Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10) 2nd Half of Class


To recap, in the first half of class, Prof Koh showed us Michael Kimmel’s video which was centered around the premises that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Prof Koh opens the second half of class by showing us W.H Auden’s “Spain 1937” about the Spanish Civil War that the modernists were involved in and proving that only someone who did not own a gun could write something like that, supporting Kimmel’s statement that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In the second half of class, we discuss this invisibility of privilege, Stoler, power and feminism with regards to Burmese Days and Jessica’s blog entry.

1. Bringing masculine power to the female.

Stoler constructs binaries of how women are supposed to be revealed. No matter how women are portrayed, they are always subject to the male subjugation of power. Jessica sees the actions of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May as bringing masculine power back to the female, therefore empowering them. One notable instance in the novel where we see Elizabeth getting close to power is the hunting scene. Elizabeth welds power when she holds the gun, a symbol of masculine power, and ‘masters’  it when she almost scores a kill with her first shot, thereby utilizing the masculine power for her own purposes.

2. Women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it. Therefore, they can never escape the patriarchal hegemony and attain true power.

Peiyi agrees to a certain extent, she thinks that Elizabeth got exactly what she wanted as she ended up in a more advantageous and powerful position- but she is still subjugated by the masculine ideologies. Her role as a memsahib is only valid within the masculine colonial discourse. However, Yuying points out that Elizabeth does not care, which reinforces Stoler’s discourse that women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it.

3. Women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle.

This also reinforces Stoler’s reading, where she states that women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle through the institution of marriage. Hence, the colonial directory regulates women’s roles and functions. Elizabeth does not possess the reflexivity or empowerment to rise above the situation- she just reinforces what has been programmed in her. In a own way, she is  also a victim. She has already transgressed the space between the country of her birth in order to create another space for her to construct a new whole identity (through marriage), but this identity only reinforces the colonial ideals of power.

4. Are the strongest opponents to feminism women themselves?

Michael Kimmel’s “privilege is invisible to those who have it” is brought into play here. The female (Elizabeth) is able to make the patriarchal system work for her through the institution of marriage, therefore giving the female some sort of power. However, this female empowerment is not universal. In comparison, Ma Hla May has more constraints due to her status as a native concubine. However, Elizabeth does not care about the plight of Ma Hla May. Indeed, Ma Hla May is her competitor. There is no universal bond of sisterhood that ties them together. As such, once Elizabeth attains the masculine power that she wants, she further subjugates and oppresses Ma Hla May and the natives. Hence, feminism is privileged, and women are the strongest opponents to feminism themselves.

5. The connotations of feminism

Prof Koh asks the class how many of us actually consider ourselves feminists, and only three people raise their hands. Kelvin says that the term feminist has a negative connotation. The notion of feminism brings to mind the radical bra-burning and man-hating feminists of the past, which are undesirable in today’s context, where womens’ rights are already pretty much established. Mr Cheng points out that it is because of this radical actions that women suffrage is pioneered today. Perhaps because we are speaking from a privileged position in the twenty-first century, we are unable to comprehend or relate to the pioneer suffragettes. In that sense, as Prof Koh says, we are complacent because we feel the battle has already been won.

6. The role of marriage in society: the social contract vs the sexual contract

The function of marriage has popped up several times in the discussion. Stoler specifically talks about marriage and how this was important in the construction of a colonial society. Elizabeth sees marriage as protection and a means to attain power. Ma Hla May does not have access to marriage with Flory due to her status as a native. However, she does have value in her use of sex and her pseudo-spousal role as a colonial concubine. Here, Prof Koh introduces the ideology of Carol Pateman to us, who argues that the social contract is first bounded upon the sexual contract. The social contract is opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right, but before one can be a father he needs to have sex first. Therefore the social contract is not founded upon patriarchy, but marriage- hence the sexual contract.


Perhaps the idea that struck me the most this week was Stoler’s argument that the construction of femininity is only valid within the patriarchal circle which is upheld by the sexual contract. This relates to Jing Xuan and Frederick’s presentation the previous week regarding power and Foucault, where power exists only when it is put into action. Feminine power can only exist within the context of masculine power, and can be only exercised when masculine power is exerted. Therefore it is not that the female is unable to break free from the male hegemony, but that feminism requires the presence of male oppression in order to exist. Without gender inequality, there would be no feminism or patriarchy to talk about in the first place. The sexual contract also reveals that one avenue of power available to women is sex, with or without the sanctity of marriage. However, sex and rape share a fine line, as Frederick mentioned in his presentation.

To conclude, Prof Koh brings up the example of the Law of Coverture in Singapore. If a man rapes his legal wife in Singapore, he is able to get away with it as under Singapore law, every woman is essentially male property and her legal rights are covered by the men. It is disturbing to note that the battle for equal female rights is still ongoing today. However, as Ambreen suggests, rather that just talking about gender inequality, we should take off the masks of privilege and concern ourselves with inequality in general.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10): Overall Summary

Topic of class + examples

The main focus of the class was on the crisis of gender in modernism; how gender issues created disorder in colonial times, especially with the importation of Englishwomen into the colonial outpost.

