Academic journal article Hecate

In Gendered Chambers: The Figure of the Indian Immigrant Woman of Colonial Malaya

Academic journal article Hecate

In Gendered Chambers: The Figure of the Indian Immigrant Woman of Colonial Malaya

Article excerpt

The act of understanding our construction as agents and subjects of social processes is itself a kind of intervention in the creation of exclusive knowledge systems. Perhaps the greatest difficulty lies in relating the ideological to the experiential; that is, of relating various symbolic constructs to the lives and actions of women, and in relating the often hegemonic ideologies produced about women (converging across region, caste and class) to existing divisions of labour and systems of production.1

This paper's epigraph is taken from Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, Kum Kum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid's definitive collection of essays on the various colonial patriarchal discourses that have shaped Indian women through history and the ways in which such discursivity can be re-cast, and it aptly encapsulates my attempt to negotiate the figure of the Indian coolie woman of Colonial Malaya by locating (and subsequently dislodging) her position within a surrounding hegemony of discourses such as gender, culture and colonialism, which layered her life within the confines of the colonialist coolie system.

Anne McClintock, on the similar subject of women in labour asserts that 'in a world where women do two-thirds of the world's work, earn 10 percent of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of the world's property, the promise of postcolonialism had been a history of hopes postponed.'2 This elusive restitution of the figure of woman in the postcolonial is also my concern. Reading and deconstructing representational narratives of the Indian coolie experience from in postcolonial Malaysia, and situated within the same construction of gender myself, do I see a promise of hope for the figure of the labouring woman, divested of the weight of colonial (and cultural) hegemonic ideology, or has postcolonialism failed to displace such gendered crates of exclusion?

Partha Chatterjee has famously argued that the nationalist project (in India) struggled 'to protect, preserve, and strengthen the inner core of national culture, its spiritual essence. No encroachments by the colonizer were to be allowed in that inner sanctum',3 and woman became the allegorical tool, as she was ancestrally connected with the home. This idea of home is linked as well, to the larger question of diaspora and identity, where the concept of home becomes almost always the lodestone in the journey of self re-collection. In the postcolonial struggle to reinvent identity, as in Chatterjee's argument, culture became even more sacrosanct and the figure of woman was in turn developed into its metaphorical holy ground, as she became the goddess who was to guard against erosions to the cradle of ancestral legacy. The Indian immigrant woman thus never really comes to us as an individual, for the sphere of gender continually pinned her beneath competing discourses of colonial and cultural domination. In the first section of this paper I look into the former as it sets the backdrop of the female experience of cooliesm, and then move on to usher in gradually the postcolonial voice in the second section, a testimony to the fact that there are never binary distinctions between the colonial and the postcolonial condition, for they share the same boundary line, one spilling over into the other.

Indian immigrant women of Malaya come to us cast in various roles that rationed their individual space upon the stage of colonial representation. Many of these women had migrated to escape the shackles of feminine subjectivity in their homeland India, some were widows who did not want to live the life that culture decreed they should in the villages of India.4 Yet when they arrived in the new land, they found that the tentacles of gender discrimination were as far reaching as in the one before. The ideology of gender drew several concentric circles around the figure of the Indian coolie woman.

Because she was not only Other but female Other, the weight of subalternity she shouldered was double. …

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