Gender Oppression, inequality and Gender Roles In India and Southwestern United States: How British Colonial Rule and American Internal Colonialism Perpetuated Gender Roles and Oppression
Photographs serve as a historical window into the past. Sentiments, feelings and societal customs can be physically manifested through the observation of photographical images. The digital collections in the Degolyer library at SMU, contain photographs of Indian people during the period of British colonialism, and Mexican Americans during the internal colonial struggles in Southwestern United States during the 1800s and 1900s. From these photographs, the history of gender roles, gender inequality and female oppression in India and the American Southwest can be observed. Traditionally, women have been placed at the margins of society, history and culture in patriarchal societies. These male dominated societies prevented woman from having opportunities to positively influence their nations and denied them the ability to enter the public sphere. Gender oppression and Inequality created negative and often times violent environments for both Indian and Mexican American women. Gender roles, inequality and oppression were traditionally a large part of society in both Southwest United States and India, and the introduction of colonial rule and internal colonialism perpetuated the institutions and practices that caused gender oppression.
India: Religious Gender Oppression and Colonial Law.
The basis for gender oppression in India can be accounted largely by both Hinduism and Islam, the two largest religious sects during British colonialism. According to Hindu doctrine, women where created by the Brahman to provide company for the men, and to facilitate procreation, progeny and the continuation of the family lineage. (Char 42) According to the Vegas, the role of a woman was simply to support the man, and enable him to continue his family tradition. In Islam, the Quran dictates that females are secondary to men. Muslim men are allowed to hit their wives, marry multiple wives, and can even get rid of an undesirable wife. (Char 43) The role that religion plays in India is palpable, and thus it is no surprise that the doctrines of gender oppression present in both Hinduism and Islam have strong influences in society.
Before British colonization, Indian society maintained practices that were entirely gender oppressive to woman. Such practices included sati, female infanticide, and child marriage; all practices that caused suffering, pain, and even death to the woman and girls involved. Sati, a practice observed through the rituals of Hindu nations, was the act burning alive the widow of a Hindu man. (Dakkessien 112) It was widely practiced by the upper Castes during the eighteenth century. In some Indian states, how many woman a prince took to the funeral pyre with him, served as a measurement of how many achievements he had made. (Dakkessien 113) Female infanticide was the act of killing newly born female infants, or killing a female fetus through selective abortion. The practice was widely acknowledged in India and was caused by poverty, dowry system, births to unmarried women, deformed infants, lack of support services and maternal illnesses. (Liddle 523)
In the above image, two Nagar Brahmin “women” are depicted standing next to a tree in situated in an Indian plain. Close observation gives the impression that these women are actually girls. However, once a girl is married, she is deemed to woman according to Indian culture. However, these girls serve as a physical representation of the institution of child marriage present in India.
Colonization of India by the British was spurred by the East India trading companies profit driven intentions. Cotton being in abundance in India, it served as a catalyst for British invasion. The cotton supplies attracted the East India Company, who settled in India during the late 1700s. They began colonizing the Indian peoples in order to create a division of labor that could satisfy their production needs. Males in India where now subservient to a higher power, and thus women were subservient to both Indian males and British colonizers.
In 1858, the East India Trading Company transferred the rule of India to the British crown, which became the British Raj. At the start of her rain as the first Empress of India, Victoria created a British proclamation of non-interference in the customs and practices of the Indian people. However in the nineteenth century, British rulers removed Indian woman’s marriage and inheritance rights in the state of Kerala. This would serve as a bench mark for British legal influence in India. (Liddle 523)
Before and during the rule of India by the British, India implemented a hierarchal caste system, which delegated certain groups of people into different levels of status. (Char 43)The caste system was a patriarchal construct through which males observed overarching power over the female population, specifically females in a lower caste. (Betteille 490)The higher level of status denoted by the specific caste an Indian man was a part of provided him with the ability to abuse women in lower castes without consequence. The women in lower classes where subjected to violence, intimidation and public shaming in order to maintain the gender inequality. (Betteille 492)In each specific caste, the women associated where considered to be the bottom of that caste. Woman in the lowest caste, were literally the lowest members of society.
The above image represents how women where viewed as subservient to men. In the image there are two men and two women. The men are standing at the center of the picture while the women are seated at either side. The women appear to be at the feet of the men in the picture. This is symbolic of the of subservience that was expected of women in Indian society.
During British rule, the caste system became legally rigid. The British started to enumerate castes during the ten-year census and meticulously codified the system under their rule. (Liddle 524) Thus the British Raj did not spell reprieve of gender oppression for woman, but rather a stricter sense of it. The British believed that caste was the key to understanding the people of India. Caste was seen as the essence of Indian society, the system through which it was possible to classify all of the various groups of indigenous people according to their ability, as reflected by caste, to be of service to the British. While the caste system was regarded as a Hindu and societal custom, it was formed into law through British administration. Through the caste system, British rulers where able to subjugate the Indian peoples based on the caste they belonged to. (Liddle 526)By this action, men’s superiority over woman of a lower class was solidified in British colonial law. Where the British Raj succeeded in destroying institutions of gender oppression involving female infanticide and sati, it failed in releasing woman from gender oppression associated with the caste system.
The British influence in the caste system and the association of marriage served as a vehicle for gender inequality and oppression. Through British rule, male Indians in society were able to continue open gender oppression and inequality. Thus, Indian females were partitioned into an even lower role in society than was previously held before colonial rule.