–         “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”

The short clip of Michael Kimmel’s lecture on gender studies screen at the beginning of the class was interesting the conceptualization of gender as an analytical framework to be understood in relation to other aspects – race, class, etc. Therefore, gender as a social construct has to be self-conceptualized by the individual. Because of the relativism in the definition of these terms, gender is subjected to the constant state of flux. Nevertheless, society still holds on to notions on how gender is performed; not only women but men too are suppressed by gender expectations.

–         Identity politics: a reflection of men’s desire for order

Performativity may be unnatural, but is not escapable and both men and women inscribe certain gender expectations and qualities in the process of normalization. Patriarchy constitutes not solely male-domination, but broadly societal domination, and in it was raised in the discussion that it is only when things are deemed ‘normal’ that the domineering hegemony can continue to assert its power. In Burmese Days, Orwell employs stock characters in the framework of satire to aid in our reading of gender. An issue raised was the portrayal of Flory as a problematic hero who struggles with his masculine identity, amongst other things. His feminine bond with nature is juxtaposed with his role as a timbre merchant which is suggestive of destruction, and perhaps masculinity. Presented as a double of Flory, virile Verrall is effeminate, but immune to punishment and like Flory he possess emotional stereotypes of women that hinders both their ability to form meaningful heterosexual relationships. Their maintenance of bachelorhood could therefore be as defense against heterosexuality: the ironic performance of masculinity to defend against it.

The replication of gender orders in raising barriers of inclusivity and exclusivity

In this week’s article, “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power”, Ann Stoler illustrates this point in outlining the role of women in reinforcing masculinity. More specifically, she posits that white women are complicit with colonialism and the gender of imperialism in the context of colonial expansionism. In the modernist texts of colonial expansion, gender is employed as an analytical framework in conjunction with other axis of representations, and we see in the texts how women are manipulated in many ways in portrayal of how certain figures are more representative of colonial power. In Passage to India and Burmese Days, for example, the English country club is portrayed as a miniature of British society, a site in which the ruling order sets up the politics of exclusion and inclusion. In this sphere, race is of the first level of exclusivity, followed by gender, making the white women second class members with no activities that are exclusive to them. The club functions as a means of keeping women nearby and out of clutches of native men, but still separate from the white men. Their role is therefore a reinforcement of colonial order and Elizabeth’s entry into Flory’s world forces him to rethink his position and reinforce his masculinity. In this social hierarchy, the power is the white women as agents of the empire is curtailed by their gendered ‘otherness’ and here it was raised the question: why do people say that the biggest opponents to feminism are women themselves?

–         White women as legalized entity vs. the native women as sexualized commodity

In the first half of the class the presenters brought up this interesting binary classification in aid of our understanding of the positions of the white and native women in the social hierarchy of colonial rule. A comparison of the two central female characters of Burmese Days reveal that Ma Hla May has more constrains set upon her than Elizabeth. Not all women are unilaterally opposed to feminism as privileged women are able to negotiate within the existing system, and one of the channels that enable them to do so is through the economy of white heterosexual marriage.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Evident in Burmese Days and Passage to India, romance escapes white heterosexual unions between men and women or is overshadowed by the economy of marriage. Marriage is important for women in the society for without which, they are non-entities in society without marriage. Marriage is for Elizabeth the only means of escaping poverty, spinsterhood and the unwelcome advances of her perpetually inebriated uncle. While marriage to Flory is not an option for Ma Hla May, who can only exist as a sexualized commodity, the only reason she wants Flory to take her back is because she wants to live the life of a white man’s mistress again.

A self-proclaimed fanatic of Candace Bushnell’s ‘Sex and the City’, I found interesting the notion raised that women are more entrapped ideologically than before with the illusion of freedom. Agreeably, the ‘single and fabulous’ women of the sitcom might even come across as feministic in their seemingly independent lifestyles in the absence of men, but each failed relationship seems to undermine their assertion of freedom and confirm that their status as women continues to not be legitimized until they enter matrimonial union with an idealized Mr. Right. Similarly, despite all the freedom Elizabeth and even Adele wish to assume in having a choice in their potential husbands breaking off engagements, they never do escape their existence as legalized entities whose legitimate status can only be affirmed, and even then to a varying degree, in colonial order through the economy of marriage.

The Fantasy of the Oriental Woman Dispelled

Ann Stoler writes in “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” that “Colonial observers and participants in the imperial enterprise appear to have had unlimited interest in the sexual interface of the colonial encounter”, and that “The tropics provided a site for European pornographic fantasies” (43). The Orient has always been sexed and sexualized as a woman, perhaps most memorably in the harems of One Thousand and One Nights. Stoler points out that the “sexual submission and possession of Oriental women by European men” easily become “graphic representations of colonial dominance” (44). She cites Edward Said, who described Orientalism as both a “male perception of the world” and a “male power fantasy” (44). This corresponds directly and obviously with the male sexual gaze of Oriental women. What Stoler insists, however, is that this sexual domination is of more symbolic than pragmatic significance.

