Colonialism and Gender

Josephine Butler, from "Our Indian Fellow Subjects" (1887)

Josephine Butler was a social reformer, known particularly for her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. They were a set of laws that required any woman suspected of being a prostitute to report to a police station to be inspected for venereal disease. Butler felt that the acts degraded women, deprived them of their constitutional rights, and reflected a double standard. In her campaign for the repeal of the acts, Butler tried to make the public understand why women resorted to prostitution. After the acts were repealed in England in 1886, she continued her campaign for their revocation in India. In arguing for repeal in India, she argued against colonization. "My own profound conviction has ever been that annexation and conquest are morally wrong. In what do they differ from robbery and theft?" She frequently made an analogy between women's oppression in England and women's oppression in a colonial system.


The question of Abolition in India is likely to be the next solid piece of work to be undertaken by the British Abolitionists. So far as we can foresee, abolition will not be so easily accomplished there as in some of the Colonies, owing to the long-lasting and strongly-vested interest now involved in the system of vice Regulation in India; for there are a certain number of Anglo-Indian officials who live, so to speak, by the system, just as there were officials who lived by the system of the C. D. Acts in England. Its degrading effects in India have been set forth to our public at home; it is necessary, however, in order to appreciate the full weight of degradation and enslavement imposed upon Indian women by this system, to talk with natives of India on the subject, especially those Indian gentlemen whose hearts are full of deep sorrow and concern for the women of their own land. We have talked with such, and we can scarcely find words with which to express the ardent wish to remove this injustice which fills their hearts and ours. Enlightened Indians have for a long time see that a social reform in India must begin with the moral elevation of their women. So long as the women remain uneducated, kept in complete seclusion and taught by the most fanatical and worst class of priests that their degradation is a kind of fate, and that it is a sacred duty to submit to it, there can be little hope of any real moral progress in India. * * *

What has England done in this matter? Its Government takes credit to itself for the abolition of Suttee, >> note 1 and that was a great advance both actually and in the general estimation; . . .

Suttee, or the burning of Indian widows, has been abolished indeed, as shocking to the moral sense of humanity; but the same Government which with one hand removed these evils, imposed with the other hand the degrading, soul-and-body-murdering system of C. D. Ordinances. The yoke of this system fell upon Indian women just at the time when the hope was arising in the breasts of some of their fellow-countrymen that the period of emancipation from their degradation and thralldom was arriving. It fastened them down in slavery, it doubled their chains, it stamped them with a deeper degradation than had ever been known before; and although it may be said that only a certain per centage of women actually suffer under the system, yet we know what a blight it is to the whole womanhood of the world when such a system is allowed to prevail, and to work its deadening and corrupting fruits in the minds of men of all degrees, to sear the moral sense of the whole community, and to render men almost blind to every idea of justice. The question is not difficult to answer in regard to Indian women — whether our government has done more harm than good.

Now at this period we are in England asking help in our abolition work of native Indian men. So far we can scarcely ask the help of Indian women, for they have no freedom of action, though a few, thank God, are already alive to this question. We have asked these gentlemen — "What can you do to aid us in relieving you in India of this immoral system?" In return they look at us sadly and say — "We will do what we can; but you must not stop there, but help us in return to do something for the moral education of our women." It seems to me that mutual help is demanded, and that a mutual duty presses upon us and our Indian fellow-subjects. I cannot feel it to be possible to work for Repeal in India without grappling more or less with the whole question of the condition of Indian women. Our own responsibility as Christian women presses heavily upon my mind. It has especially done so since I read a printed correspondence between some of these Indian Reformers and certain of our own public men, such as Mr. W. E. Gladstone, >> note 2 Mr. Courtney, Professor Max Müller, &c. A volume of this correspondence has been placed in my hands, and it is of the deepest importance. The following passage from a letter of Professor Max Müller's to Mr. Malabari, >> note 3 in October 1886, was brought before me at that date, and the perusal of the following sentence seemed to me to be a call to the women of England, and I therefore now, in the pages of The Sentinel, desire to quote the following, feeling sure that it will not be unfruitful in the minds of many readers: "Depend on it," says Professor Max Müller, "justice will be done at last. Write a short pamphlet containing nothing but well-known and well authenticated facts, and send it to the women of England. They begin to be a power, and they have one splendid quality — they are never beaten. If they once know what is going on in India, tolerated by the English Government, they will tell every candidate for Parliament, 'Unless this blot is removed from the escutcheon of England, you will not be re-elected.' Women at all events have courage, and when they see what is hideous, they do not wait for orders from home before they say what they think. Secondly, educate your own woman, and depend on it, this matter will soon be set right in spite of temporizing Governors, or half-hearted reformers among your own countrymen. I know many of my native friends will be very angry with me for writing this. I only wish I could speak to them face to face, and I should soon convince them that I care more for the good name of the true Aryas >> note 4 than they themselves. You know I abstained for a long time from writing on this subject. I felt it was in good hands, and I do not like, nor have I time, to give my opinion on everything. But now that apparently you are beaten, I cannot remain silent." These words of Professor Müller have been on my mind for some time as a kind of call to the Christian women in England, to join with the Zenana >> note 5 work, already undertaken and largely supported by them, a more direct effort to help the women of India out of that degraded position (it should not be forgotten that it is all the higher castes of women who are thus degraded), into a position of greater freedom and light, which will enable them to fight their own battles. I have had testimony lately from the homes of native Indian ladies, which convinces me that a practical sympathy with them in their present condition, would go far to remove the prejudices which they feel against Christianity. These prejudices are not always wisely dealt with by the earnest Christian ladies, who find an entrance into the Zenana. Some practical suggestions on this subject will shortly be published by a native Indian gentleman, who believes that the abolition of idol-worship, and the knowledge of the true god, are hindered somewhat by the want of instruction and intelligent sympathy among missionaries.

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