The American Southwest: Gender Oppression and Roles Through Societal Structure and Internal Colonialism
In the American Southwest, the construction of female gender roles was engrained into the mind of girls at birth. While their fathers gave the boys a machete, the girls where given a metate and a malacate, stone instruments used to grind maize. With this initial act women were allocated into a feminine typecast in order to accent their perceived feminine qualities. (Schnieder 7) Gender and sex were viewed as homogenous qualities that could not be separated. Women were expected to conduct acts that were considered exclusively feminine, while the men took the roles in society that were considered masculine.
The above image contains a Mexican girl sowing on the doorstep to her home. The girl is affirming herself as a female and participating in a female orientated trade as dictated by Mexican society.
Internal colonialism in the American southwest served to propagate this sexual division of labor through the use of court mandates. In 1908, the United States Supreme Court upheld a state law that prevented women from working ten hours per day. This case, Muller vs. Oregon, upheld the law on the basis that a woman’s physical structure and performance of maternal processes prevented her from engaging in demanding labor practices. (Cases and Materials 156) Thus American law continued the female stereotype as a homely figure, with the ability to conduct feminine tasks exclusively.
For most women, marriage, motherhood, frequent pregnancies the care of large families, and the responsibility for household production molded daily existence. (Vigil 52) Labor practices included the production of food and goods that included preparing meals and sowing clothing.
The above image contains a mother taking care of her children while the children clean each other’s hair. This image is symbolic of the role that woman played in Mexican society. There is no man in the picture, suggesting that the woman’s husband is out earning for the family or engaging in the public sphere of society. Women where expected to remain home and take care of the family, while the husband goes out and engages in public works. Although their contribution to economic survival was vital, women’s social status remained secondary and supplemental to that of men.
Ever since the Spanish conquest of Mexico, women were seen as the source of evil and betrayal in society. This is due to the fact that La Malinche, a Mexican woman, became the interpreter for the Spanish conquerors, thus making their conquest possible. (Candelaria 2) This act of betrayal has influenced the thought process that any problems occurring in society are the fault of Mexican woman, a good scapegoat for a male-dominated society. (Schnieder, 3)Women were therefore confined to a life of subordination and silence at the feet of the patriarchy.
The stigma of La Malinche created an animosity towards woman that was influential in the prevention of Women’s participation in the public sphere. Women were refrained from participating in society and politics, and where not able to receive the same education that males in the society received. Women in Mexico were almost entirely restricted to the domestic sphere, as housewives and supporters dictated to them on the basis of their feminine sexual orientation. (Schnieder 4) As mothers and wives, they were expected to follow cultural, social, and political norms and stereotypes in order to fulfill the role that is imposed on them by society and which affirms them in their femininity. (Candelaria 5) This classification of woman as stay at home feminine subjects had consequences in that, any woman who raised her voice in the public sphere, possibly in a politically charged manner, ran the risk of loosing her female identity.
The prevention of Mexican women from engaging in occupations of civil life was condoned by the United States court system. In the case Bradwell vs. Illinois, The Supreme Court decided on a case involving a Mexican woman who was denied admission to the Illinois bar because she was a woman. (Cases and Materials 155)When the case was brought to the Supreme Court, Myra argued that the Fourteenth Amendment allowed women the right to practice law through the privileges and immunities clause. However, the court decided the right practice law was not provided by the clause, and thus woman were not allowed the opportunity to become lawyers. (Cases and Materials 156) In it’s language, the courts reaffirmed the gender stereotype attached to Mexican women in Mexican society. Women were stated in being naturally too timid and delicate to engage in the many masculine occupations of civil life, echoing the sentiments described in Mexican American society.
Similarities and Commonalities between Southwestern United States and India
Gender oppression and gender roles have been a part of Mexican and Indian societal tradition. In both Indian and Mexican culture, women where considered to be subservient to their male counterparts. In both cases, either by religious dictation or cultural custom, the females in society were expected to be serve as child barrers in order to propogate the family lineage of her male counterpart. In india, this was dictated by religious law, and in the American Southwest, societal customs prevented women from engaging in practices that where deemed masculine. The stigma of La Milinche created a negative attitude toward publicly engaging Mexican women, which closely paralleled the second class citizenship applied to Indian Women through the Caste system.
With the introduction of both British colonial rule, and American internal colonial domination, gender inequality was perpetuated. The British Raj not only allowed the Caste system to stand, but used it as a legal basis for Indian subjugation, thus subjucating Indian women on a larger scale than was previously dictated. Similarly, the United States Supreme Court decisions during the 1800s and 1900s reaffirmed gender stereotypes that where prevalent in Mexican American culture. So while gender roles, inequality, and oppression was traditionally prevalent facets of both Indian and Mexican American society, colonial and internal colonial rule not only continued these practices, but perpetuated them in way that adversely affected the Mexican American and Indian female populations.
Bradwell v. Illinois. 83 U.S. 130. Supreme Court of the U.S. 1872. Print.
Char, Desika. Hinduism and Islam in India: Caste, Religion, and Society From Antiquity to Early Modern Times. Princeton: Markus Weiner, 1993. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Dakessian, Marie. “Envisioning the Indian Sati: Mariana Starke’s ‘The Widow of Malabar’ and Antoine Le Mierre’s ‘La Veuve Du Malabar'” Comparative Literature Studies 36.2 (1999): 110-30. JSTOR. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Liddle, Joanna. “Gender and Colonialism: Women’s Organization Under the Raj.” Woman’s Studies Int. Forum 8.5 (1985): 521-29. 30 Apr. 2015.
Muller v. Oregon. 208 U.S. 412. Supreme Court of the U.S. 1908. Print.
Vigil, James Diego. From Indians to Chicanos: The Dynamics of Mexican American Culture. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1984. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.