In Chapter Four of Burmese Days, George Orwell introduces Ma Hla May, the native mistress of the European protagonist James Flory. The entire scene of sexual intercourse together with the attendant shame which Flory experiences strongly suggests the link between sexual and imperial domination. First of all, I disagree with Stoler, and find that the sexual domination of Oriental women is far from merely symbolic. It is a harsh reality with tangible consequences, and is often a facet or an extension of the injustices of imperialism. What I would like to draw attention to, however, is Orwell’s portrayal of the Oriental woman in Ma Hla May. On the surface it is a stereotypical depiction, yet it also bears interesting departures from the usual object of male European fantasy.

There is a heavy sense of disillusionment which overhangs Burmese Days. Part of this disillusionment is with the Oriental woman, the fantasy of which is dispelled. Ma Hla May is physically described as “an outlandish doll, and yet a grotesquely beautiful one” (52). While she is attributed with physical beauty, it is more of a vague and theoretical kind of beauty. There is greater emphasis on the grotesquery of her appearance, as well as the lack of femininity in her “contourless” (52) frame, at least from the European point-of-view. As with the natural landscape of Burma, Orwell sets up a contrast between the expectation of fantasy against experience of reality. Ma Hla May hardly seems attractive to Flory. She seems to bring remorse and vexation more than she does pleasure or satisfaction. Her strongest distinguishing characteristic is her covetousness, her voice is “high-pitched” (52), and the “scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil” (52) which follows her is not a pleasant fragrance, but a lingering pungence which Flory is unable to rid himself of. In the scene of shame, after having had sex with Ma Hla May, Flory “buried his face disgustedly in the pillow, which was damp and smelt of coco-nut oil” (54).

The politics of prostitution

Orwell does not seem to like women very much. In Burmese Days he inadvertantly makes the claim that all women, both colonial and colonizer class, are the same, and that women have to prostitute themselves in order to attain some worth in the eyes of the male colonizer, where prostitution involves the act of selling oneself to the male colonizer, physically or otherwise.

The white woman constantly needs to assert herself in looking for a white colonizer class husband, especially while overseas. Elizabeth embodies this in her quest to marry a man who can to make her a burra memasahib. While she seems flighty and rather shallow for jumping from white man to white man, she is merely doing what women of her race are expected to do in order to keep their self worth.

For the native woman, she is told from birth that to be a concubine of a white man is far better off than anything else she could become. The male colonizers are even encouraged to keep  or even marry native women, as they are less expensive to maintain than a female member of the colonizing country. Ma Hla May can hardly be blamed for trying to win back Flory from Elizabeth, as it has been impressed upon her all her life that to service a white colonizer accords her a status that makes her life worth living.

This implies that the one of the only forms of power that women have over men has to do with sexuality and sex. It also means that a woman’s worth is measured by whether or not she has managed to attract a male from the colonizer class. As a result, women have to prostitute themselves if they wish to attain some sort of power in a world ruled by white males.

Female sexuality in the colonies

What stood out most for me in the Stoler reading was the blatant double standards that colonialist men imposed upon the women, and in a very uni-directional way. What Stoler really highlighted in this chapter was the way women became, like the colonised, another passive ‘site’ upon which white men could designate meanings and place anxieties. Stoler talks about how women were thought to be too fragile, needing special places to live in, or jealous of the “dusky sirens” etc., and how white men saw the white women (whom they did not desire sexually) to be sexually attractive to the native men. For me, Stoler seemed to be drawing a parallel between the natives (men and women), and white women—ultimately, both groups were there to be viewed and interpreted (or misinterpreted) by the white men. The ‘truth’ of matters hardly played into colonialist decision-making or beliefs, but perceptions did.

It’s interesting to think about issues of white female sexuality in colonialism, mainly because we always think of the act of colonialism as being a very male-oriented sexual action. The ideas of penetration, staking a claim on virgin land and so on, seem to preoccupy a lot of thinking about colonialism even today, and although women are coming to be more present in colonial/postcolonial scholarship, we think less about female sexuality, especially white female sexuality.

Colonialism in different forms

I remember having read before, that Colonialism started from the periphery, that is the center of the European community within the colonialised country. As taught during A level’s history, the core of colonialism was the European men. Yet, after reading Ann Stoler’s article this week, I cannot help but wonder if this periphery refers to the European women instead. As mentioned in my post from last week, I felt that women perpetuated colonialism through their expectations of servitude from the natives and the way they maintained their beliefs about the superiority of the white men.

Stoler mentioned in the article that  the European women in colonies had “ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierachies and as agents of empire in their right.” Indeed, in Burmese days, the European women seemed to be dependent on men for survival and this is amplified in the fact that marriage served as a ticket to social power as seen in Elizabeth’s desperate atempts to marry as she sees it as a solution to her poverty. One cannot neglect the fact that she is also the character who persistently reminds Flory abeit subtly of his position and responsibility as a white man.

In class last week, it was mentioned that the influx of European women into colonies was to prevent any further increase in the number of mixed- race children, a result of European men having relationships with native women. The fact that the European women were brought into the colonies is symbolic of their positions as the “police” of white men and therefore, as agents of empire. To me then, this is suggestive of the idea that colonialism can exist in different forms.

