Behind the veil The many masks of subaltern sexuality Academic Article uri icon


  • European women in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century India were usually banished from public or political activity by colonial patriarchy, but if politics is also enacted in various non-governmental arenas, it is evident that the domestic parlor, the kitchen, the servants' quarters, and other physical spaces that colonial women managed would also become spaces where colonial ideology was constructed and modified. This paper explores the construction of a bourgeois domestic ideology as an alternative voice within colonialist patriarchy, and at the inscription of the subaltern female body as a metonymic text of subaltern conspiracy and treachery. A bourgeois ethnographic tradition of looking at the subaltern female body finds articulation in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) and in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's (Halsband, 1965) Letters from the Levant (1716-1718). Keeping this tradition in mind, this paper will look specifically at the ethnographic body criticisms of Mrs. Kindersley, Mrs. Eliza Fay, and Mrs. Mary Martha Sherwood. The "public" eastern woman appeared in many cultural contexts in the east, but in this paper she essentially signifies the eastern dancer - the nautch or tamasha girl -whose profession was frequently and unhesitatingly associated with sex work, and the Indian female domestic servant. The "private" woman, on the other hand, was the inhabitant of the zenana or the harem (the women's quarters). The profession of the dancing girl - an entertainment enjoyed by English and Indian observers - was interpreted to indicate the dancer's diseased and atavistic sexuality. However, while the public and private spheres were supposedly demarcated as secret and private in the case of the women's residential quarters, and shamelessly and spectacularly promiscuous and public in the case of the theatricl performance, in reality the narratives suggested a complicity between private and public subaltern sexual conduct and inclinations, the only difference in the case of the harem or zenana being a greater degree of masculine oppression and feminine self-censure. The strip-tease-like gradual discarding of the veil in the tamasha or nautch and its middle eastern equivalents appeared to be only the fully eroticized expression of the languid gestural language in the zenana or harem. Thus, one of the monolithic indices this body discourse achieves is a proclamation of the universal rampancy of subaltern female sexuality, destroying the patriarchally imposed distinction of public and private upon which western protofeminism constructed itself.

published proceedings

  • Women's Studies International Forum

author list (cited authors)

  • Bhattacharya, N.

citation count

  • 2

complete list of authors

  • Bhattacharya, Nandini

publication date

  • May 1996