The making of “unofficial ethngraphies” – Mobeen Hussain

George Severs

As we approach the end of Women’s History Month, the time is more than opportune to reflect on the wonderful contribution which Mobeen Hussain made to the Workshop this term. Hussain, a PhD student in World History at Newnham College, Cambridge took her audience through many of the sources she is using to research her thesis, which examines the intersections of racial politics, gender and beauty in late colonial and immediate post-independence India (1880-1960).

In the paper, Hussain dealt with the genre of travel writing, both as a profession and as a quotidian mode of written communication for some in the early-twentieth century. Four distinct forms of travel writing existed in this period which dealt with women in what can be seen as ‘accounts of the natives’, she contends: that which made no comment on the ‘native’ population of the country in question; those in which only female domestic servants are described or discussed; those which wrote about their Indian acquaintances, usually in passing; and finally, detailed accounts which referred to caste, location, etc. The authors of these sources, the travel writers whose sources made up this part of Hussain’s paper, were socially elite white women, writing back ‘home’ (usually to the metropole) with tales of everyday life overseas in the British Empire.

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