White women as conveniently flattened

The Ann Stoler reading this week asks us to consider why the deep-seated racial anxiety on the white man’s part always has to be expressed through sexuality. While the reading suggests many different possible explanations for this like the “sexual structures [..] as antithesis of the idealized self” and “sex as the ritualistic re-enactment of the daily pattern of social dominance” (46), I felt that the reason very simply is that via a sexual discourse, the game of power becomes a very easy one to play. By conquering something – landscape, a native land, woman, treasure coves or otherwise, the white man necessarily has control over what he perceives as the weaker ‘Other’. Sexuality here therefore becomes a very useful metaphor for such a power discourse because sexual triumph is about conquest and demarcation of territory as well.

However, the complication arises as Stoler points out exactly how the white women are “rarely the object of European male desire” (44). This is because if the sexual conquest of the woman is so important in buttressing the masculinity of the white men, then why are the white women excluded from this similar violent conquest of womenfolk? It struck me that the reason is really rather simple. In a foreign land, where Europeans are few and far between, it is more important to put race before sex – in that, it is more important to subjugate the racial ‘other’ before the sexual ‘other’, simply because maintaining white supremacy is of utmost importance. By sexualizing the native women and neutering the white women, I want to suggest that white men can therefore maintain a layer of homogeneity in the way white society is portrayed. Simply put, white women are not seen as a sexual ‘other’ because women must not be perceived as sexual preys to the white men, in the natives’ eyes so as to maintain the purity of the ‘white’ class.

Yet, incidentally, I want to suggest that the subjugation of white women here is thus even more insidious. Applying the logic we have acquired from Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ a couple of weeks ago, we can see here that white women are the most utterly discriminated in the way they are neutered, desexualized, flattened and forced into the backdrop of “white” superiority, so as to prop up white masculine supremacy. Hence, while the native women are the victims of the white men’s sexual conquests, the white women are the victims of the white men’s negligence.

Perceptions and Manipulations

I found Ann Stoler’s article on “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” an interesting read, as most of the articles we have covered so far, focus on the male-centric colonial quest and do not examine in detail the role of both European and  native women in colonialism. But more than that, what really intrigued me was seeing the idea of PERCEPTIONS in play in this article.

1)  Previously, “concubinage was considered to stabilize political order and colonial health” (Stoler 48), but by the early twentieth century, “concubinage became the source of individual breakdown, racial degeneration, and political unrest” (Stoler 68).  Concubinage was thus denounced for undermining precisely what it was charged with fortifying decades earlier (Stoler 68). The practice of concubinage was no different from the past; the only thing that differed was the perception towards it, that it was now a  threat to (white) racial purity and political order.

2)  The white men’s preoccupation with their image reflected the importance of the natives’ perceptions of them. Therefore, they sought “to produce a colonial profile that highlighted the manliness, well-being and productivity of European men” (Stoler 65). As a result, this gave rise to efforts to ensure the image of white supremacy was upheld via eugenization and racial purity preserved by frowning upon miscegenation and concubinage.

Here, we see how perceptions play such a vital role in the colonial project. The white men’s obsession with presenting an image of racial superiority is attributed to having to make the natives perceive the whites as superior and thus justified in ruling them. In order to create and sustain such perceptions, actions have to be taken. Eugenization is really discrimination, but it is passed off and perceived as an action undertaken for the greater good of “safeguard[ing] European superiority” (Stoler 63). In the case of concubinage, the perception is manipulated in order to justify the action of banning it.

Thus, what is really reflected here is the insidiousness of colonialism through the power to manipulate perceptions in order to legitimate their actions.

The grass is always sexier on the other side.

There is one particular paragraph that I find a little bizarre in this week’s Stoler reading, the gist of which can be summarized in two sentences:

Although novels and memoirs position European women as categorically absent from the sexual fantasies of European men, these very men imagined their women to be desired and seductive figures to others. Within this frame, European women needed protection from the ‘primitive’ sexual urges aroused by the sight of them. (58)

The idea of the sight of the European woman arousing the “primitive” colonized reminded me of Doris Lessing’s novel I read years ago, entitled The Grass is Singing, where an all too plain married white woman in living on a farm with her husband in Africa enters into a bizarre sexual affair with her slave. If memory serves me correctly, there’s one point in the beginning of the text where the narrator says something along the lines of “Mary just could not get along with the natives.” From what I remember, the African slave makes the first move to modify the strict mistress-servant relationship when Mary faints or suddenly feels weak and is put to bed by Moses, the slave. From that point on, Moses addresses her in a dangerously familiar, slightly controlling tone, seemingly exploiting Mary’s weakness as a woman.

However, I really don’t understand how exactly this sort of standard comes about: what is the appeal in imposing this image of sexual predation of native men on European women? Admittedly from the texts I’ve read (Lessing’s The Grass is Singing included) the rape or predatory relationship between colonized men and colonist women is about imposing control in some way on the colonist, even if only through the percieved weakest link.

I suppose this raises a few questions about whether the colonist men had this fantasy about their women exciting sexual urges in the “primitive” colonized because of this control.

