There was a time I thought white women were special. I’d watch them sashay past, brimming with confidence, talking loudly to their friends with an entitlement that said they owned that space. I’d tried to be that confident, that loud, and I’d been labelled aggressive, so it was always interesting to me, the way they filled the room. The ladette culture of the 90s gave birth to it and as a teenager, perhaps because people expect you to be loud and entitled, I got away with it. That was when I still believed I was as British as post office queues, and that I had a right to be proud of it. Clearly my grasp of history was nonexistent at that point but 9/11 forced me to find out.
I was a runaway back then, sick of the punitive patriarchy I’d been dragged up under. I had no male role models even though I lived in a house with my entire extended family. I suddenly found myself in a world where I was definitely not British but an other, without protection or recourse to justice. We all knew it was going to get a lot worse and had no choice but to watch on in horror, when even some of our own ‘friends’ disowned our brown asses. Still, I resolved it was better to nod politely whenever white people went on about Muslims, after all my own experiences confirmed the stereotypes, I wasn’t allowed a life outside of my home, I’d run away because I was afraid I would be forced into a marriage. I’d been violently abused, even as a small child and witnessed firsthand the fractured interactions between the men and women in my family, knowing them to be wrong, wrongly assuming that it was my race or religion or even the geographical origins of my bloodline that made them this way. It was another 20 years before I could sit comfortably in the truth and forgive my forefathers as the heirs to a legacy that is so gut-wrenching I can do nothing but offer them grace.
When the British took India, it wasn’t just her resources they plundered, they sought to divide and conquer us; they changed our laws, our languages, they created a system of deserving and undeserving, pitting higher caste Hindus against the rest. In these upper caste Hindus, Britain found shared values, the belief for e.g that some people are born inherently superior to others. For the British this meant white supremacy, and for the Brahmins, a superior (aryan) caste on par with the Gods, who could even dictate what people ate, depending on the circumstances of their birth.
The British decreed that all women apart from married upper caste Hindus were to be thought of as whores. So Muslim women, Dalit women, widows, servants, field workers, all whores. Growing up it angered me to learn we used the same word for whore and widow in my mother tongue. What an absolute injustice, to lose your partner, breadwinner, father of your children, only to be labelled a temptress of sorts, who is there for the taking. My great grandfather was reputed to have many wives and when I balked at this I was corrected, he only ever married women who were widowed by the British, so that they were not fair game. I had felt repulsed by tales of this man, who had murdered my great grandmother for her outspokeness, when in fact he was a product of the systematic dehumanisation of “our women” by colonial oppressors who loved to humiliate them. In fact, I believe he may even have been birthed by a “fallen woman” and this might explain why he was such a tyrant.
In Mughal India sex workers (courtesans/tawaif/nautch girls) were revered. They were often learned women, known for reciting poetry and performing traditional dances. They were castigated for this by invading Christians who were charged by the one true God to rid the earth of wild unbelievers, and it goes some way to explain why many, to this day, do not fight back, believing instead they deserved to be dehumanised by their colonisers (who wouldn’t have won without God’s endorsement). I would suggest that they have not been looking closely enough at our oppressors, and if they weren’t embarrassed so easily they might google “adult babies” or “family sex” or even “bestiality” to prove God did not punish us for being exclusively depraved. Surely if the Mughal’s sexual appetites contributed to their downfall, the West is due an almighty reckoning? God might not actually have approved at all, rather He gave them the rope with which to hang themselves with.
Comparatively white women at the height of the empire were kept hidden away, if not behind closed doors then swathes of fabric draped over whale bone so as to disguise their God given curves. Like dollies, primped and preened within an inch of their very lives, restricted by more whale bone so their lungs could never fully inflate, thus ensuring they never spoke out of turn or loud enough for anyone to register. Whilst they placed their wives and mothers on a pedestal reserved for virgins and martyrs, they secretly visited harlots, contracting and spreading venereal diseases, as observed in William Blake’s London.
“But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse”
Such a stark contrast, how Britain saw itself on the world stage, compared to the reality, as observed by one of its own. The temerity to suggest violence inflicted by white supremacists had a civilising effect, that the sins committed by fanatical proselytising Christians were justified (who no doubt believed they could convert the savages by raping them with their magic penises) is so far beyond the realms of taste and decency, I get a little angry with my ancestors for actually buying into it.
