Indian Women: A Paradox?

By Anjum Altaf 

Bruised and battered as Indian women might be (psychologically, not physically as the poll on this blog suggests), there is another side to Indian femininity reflected in the myths of powerful goddesses. I came across an interesting perspective on this in David Shulman’s review (A Passion for Hindu Myths, NYRB, Nov. 19, 2009) of the new book by Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History:

Sometimes the history of India looks like a story about endless waves of virile invaders from the north-northwest – Scythians, White Huns, Afghans, Turks, and, most recently, the British – who slowly grow soft and decadent under the insidious influence of the dreamy, langorous, mystically inclined Hindus…. [But according to Doniger] India’s astonishing talent for absorbing and transforming the peoples pouring in from outside, seen through a Hindu lens, has nothing to do with any softening or melting down of a hard, preexisting monolithic culture; it is, rather an active process of selection and pragmatic recycling, with the female principle – mare, queen, dancing girl, or goddess – driving the rather helpless (often foreign) male.

I was reminded that the same process was underway with the British as documented by William Dalrymple in The White Mughals. At the beginning of the nineteenth century one in three British men were living with or married to an Indian woman and according to one English description of some, they “wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians, if not more; and, having come to this country early they have formed opinions and prejudices, that make them almost natives.”

Of course, as we well know, the magic of absorption failed for the first time in the case of the British and there was a decisive turning point recorded also by Dalrymple in The Last Mughal. This culminated in the revolt of 1857 followed by a growing demand for the British to quit India. Dalrymple attributes this change to two major causes: First, that in 1803 the status of the British changed from being just one of the contending powers in India to its sole rulers giving rise to the arrogance of superiority. Second, the arrival of evangelical Christian missionaries with a low opinion of Indian ‘heathens’ in need of salvation led to the growth of Indian resentment. The humiliations inherent in the ‘White Man’s Burden’ changed the dynamic from one of absorption to one of antagonism.

I suppose if I had read Dalrymple’s books earlier I might have been convinced by this explanation. But I hadn’t; instead I had read GS Cheema’s The Forgotten Mughals: A History of the Later Mughals of the House of Babur and had extracted a different explanation from it. In his book, Cheema has insightful observations about the forgotten British – the English women:

In the old days, there were very few European women and the officers of the Company rarely went ‘home’ on leave. Usually they returned only on superannuation or when compelled by ill health. In India they lived like the Indian umara, and took to wife Indian ladies who were sometimes ladies of quality. From them they learnt the language and customs of the people, and acquired a much more sympathetic understanding of the complexities of the Indian world.

The gentlemen of the old school “maintained Indian households with bibi-ghars and were perfectly at home in Persian and Hindustani.” For example, Lt-General Sir David Ochterlony, the first Resident at the court of Shah Alam II (1759-1806) lived the life of an oriental ameer “complete with hookah, oriental robes and a bibi-ghar well stocked with dusky beauties.” Ochterlony, who had been away from England for over 50 years, had thirteen Indian wives and every evening he escorted all of them around the Mughal capital, each on the back of her own elephant. Ochterlony’s assistant William Fraser had six or seven wives – the shocked remark about the men in whiskers was about Fraser and Edward Gardner, another of Ochterlony’s assistants.

Cheema depicts the Residency as an important center of social life:

Members of the imperial family… nawabs, rajas, and courtiers of the Qila-e-Mualla would be guests at entertainments which were of the traditional type… There was no attempt to replicate English garden parties or formal dinner-balls. Liquor flowed freely. In the background could be heard the gentle gurgle of the water-pipe or hookah, while the nautch girls danced to Persian or Hindostani songs.

Cheema’s explanation of the big change in India has to do with the arrival of English women:

The bibi-ghars were shut down, concubinage went into the closet, and the mem laid down the law in her house… the onset of every cold season in India brought a number of unmarried English maidens — the ‘fishing fleet’ — who would come visiting relatives in India in the hope of hooking a husband…the easy intercourse between Indian and British officers became a thing of the past.

It is important to note a fact of history – the opening of Egypt at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Prior to the opening, ships from England had to go around the Cape of Good Hope, a journey that consumed five to six months. Access through Egypt cut the time by more than half. One consequence was a major increase in the number of British women and missionaries traveling to India.

The timing fits both the Dalrymple and Cheema explanations. I sent a tongue-in-cheek piece I had written earlier on the subject to Dalrymple but he was not convinced writing back that the alternative explanation placed too big a burden on the English woman.