Women and Empire

Stoler seems to highlight exactly how tenuous and precarious are the women’s relationships with the patriarchal colonial empire, ‘because of their ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierarchies and as agents of empire in their own right’ (41). As much as the men and perhaps even more so, white women in the outskirts of empire have to articulate their femininities via the constructed roles created for them by colonialism, most often through the choice (or lack thereof) of men they pick in marriage, in order to command the status, riches and respect as the “burra memsahib”.

 Stoler’s reading becomes interesting in her suggestion that European women are crucial to the reinforcement of colonial boundaries and imperial hierarchies through ‘bolstering a failing empire and to maintaining the daily rituals of racialized rule’ (56). In Burmese Days this becomes particularly relevant because the caricature of the burra memsahib in Elizabeth typifies such a woman. Strict racial lines are drawn as she rejects Flory’s attempts to show her native life in Burma, by turning her nose in disgust at the festive show, the Chinese merchant shop and even refusing to step into the headman’s house. It seems peculiar that Orwell inverses the sexual power relationship between Flory and Elizabeth whose relationship was doomed from the start because Flory was never the sahib that he ought to behave as, while Elizabeth represented too much of the idealized English woman he could never possess. Elizabeth’s final rejection of Flory because of her hatred for his ‘dishonorable’ and ‘unforgivable’ birthmark also takes on racial and symbolic overtones as Flory is deemed to transgress racial frontiers when his liaison with Ma Hla May was brought to light.

Musings on Stoler’s article and The Sleeping Dictionary

Before reading Stoler’s article, I had a rough idea about how native women were portrayed as sensual and exotic and how the native men were portrayed as emasculated, needing the hyper masculine European male to come fertilize the land. What I didn’t know was the role that the European woman played in the colonial enterprise and how she enforced the binaries of colonized vs. colonizer. I think that it is problematic that the government promoted concubinage because marrying a European woman and raising a household was considered expensive and having a native bed-servant helped in “quick acclimatization” (49) and was seen as a stable “political order” that promoted “colonial health” (48). Yet on the other hand, the European woman is used to “put new demands on the white communities to tighten their ranks, clarify their boundaries and mark out their social space” (55). There seems to be a disparity in values; one that sanctions European men to sleep with native women while using the so-called catch that the European woman has “delicate sensibilities” that calls for “”segregationist standards” (55) that required the maintenance of racialized rule. And these rules are basically set in place to benefit the white man.
On a separate, rather random note, I watched The Sleeping Dictionary over the weekend and a lot of what was mentioned in Stoler’s article was actually alluded to in the film. We have the native girl, Selima that teaches the European colonizer, John the native language, the metis child that John “demands legal rights of” (49), the “racially intolerant, socially vicious” (56) Aggie that forces John to marry her daughter, Cecil and Neville who represents the ugly side of colonialism in the abuse of native women.
A poignant scene for me was when John asks Selima to spend the night with him to which she replies that in Iban, if a sleeping dictionary sleeps with her master 5 nights in succession, it implies that they are engaged and it is something that he wouldn’t want. Hollywood happy ending aside, I think that the film does deal with the double standards of concubinage and how it is the white man’s way of fulfilling his desires without the responsibility and complications of marriage weighing him down. If anything, the film as with Stoller’s article raises the issue of the disparage state of women, native and European alike. They seem to be merely pawns in the white man’s game of chess.

European women: savior-scapegoats of Empire

As I was reading Stoler’s article, it seems that whatever she said seems to be applicable to A Passage to India. This is especially so when she says that “Their (European women) presence and safety was repeatedly invoked to clarify racial lines.” (57) Recalling  A Passage to India, the Anglo-Indians used the pretext of a supposed attack on Adela as a means of clarifying the racial lines that Stoler talks about. It was after the supposed attack had happened that they started proclaiming how wrong it was to even think that the natives were any bit civilized as to even host a bridge party for them. Moreover, Stoler also mentions that “European women needed protection from the “primitive” sexual urges aroused by the sight of them.” (58) Again, recalling A Passage to India, even though Aziz himself found Adela to be quite ugly and rather unattrative, the Anglo-Indians already had this mindset of the sexualized native and seized upon the opportunity that presented as a means of upholding the racial distinctions and thereby to punish the native as a way of putting them in their place.

I entitled my post “European women: savior-scapegoats of Empire” because of the fact that even though they are being heralded as the ones to be protected, they are at the same time “frequently blamed for provoking their (the natives) desires.” (60) Again, in A Passage to India, when Adela refused to testify against Aziz, she was similarly blamed which seems to imply a classic case of blaming the victim. Thus, European women in the colonies seem to have it much worse than women back in Europe for they are being used as emblems of colonial laws but at the same time being blamed for being what they are.

Further, in Burmese Days, even the natives tend to have a greater hate for European women such that “englishwomen [were] considered a race apart, possibly not even human.” (115) In a way, the European women are almost worse off than the native women as they are being scapegoated for the harsh laws that the colonial government impose on the natives even though they cannot really do much about it. These women also tend to not have a choice when being sent to the colonies to be married off, as Elizabeth in Burmese Days, having to choose living a life of relative poverty in Europe or being the savior-scapegoat of Empire.

