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.

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