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.

Hussain’s source base is useful because it provides historians with detailed accounts of how many of the women of the white imperial elite viewed ‘race’, ethnicity, colour and beauty and, more specifically, how they saw these themes in practice in the everyday lives of the Indian women with whom they came into contact, or whom they observed. Many fascinating insights were gleaned by Hussain through these sources, though one of particular note was the solidification of a racialised capitalist economy in areas of the Empire in which colour and beauty were tightly intertwined. Letters which Hussain makes use of here spoke of many white women’s reluctance to purchase anything which might be considered, perhaps anachronistically, as a ‘beauty product’ from local market places. Having been asked by a correspondent what was on offer, one ‘travel writer’ responded ‘nothing that a white person would want to buy’. Hussain interrogates the racialised aspects of the colonial economy elsewhere in her thesis by looking at skin-lightening products. These letters, though, offer an insight into the insidious quotidian ways that racist assumptions were tied into the Empire’s economy and how its elite women understood and interacted with it.

Yet these are not the only voices foregrounded in Hussain’s study, nor were they the only ones we heard in this paper. Hussain draws from writing by Indian women in diaries and in the Indian journal the Indian Ladies Magazine. These sources suggest that India’s international travel writers were more concerned with reporting what women did abroad, rather than simply what they looked like. Hussain has written about these sources elsewhere, and I would encourage everyone interested in gender and the history of empire to seek out her work. Hers are important contributions: pointing out that writing back to the metropole is not just the reserve of white female travel writers in this period opens historical dialogue up to the voices of Indian women with transnational correspondence. For Hussain, this is about the ‘recovery of Indian women’s textual agency’. In doing this, she has helped to unsettle the ‘official ethnographies’ upon which a great many histories of this period have been written. Thus, not only do these voices offer a fresh perspective on the way ‘imperial women’ wrote about each other, they begin contributing more widely to the de-colonising efforts of historians looking outside of top-down imperial sources to reconstruct aspects of the Empire’s past. One of many merits we can take from Hussain’s paper is just how rich a history such approaches can produce.

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