Women as a symbol for the Empire

In Burmese days, Flory and Dr Verswami referred directly to the British Empire as “an aged female patient” (37), worn and weary from the physical afflictions which she has to bear. This vision of the empire is comic and apt because the Empire does have many illnesses, albeit not of a physical but moral nature. One of such is the hypocrisy and double standard of morality in the sexual conduct of colonizers in the colonies where a male colonizer is allowed to have sexual relations with the native women whilst any hint of physical contact between a native man and a female colonizer would have resulted in an outcry of rape.

This is due to the colonial anxiety that power relations could be reversed and the figure of the vulnerable white woman who needs to be protected is a projection of this fear. Sexual relations between the white male colonizer and the native female can only exist to reinforce the existing power relations where the concubine is like the colony, to be exploited under the pretext of a degree of privilege enjoyed by the native subjects. 

The female colonizers who maintain their physical distance from the natives and refuse to adapt to the native culture, such as Mrs Lackersteen who refused to learn a word of  the language despite having been in the country for twenty years and Elizabeth who loathes contact with them are the means by which the essence of being a sahib is preserved. Whilst the white males may be forced to interact with the natives for commercial reasons, the women are kept pristine and sullied, just like the motherland that remains aloof and disconnected from the realities of empire. It is no wonder then that the women sicken physically and become yellow faced and thin when physically confronted with a climate which they are ill-suited to. The beauty of the English rose (colonial pretensions) rapidly wilts in the face of harsh reality in the colonies. Whilst the men experience moral decline, the women exhibit it physically thus the aged old woman is an apt metaphor for the afflicted empire.

The impartiality of the law

As I was reading Orwell’s Burmese Days, the unequal treatment of the law struck a chord within me. This brought to mind the image of Lady Justice with her blindfolds that symbolize the impartiality of the law. In Orwell’s Burma, Lady Justice is blind to the faults of the whites and intolerant with the natives (of course, Lady Justice is herself European…) So of course, Maxwell’s shooting of a native is justified but the killing of Maxwell by the native’s relatives is not. His death angers the European community simply because the life of a white man is of greater value than that of a native: “Eight hundred people, possibly are murdered every year in Burma; they matter nothing; but the murder of a white man is a monstrosity, a sacrilege” (Orwell, p. 248). The whites are then anxious to ensure that the culprits are punished by the law for Maxwell’s death. Where is the morality in that then? After all, Maxwell did commit murder as well. This reminded me of Stoler’s article on ‘Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power’ where she says that “sexual abuse of black women was not classified as rape and therefore was not legally actionable, nor did rapes committed by white men lead to prosecution (Stoker, p.58). Crimes committed by the white man to the natives are not punishable by the law and the perpetrators go away scot-free by virtue of their race and gender. This is further reinforced by the incident where Ellis blinds a Burmese and angers the villagers. The natives understand that there can be no impartiality for them in the eyes of the law: “We know that there is not justice for us in your courts, so we must punish Ellit ourselves” (Orwell, p.257). In the colonies, the law protects those in power and discriminates against the natives. How then can the natives win? Isn’t colonization supposed to be beneficial for the colonies? Despite the civilizing mission and the claims that the empire brings beneficial influences to the colony, the injustices of the empire are illuminated in Burmese Days.

Redeeming the colonial wife

Originally, when I first read Burmese Days, I found Elizabeth quite an appalling character. The way Orwell portrays her as flitting from man to man in search of a husband, regardless of how she feels towards the person in question romantically, seems to illustrate a very negative image of a materialistic woman who uses men to advance her own standing. After reading Stoler’s article on “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” however, I find myself wanting to redeem Elizabeth.


As Stoler points out, European women were “to be almost as closely policed as colonized men” (60), and they were confined to colonial spaces as “custodians of family welfare and respectability and dedicated and willing subordinates to and supporters of men” (61). This can be seen in Elizabeth’s story. As a professional woman, a teacher in Paris, she is subjected to poverty and sexual harassment from her employer. As a single woman entering the colonies, she is immediately subjected to pressures to get married. For example, her uncle and aunt, in their first letter to her, immediately pointed out the many unmarried men present in the colonies who would appreciate her company. Furthermore, as a single woman in the colonies she is subjected to sexual harassment by her uncle, and her only way of escaping that is to marry someone else. In short, reflecting Stoler’s argument, Elizabeth is driven towards marriage (being a wife and mother) by the social pressures on her (her aunt and uncle’s pressuring of her to find a husband), and the impossibility of a single woman gaining any wealth or respect on her own (as the multiple attacks on her modesty and her poverty in Paris illustrates). Thus, in that sense, we might be able to claim that Elizabeth turns out to be the materialistic person that she is because the confinement of women to the colonial spaces of motherhood and marriage drives her to it.

The sexuality of colonial dominance

I once read that the native woman of a colonized state is rendered twice displaced; sexuality itself being a mark of Otherness. Stoler’s article was an interesting insight to the condition and the colonial experience of the European woman, who Stoler claims does not escape imperial control, especially having neglect the perspective of European female “Other” in our study of the texts. Reading the article, I cannot help but be recall the dynamics of sexual and social order posited in Forster’s A Passage to India. I’d therefore like to revisit the text in application to Stoler’s argument.