Dalrymple is the historian and I am not so I am not quarreling with him but I did confirm that his long bibliography to The White Mughal does not refer to Cheema’s book. So, it is possible that he had not given this aspect much thought. I continue to think that it is a dimension that deserves more consideration. All invaders prior to the British (post 1815) came to India with few women and it was the human need for physical companionship that provided the lubricant for social interaction and gentle absorption – what Dara Shikoh captured in the evocative title of his book Majma’ al-Bahrain (The Mingling of Oceans).

One can apply the same dynamic to all the foreign jihadis that descended much later in history in Pakistan’s tribal areas at the invitation of the Americans and the Saudis to fight the Russian invaders in Afghanistan. All of them came as single males and lived with or married local women. As a result, the local tribes are now perplexed when they are asked to throw out the foreigners or to give them up. What foreigners? One can easily imagine that the situation would have been quite different had these jihadis arrived with their families much as corporate executives do when posted abroad in the globalized economy.

There is one other implication of this line of thought that upsets Wendy Doniger’s Hindu-centric female principle as the explanation for the absorption of virile invaders into a soft Indian society. If we extract the right conclusion from Cheema’s argument, we can explain virtually everything by the fact that the invaders (and traders) were men who needed female company. Before the Muslim invasions, all the Indian women were Hindu. By the time the British arrived, there were Muslim and Sikh women as well and there is no evidence the invaders were seduced disproportionately by Hindu women. The central story in The White Mughal is in fact about a Muslim woman.

The point I had tried to make in what I had written earlier was to highlight the profound contribution of Indian women to our social history, bruised and battered as they might be in their everyday lives. Imagine the latent power that has been suppressed for all this time and what it could mean if allowed to flourish in all the other fields of life – politics, economics, science, commerce, and war.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 10:43h, 02 November Reply

    Most interesting piece, SA. This should be one of the highlighted articles of your blog.

    I am very persuaded by this angle. This is partly so because I recently got engaged and I know how much easier I have found it to change myself after being a sinle guy for the last 30 years of my life and having found a life partner in the last few months.

    Most men, like all humans, need a lot of emotional support. It is a very deep need. Women provide that. And that makes it very easy for men, who can recognize the love of their women, to change to meet the desires/likes/dislikes of women.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:47h, 02 November

      Vinod: Congratulations and best wishes. I like stories of human idiosyncrasies (things that make human beings human) and was reminded of one about Nirad Chaudhuri, the celebrated author of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and The Continent of Circe.

      Originally influenced by Western ideas, he had told his father that he proposed to find his own bride as was done in the West. He spent a year in fruitless searches for a potential mate. Finally he returned to his father and asked him to find him a wife by traditional means. So he did not see the face of his bride until after the wedding.

      On his wedding night, he, then in his early 30’s, was anxious and worried that his wife would not want him to pursue his passion for collecting recordings of European classical music. This is how he himself described his first interactions with his bride:

      The horrible suspense about European music had reawakened in my mind, and I decided to make a clean breast of it at once, and look the sacrifice, if it was called for, straight in the face, and begin romance on such terms as were offered to me. I asked her timidly after a while, ‘Have you listened to any European music?’ She shook her head to say ‘no.’ Nonetheless, I took another chance and this time asked, ‘Have you heard the name of a man called Beethoven?’ She nodded and signified ‘yes.’ I was reassured, but not wholly satisfied, so I asked again, ‘Can you spell the name?’ She said slowly, ‘B,E,E,T,H,O,V,E,N.’ I felt very encouraged.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:27h, 03 November

      SA, thanks for sharing that bit from Nirad. It was hilarious and it clearly points out the irrational part of us human beings that makes us ‘human, all too human’. I have begun to develop a respect for the mystery of our irrational aspects. I have come to believe that it has something to it that the rational side cannot wholly capture and we should not try to make ourselves fully rational either. And I believe that faith is crucially hinged on that irrational part. Respect the irrational human is what I have learnt over these years.

  • Vaishali Kushan
    Posted at 17:38h, 29 July Reply

    Interesting write-up! You have given me enough information to dig deeper in this issue. I’ve noted the references provided and will write soon with my comments. For now, I feel South Asian women (not just Indian) face challenges that other parts of the women don’t. The reason given is the image that is portrait in the eyes of the World. It is assumed we are to remain secondary. It is expected from us to play the support role. Furthermore, it is assumed we must sacrifice. However, it was not the case in the ancient settings in our society where South Asian women headed political and business role, but it changed over period of time due to invasions and exchange of cultures. I would like for you to look into the history of Native American where women were chiefs but had to step back because Europeans refuse to deal with women as the head of the tribe. I can go on and on with the issue of “politics of women” in all directions (social, political, cultural, language, fashion, etc…) but for now Indian women are emerging and stepping on the World platform and will face these challenges…

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