Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'Your Woman Is a Very Bad Woman': Revisiting Female Deviance in Colonial Fiji

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'Your Woman Is a Very Bad Woman': Revisiting Female Deviance in Colonial Fiji

Article excerpt


How is one to deconstruct colonial and patriarchal constructions of female deviance? What apparatus can we use to rouse the subaltern subject who silently sleeps within an oppressive, discursive memory? Is it possible to undo history's spell on 'bad women' by repositioning the focus from moralistic accounts of rule-breaking events to historical circumstance? This article grapples with these questions by relating deviance, 'a matter of interpretative judgment occurring in an established historical, cultural and situational context', (2) to two anecdotal fragments fleetingly noted in colonial records in Fiji, anecdotes yearning for a fitting context, anecdotes refusing to be dismissed as 'the residuum of a dismembered past'. (3) The first one appears as a short entry in a 'Prisons Office Report' reprimanding indigenous Fijian woman, Davilo, for procuring abortion in 1884. (4) The second anecdote surfaces as a one-line notice in 'The Death Register of 1909' recounting the demise of indentured Indian woman, Sukhrania, the 'very bad woman' shunned for prostituting herself. (5) These fragments present Davilo and Sukhrania as 'deviant' because they infringed laws and standards instituted by the British Colonial administration, the Native Council, churches and patriarchal society in Fiji. They also disclose the power of records 'to impose control and order on transactions, events, people and societies through the legal, symbolic, structural and operational power of recorded communication'. (6) By honing in on the events of abortion and prostitution and the punishment incurred for disobeying societal norms--Davilo's two-year imprisonment in the Suva Gaol (7) and Sukhrania's horrific murder in the cane fields at Navutoka Estate (8)--the authorities explicitly condemned women who deviated from colonially and patriarchally imposed norms by permanently scarring them in the written records.

Indeed, we could passively accept the murky deviant blot inflicted upon Davilo and Sukhrania and succumb to representations of female subjects as abrupt side events awkwardly sandwiched within the big event of historical scholarship, or we could turn to the convergent trajectories of minor and feminist history for a methodology to 'make the minuscule grain of history visible'. (9) For instance, the minor historian's fascination with the 'fine details of social existence' (10) can facilitate the resurrection of 'quasi-events that lie half-forgotten

in the lower depths and are deemed to be minor because they have failed the test of significance of the major event'. (11) In a similar way, feminist history, ethnography and anthropology, positioned outside and often in opposition to 'big' (patriarchal) events, are founded on the 'fiction of restoring lost voices'. (12) With these intersecting methodologies as the backdrop for this article, I set out to recreate Davilo and Sukhrania's lived experiences from severed fragments. The primary intention here is to explore how two very different representations of female deviance can be re-evaluated when they 'relate to a context'. (13) As Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven explain: 'Once we grant that deviance is purposeful behavior, devoid neither of mind nor of motive, the problem in explaining deviance and in explaining particular forms of deviance, is to identify the features of social context which lead people to defy societal norms and which lead people to defy the particular norms they do'. (14) Although we will never really know why Davilo and Sukrahnia chose to 'go against the grain', it is possible to conclude that these acts of survival were triggered by the desperate circumstances arising from colonial and patriarchal domination. When such instances of 'female deviance' are closely analyzed using a variety of contemporary theories, one may be able to shift culpability from Davilo and Sukhrania to the enforcers of an oppressive colonial/patriarchal system.

Historicizing Women's Resistances: Colonization and Indenture in Fiji

Although Davilo and Sukhrania engaged in unrelated acts of 'deviance' in an overlapping yet dissimilar social context, marked by differentials in deviance, such as ethnicity, location and employment status, they were similarly pigeonholed as 'bad' or 'immoral' women. …

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