In A Passage to India, sexuality is embedded into the text in negotiation of social dominance. Stoler suggests that racial anxiety is expressed through sexuality. If so, could it also be suggested that racial anxiety is repressed through repressed sexuality? Adela figures as a kind of asexual female character, lacking the sensuality of a woman, as Aziz is quick to note. Her relationship with Ronny, both of whom are engaged to be married, is awkward, to say the least, and there hardly appears to be any sexual tension between them. Repressed sexuality then culminates to an animalistic thrill merely upon the brushing of hands. “Her hand touched his, owing to a jolt, and one of the trills so frequent in the animal kingdom passed between them and announced that their difficulties were only a lover’s quarrel” (Chapter 8). I’d argue that Ronny does not so much repress his sexuality then displace it onto his social dominance of the natives, accounting then for Adela’s ability to maintain a (veneer of) friendship with Aziz as an epitome of (hypocritical) hospitality and kindness between Indians and the British. It seems that inter racial relations are only successful in the absence of sexuality. In fact, Aziz manages to develop a casual platonic friendship with one of the main female characters, Adela, because he finds her not only sexually unattractive but even plain and ugly. On the other hand, Ronny, who is constantly aware of his need to exert sexual and social superiority over his mother, Adela, as well as the natives, struggles to keep his interaction with them on a level of civility. This displacement of sexuality onto the ruling of the native colony and policing of the European women brought into the colonized state could explain Ronny’s metaphorical sterility in his romantic relationship with Adela.

The colonial politics of exclusion in the literary world of Forster’s novel does indeed impose restrictions of the European women such that they do not participate equally in the prejudices and pleasures of colonial dominance. Stoler posits that “European women often appear in male colonial writings only as a reverse image – fulfilling not sexual but other power fantasies of European men” (44). And indeed upon Adela’s sexual awakening at the episode at the cave, she is effectively silenced by the European men who take on the role of policing sexual control. At the club, the European women parrot the views and condemnations of the natives as voiced by their husbands in their idle gossip and in the courtroom serve superficial function by insisting on sitting on chairs on a platform to give the illusion of power.

Inclusion, History and Identity

When I started reading the Stoler reading, I kept finding my mind wandering back to Orwell as the isolated intellectual, especially when Stoler began talking about national identity, education and inclusion. I guess I’m curious as to whether Orwell would have been quite so isolated in “Shooting an Elephant” if these educational measures had been in place. (Perhaps the same question could be extended to Flory in Burmese Days…although I’m not sure he falls in the same category as Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant”.)

In terms of national identity, I guess this reading answers some of the questions I’d had about where history came in to the creation of a national identity. I took a class a few semesters ago that dealt with  Nationalism and the Arts: we had a guest student sitting in from Harvard who happened to make the comment that Singapore hasn’t had enough time to build a clear identity because we were less than half a century old. The professor was quick to point out that Singapore has been around for more than 50 years, it was just Independence that came much more recently.

Using Stoler’s tie-together of history and national identity, I suppose one root of having a national identity comes of having a shared history. I can see how colonialism problematizes national identity, considering the “shared history” suddenly becomes “shared histories”–one of which is placed in a more dominant position than perhaps an indigenous concept of identity tied to place.

I’m fairly curious as to the origin of “nationhood.” Is it a colonial/postcolonial construct?

Am I not a métis as well?

Although I am not born a child of miscegenation, I do think that I share many characteristics of métissage that Ann Stoler has discussed in her essay, with Nguyen van Thinh dit Lucien as a case in point.

I justify this claim by elucidating my state of ‘Englishness’ vis-à-vis the French government’s assessment of Lucien’s Frenchness – examining “cultural identity” and the “display of […] cultural competence”.

Despite not having an Anglicized name per se, I am nevertheless almost always identified through ‘a’ name in English. I use the indefinite article here as a deliberate attempt to parody myself as having a ‘double name’, for my ancestors would surely not have any of this in that language.  That aside, the necessity for me to dress in a western suit so as to be taken seriously in any social setting only serves to illustrate how ‘exterior qualities’ reflect that imposed ‘interior attribute’ of Englishness in me.

And while I am certainly not “ignorant” of my mother tongue as Lucien is to French, I am always encouraged not to speak in Cantonese but English. Indeed, I have become far more competent in the latter to the extent of not being able to construct and communicate complex ideas without code-switching to English.

While Ann Stoler offers a critical conclusion to the trial of this French-Vietnam métis, the sentiments she invokes in me far exceed the ‘transgression’ of (already) Eurocentric boundaries of race and culture. For me, her discussion only accentuates the hypocrisy of the colonial project, wherein the colonized is deemed unfit even as a subject — let alone being regarded as an ‘enlightened’ citizen — whether s/he be the second generation or otherwise.

