Family Law as Metaphor in Colonial Politics: A Helpful Tool in World Historical Analysis

By McVay, Pamela | World History Bulletin, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Family Law as Metaphor in Colonial Politics: A Helpful Tool in World Historical Analysis


McVay, Pamela, World History Bulletin


Let the women of a country he made virtuous and intelligent, and the men will certainly be the same. The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of the whole family are secured.--Catherine Beecher* ... when women make money, they bring benefits to the whole family, particularly the children. Thus lending to women creates a cascading effect that brings social benefits as well as economic benefits to the whole family and ultimately the entire community.--Muhammad Yunus+

The "Woman Question" has lain near the center of modernization discourse since it first began in the nineteenth century. Over the last twenty years numerous studies of 19th and 20th century imperialism have found that laws defining and dependent on personal status--that is, family law, various kinds of protective labor legislation, emancipation, and suffrage--were hotly contested in colonial regimes as diverse as India, Algeria, the Dutch East Indies, and Soviet Central Asia, to name a handful of examples. This essay will focus on the Netherlands Indies (Indonesia) and British India. Indonesian nationalists felt a particular kinship with Indian nationalists, and borrowed some of their imagery and methods, so we might expect the modernization and nationalization discourse in the two countries to be somewhat similar. (1) In addition, it is my hope that readers at every level of teaching and research will be able to access some relevant materials for their own teaching or research, and materials on British India are among the most easily located for most WHA members. The English-language literature on the histories of women, the economy, and the law is very extensive for British India, while much of the primary source literature is also in English. The history of women and the economy of late colonial Indonesia, on the other hand, is much less developed. Much of the relevant secondary literature and almost all the primary source literature are in languages (2)--Dutch and Bahasa Indonesia--that are much less commonly used by WHA members and are rarely collected even in research libraries outside the Netherlands and Indonesia. As a specialist in Dutch colonial history, I hope that choosing the Indonesian example provides readers with an introduction to the emerging English-language literature on Indonesian women's history, a fascinating but less well-known corner of world history.

Using protective legislation, imperialist governments throughout the modern period justified their rule over colonial subjects as protecting and emancipating women. It was this kind of legal intervention initiated on behalf of "native" women that Gayatri Spivak has famously characterized as a pattern of white men "saving brown women from brown men." Such imperialist interventions did not develop in a vacuum. They appeared partly in response to the complaints of the colonized (usually elite men), partly in response to the concerns of colonial administrators, and in contexts of rapid social and economic change. Tied as it typically was to industrial expansion, imperial rule often required considerable re-negotiation of the division of social and wage labor within the family. More recent scholarship has attended to the degree to which male colonial elites--the self-same "brown men" mentioned by Gayatri Spivak--mobilized for and against changes in women's legal status and opportunities in the name of protecting women and/or the nation. (3) This synthetic paper explores the role of nationalist and modernization discourse in two attempts at reforming marital laws and two attempts at creating protective legislation for women industrial workers, one of each in British India and the Netherlands Indies (henceforth Indonesia).

Reforming Marital Law--Debates over marital law were as much about ethnic identity and definitions of progress as about justice. The "Woman Question" was central not just to colonial policy but also to traditionalist, reforming, and nationalist goals of conquered peoples, and in most cases the heart of the debate lay in discussions of appropriate motherhood. …

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