Gender was a crucial lens through which colonial societies viewed their populations. Patriarchy worked in these societies in pragmatic and discursive forms, normalising certain cultural practices, social customs and ways of being as ‘true’ or ‘natural’. Women were twice colonised in their simultaneous experience of patriarchy and colonialism, doubly demoted to the obscure margins by patriarchal and imperial discourses and narratives that celebrated male- oriented values, such as bonding between men and reticent heroism, outdoor activities like battles, exploration and missionary activities, and the strong silent men who went to ‘take up the white man’s burden’ in barbaric, uncomfortable, steaming colonies.
The convergence of the contradictions and paradoxes of class, gender and race affiliations, created the ‘racialization of domestic space’ as well as ‘the domestication of colonial space’. Tropes such as gender, race, patriarchy, maternity, femininity, and domesticity were re-inscribed and reconstructed in the service of colonialism and modernity, and nations were frequently figured through the iconography of familial and domestic space. Within this space, women were represented as the atavistic and authentic body of national tradition; men, by contrast, represented the progressive agent of national modernity, embodying nationalism’s progressive or revolutionary principle of discontinuity.
In her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Gayatri Spivak (1987) posed a challenging question for scholars of gender and colonialism. She asked if the double eliding of native women by colonisation and patriarchy precludes their voices from ever being heard. If human subjectivity is inscribed like a palimpsest; written and re-written by ‘violently shuttling’ discourses of power and knowledge and from shifting positions and locations, then it is impossible to retrieve subaltern agency from the colonial archives since one cannot assume that the colonised person has autonomy and that the archive presents a transparent record of her/his agency. The issue of gender further complicates this task, as the colonial archive usually contains the stories of men: ‘As object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow’. However, Spivak does not imply that the engaged intellectual who wishes to highlight the oppression should therefore do nothing. Rather, she advocates the adoption of the Gramscian maxim, ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’, or the combination of a philosophical skepticism about recovering any subaltern agency with a political commitment to making visible the position of the marginalized: ‘The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish’ (Spivak 1987, 308).
Ania Loomba in her book ‘Colonial Postcolonial’ says that under colonial regime, the image of nation or culture is often manifested as a female, which evokes both female power and female helplessness. Aurobindo writes ‘I know my country as Mother. I offer her my devotions, my worship. If a monster sits as upon her breast and prepares to suck her blood, what does her child do? Does he quietly sit down to his meal…or rush to rescue?’ Thus the image of nation as mother both assembles and undercuts female power.
Feminist and post colonialist theories share much common ground due to their examination of the voice, and the position of, the subaltern in society. Their critiques of, and struggles against, domination by the white male has led to their alignment and relevant discussions about their similar problems, affects and strategies. since the 1980s, there has emerged a divergent element to feminist postcolonial theory which has focused on the 'double colonization' that women colonized by both race and gender have suffered, leading to questions of which should be dealt with first, the discrimination they have suffered for not being white or not being male. They share with colonized races and people an intimate experience of the politics of oppression and repression, and like them they have been forced to articulate their experiences in the language of oppressors.