Nationalism and its flaws

Stoler brings to mind something very interesting that I read for another module- Eric Hayot’s review of Arthur Vinton’s “Looking Further Backward”. “Looking Further Backward” was published in the 1890s as a response to Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward, 2000-1887”. Vinton envisions a future in the year 2023, when the Chinese immigrants that the United States had allowed into the country eventually took over and annexed the United States as a Chinese colony. The novel was written during the height of anti-chinese sentiment, just after the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. the essay opens with a quote from Professor Won Lung Li:

“Owing to the short-sightedness of your remote ancestors, you have permitted your country to be overrun by the emigrants of the slums from other nations; they had been given equal rights, socially and politically, and they had intermarried with your native stock until it had become so debased that, one hundred years ago, your ancestors were as ready as the Frenchmen of the 18th century to abandon everything for the sake of an idea.”  (Hayot 1)

The idea that Li refers to is that of Nationalism. The annexed United States represents the worst possible fear of the colonial masters. Similarly, Stoler’s essay illustrates the paranoia that the French had towards the Metis, and how they acted on this paranoia in order to protect the concept of their “nation”. Stoler, like Li, puts forth the idea that intermarriage is one of Nationalism’s fatal flaws. The idea that one is defined by their nationality is undermined when you have a child born to parents of different nationalities.

Discovering my misogyny through literature

This blog post is going to be be a little anecdotal and is a little bit long, so please bear with me. : )

I did not expect for a passage in ‘Burmese Days’ which made me laugh out loud would lead to my being aware of my own participation in patriarchal misogyny. The passage I’m referring to is the one where we talk about the effects of U Po Kyin’s letter to Mrs Lackersteen:

“U Po Kyin had touched Mrs Lackersteen’s weak spot. To her mind the words ‘sedition’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘rebellion’, ‘Home Rule’, conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs. It was a thought that kept her awake at night sometimes.”  (137-8)

To me the passage was funny because the description of her vividly imaginative fear revealed Mrs Lackersteen’s secret desire for the native other. So I turned to a friend who’d read the novel, pointed to the passage and said “You know she wants it.’ Unexpectedly, my friend didn’t get me, and replied with ‘That’s what rapists always say you know.’

Thinking back on the misunderstanding a few days later, I suddenly realised that in some sense it wasn’t really a misunderstanding at all. This is because after having read Ann Stoler’s ‘Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers’, where she talks more about who (European) women were designated the roles of ‘protectors’ of racial and ethnic morality, and a lot of them took it upon themselves. This is perhaps why in ‘A Passage To India’ it was said that the memsahibs behaved more racist than the sahibs.

If female sexuality (as Stoler says) was the means of policing and maintaining differences between the ethnic identities of the coloniser and colonised – and by extension, the former’s right to rule over the latter – the fact that ‘sedition’ and ‘Nationalism’ was interpreted as a danger to her sexuality is not that surprising anymore. In some sense, it is patriarchy that is to blame for Mrs Lackersteen’s fear, and thus in the same way that patriarchal dominance and misogyny is responsible for violence against women to this day, my joke – ‘you know she wants it’ – really reveals my own culpability with patriarchal ideology, despite my own professions to feminism. I am glad for this chance to self-examine that literature has provided.

Women and Colonialism

In this post, I would like to discuss the portrayal of women in Burmese Days. Admittedly, I am only about half way through the novel, so my discussion will be limited to what I know of the novel up to that point. Up till now, there have been four prominent women in the novel: Mrs Lackersteen, Ma Hla May, Ma Kin and Elizabeth. Significantly, according to their racial category, the women fall into two broad categories: white women who wish to elevate themselves to a superior position, and natives who want to elevate themselves by riding on the white man’s prestige.


For example, Mrs Lackersteen laments the lack of “authority over the natives nowadays… In some ways they are getting almost as bad as the lower classes at home” (29) while Elizabeth imagines “barefooted white-turbaned boys reverently salaaming” (96) her in India. Both European women seem to strive to reaffirm the artificial neat boundaries between races that Ann Stoler points out is part of the colonial ideology.


The text seems to disapprove of Elizabeth’s strict fixing of the racial lines by pointing out how much of her desire to distinguish the Europeans from the natives stems from an innate desire to live like a rich person, to be superior to somebody. However, even as the text comments on the neat and unfair categories, it also reaffirms them with the portrayal of the hypersexual women like Ma Hla May who only wishes to use her sexuality to gain wealth from her white lover.  


For example, Ma Hla May complains that Flory never gives her any “presents of gold bangles, ad silk longyis” (53) anymore and discusses how a lack of this display of the wealth he gives her would make her “ashamed before the other women” (53). Ma Kin, while seemingly moralistic and reprimands her husband for his evil deeds, stops viewing her husband’s plans with disapproval as when he tells her how his evil plans could get them into the European Club, he had “planted a grain of ambition in ma Kin’s gentle heart” (144). Thus, even the gentle and moral Ma Kin is susceptible to greed, thus reaffirming the colonial stereotype of native women.    


That the women from both races affirm and stick to their culture’s ideologies and ideas, I think, further reinforces the idea of women as the bearers of a culture’s ideology, just as Marlow’s aunt in Heart of Darkness was.