What little evidence there is of Britain’s historic gendered violence against Muslim women of Mughal descent paints a grim picture, for my female ancestors suffered the kind of cruelty and humiliation neither side wanted to document, as shameful as it was, better to just brush it all under the carpet, and let the men on both sides hold on to their sense of pride and honour. This is never more apparent to me than in the story of 13 year old noblewoman (child) Khairunnisa, alleged to have fallen head over heels in love with the grey haired James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a man old enough to be her father, and to actually become pregnant by him out of wedlock, then married to him as a suitable alternative to an abortion, arranged by her own grandmother at the last minute (who was no doubt attempting to save face in light of the scandal). It’s been ridiculously easy for historians on both sides to promote the forbidden love angle, as they have done on all other continents wherever white men have lusted after young native girls, taken against their will, unable to meaningfully consent even if they had been of age because they are subjugated by invading colonisers.
From Sally Hemmings to Pocahontas, the empire continues to romanticise paedophilic interactions between brown and black children and much older white men. Our men stand by and let them because the truth is even more disturbing, that white men used “their women” whilst they were helpless to do anything about it. They couldn’t protect us then, and it was perhaps because we were so cultured and outspoken, our visibility, that ensured we would become a target for predatory colonisers. The Mughal’s zenana, or harem, were renowned for their influence in the royal court. Our women were exceptionally forthright.
Our men couldn’t save us then, but they could prevent history from repeating itself by learning where they went wrong.. You cannot desire that which you cannot see.. and so like marauding Christians before them, our men buried us under rolls of fabric, to appease God so that we might be afforded his grace too, as white women were (because they knew their place). However, as Britain reaped the benefits of all the wealth they looted, and learning became accessible to all, white women began to shake themselves free from all their petticoats and corsetry. Suddenly it was a mark of freedom, to frolic uninhibited in your birthday suit. They did seem free to me, as a child, before I came to understand we are never free in a patriarchy, whatever we wear.
Former home secretary Jack Straw once said that white girls were seen as ‘easy meat’ by Pakistani men, that they were a target because Pakistani heritage girls were off limits.. a wholly untrue statement given that sex offender’s primary victims are often their own wives, mothers, daughters, and in making such a statement, he denied these victims but also failed to mention these groomers, who often operate in gangs, were enacting some kind of revenge for the very specific ways in which they were oppressed for hundreds of years. This tit for tat gets no mention anywhere, how women are victimised by men on both sides, our protectors become oppressors, because they cannot protect us without oppressing us.
The British empire sought to sever the ties that bind black and brown men and women so that they are the most exalted, no competition. Growing up I vowed I would never marry into my culture, I wasn’t attracted at all to men from ‘back home’ whom I believed were just after my passport, and the boys here desired virgins from back home. I observed similar estrangements in other people of colour’s relationships, how white supremacists inflicted slavery on African Americans and sought to destroy the bonds in their families, how this was perpetrated in Native American and Aboriginal populations too. In fact wherever the British went they shat all over the family model, splintering families, scattering them all over the world, ripping up sacred contracts to protect and nurture and replacing them with personality disorders, meanwhile they skip off together into the sunset with their cereal box set up and right to family life because they do things the right way.
How sad that they can only thrive if everyone else is suffering? It leads me to question where we’d be if they hadn’t spent the last 500 years systematically disjointing every aspect of our civilisations, if our contributions hadn’t been erased, if we’d been prepared for the invasion or even just gave them a taste of their own medicine once in a while, to even the footing so that we might for once raise our heads above the parapet without being scalped for it.
Perhaps we women, those of us colonised, are best placed to change the dynamic. Almost 10 years ago, the Tories began a campaign of dehumanisation, creating an hostile environment for all those who might be considered outsiders, sending border officials into our communities to menace minority groups into submission whilst also fanning the flames of white nationalism in the far right press resulting in broad daylight attacks on women of colour, particularly those in Islamic dress or a beige skin tone. I too was racially abused on a bus and spent a number of years dodging nazis on the internet and in real life. It is apparent to me that whenever white supremacist Britain feels under threat it attacks those it perceives to be the most vulnerable, the women, the children, and this somehow renders entire communities to their knees. Of course as immigrants we cannot put a foot wrong, we cannot defend ourselves, that would be an incendiary act. We cannot look to “our men” for protection because it is so fraught with danger, their egos haven’t recovered.
Perhaps this is where their rehabilitation begins, to teach them they cannot please God by acting like their oppressors, that they cannot take back their power by denying it to others.