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).

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.

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.