrictions he placed on government schools and his raising of school fees held back girls' education as well as boys'.   He also discouraged the training of women doctors.   Under the British, the School for Hakimas, {founded 1832} which had given women as many years of medical training as the men received in the School of Medicine, was restricted to midwifery.   On the local preference among women for being treated by women, Cromer said, "I am aware that in exceptional cases women like to be attended by female doctors, but I conceive that throughout the civilized world, attendance by medical men is still the rule."

However, it was in his activities in relation to women in his own country that Cromer's paternalistic convictions and his belief in the proper subordination of women most clearly declared themselves.  This champion of the unveiling of Egyptian women was, in England, founding member and sometime president of the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage.  Feminism on the home front and feminism directed against white men was to be resisted and suppressed; but taken abroad and directed against the cultures of colonized peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served and furthered the project of the dominance of the white man.
 Leila Ahmed goes into this further and tells us:
Anthropology, it has often been said, served as a handmaid to colonialism.  Perhaps it must also be said that feminism, or the ideas of feminism, served as its other handmaid.
 Since the above is likely to result in responses like, this is a prelude to jingoistic nationalism, or signals a romantic but impossible attachment to a past that can never return, and other such remarks, let me quote Leila Ahmed some more.

The idea (which still often informs discussions about women in Arab and Muslim cultures and other non-Western world cultures) that improving the status of women entails abandoning native customs was the product of a particular historical moment and was constructed by an androcentric colonial establishment committed to male dominance in the service of particular political ends.  Its absurdity and essential falseness become particularly apparent (at least from a feminist point of view) when one bears in mind that those who first advocated it believed that Victorian mores and dress, and Victorian Christianity, represented the ideal to which Muslim women should aspire.

...My argument here is not that Islamic societies do not oppress women.  They did and do; that is not in dispute.  
Rather, I am here pointing to the political uses of the idea that Islam oppressed women and noting that what the patriarchal colonialists identified as the sources and main forms of women's oppression in Islamic societies was based on a vague and inaccurate understanding of Muslim societies.  This means, too, that the feminist agenda for Muslim women as set by Europeans - and first devised by the likes of Cromer - was incorrect and irrelevant.    It was incorrect in its broad assumptions that Muslim women needed to abandon native ways and adopt those of the West to improve their status; obviously Arab and Muslim women need to reject (just as Western women have been trying to do) the androcentrism and misogyny of whatever culture and tradition they find themselves in, but that is not at all the same as saying they have to adopt Western culture or reject Arab culture and Islam comprehensively.
Ahmed notes some of the reforms improving women's situation in various Muslim countries, but points out that they were imposed by upper- and middle- class political leaders, and may not be durable.  "Possibly, reforms pursued in a native idiom and not in terms of the appropriation of the ways of other cultures would have been more intelligible and persuasive to all classes and not merely to the upper and middle classes, and possibly,  therefore, they would have proved more durable."

PS: aside, here is where Mahatma Gandhi, by abandoning even middle class clothing, and dressing like the masses, making himself be one of them and adopting themes intelligible to the Hindu masses (if not the Muslims), was a reformer par excellence.