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A Western Invention of the Oriental woman in the BBC adaptation A Suitable Boy

Edward Said’s Orientalism corroborates that the West has a superior and dominant worldview over any sub-culture in imperial discourse in comparison to the East. Reversely, the representation of Eastern culture, specifically the South Asian woman (the ‘orient’) is presented as a sexual figure who is either desired or feared. Edward Said states in his book, Culture and Imperialism that: 

“At the margins of Western society, all the non-European regions, whose inhabitants, societies, histories, and beings represented a non-European essence, were made subservient to Europe, which in turn demonstrably continued to control what was not Europe, and represented the non-European in such a way as to sustain control.”

These binary oppositions do not only sustain the powerful gendered construct for the Western Gaze, but work to homogenise and silence marginalised women in imperial discourse that deem the Orient as “inferior.”  We see this in Andrew Davies’ drama adaptation A Suitable Boy, where elements of patriarchy and reductionist impressions of South Asianwomen are seen in Lata. A modern, coming-of university student living in a man’s world, also conflicted by her family’s ‘backward’ traditions. In response to her professor telling her off for discussing James Joyce in her assignment, Lata challenges the patriarchy and draws on TS Eliot who is also covered in the syllabus. At that, her professor callously silences her.

The screenwriter raises two problematic issues here, first that the South Asian woman is silenced both in her domestic space when she is forced to marry handpicked suitors by her mother and the ‘radical space’ of the lecture theatre. Second, and perhaps more problematic, Davies shows the binary opposition of the East and West by hailing at Lata, an “Orient” for attempting to comment on the white experience (and worse off, the white man). In Said’s attempt to explain Western culture hegemony against the orient who is by default, always inferior, it is understandable why the professor shows extreme backlash and offence. Lata, who falls under the category of the Orient, or the quintessential other, is a woman and an Indian, and is therefore the last person who should defy this power hierarchy. Still, Lata presents an unintended defiance and wilful ignorance of the systemic racism and cultural hegemony existing in her curriculum. Needless to say, the message of patriarchy and orientalism work collectively to inhibit the ambitions of Lata who is seen to grapple in the rise above the norms of her primitive community and home.   

In A Suitable Boy, we see other stereotypes, namely the exoticisation of the Indian woman. To shed some light on exoticism in British Imperialist fiction, Kipling’s works showcase the doubly dangerous terrain of the Indian woman and her sexuality. He finds that she is dangerous because of her fertility and fecund nature, which if excited by the British male, could be a threat to British rule and the intermixing of races. Since the Western construct uses imperialism to remain a ‘binary opposite’ with the East, such marrying of genomes is considered a colonial and political threat above all. The Indian woman, also presented as the Femme fatale is shown as capable of luring the Indian men from the work of the empire and since this is counterproductive from a coloniser’s perspective, the second attempt to colonise her is to subjugate her to the role of a dutiful and passive woman. This is evident in the character, Saeeda Bai.

Bai, who inherits her mother’s gifted musicianship and captivating beauty is the prototypal ornament for the male gaze. This becomes apparent when the older aunties jest about Bai’s nose pin is flashing like the "headlights of a car". As Saeeda sings along in her striking red sari, Maan sits closer to her, bewitched by the sight and angelic voice before him. Bai later receives the Poetical works of Ghaib from her male suitor and love interest, Maan. Bai feels valued and cherished for the first time as she vulnerably tells Mean that she is only ever gifted jewellery, thus highlighting the extent of her objectification and the outlook of her male interests. Objectification takes its roots in ‘Ornamatalism’, a term Anne Anlin Cheng coins, and who discusses its ongoing conflation with the term “oriental”. She proposes that the likes of Plato, Oscar Wild and Le Corbusier have shown the oriental as associated with the ornamentation and femininity. Cheng argues that the black woman and even the yellow woman are persistently sexualised; made and unmade by the aesthetic object. So Davie’s representation of Saeeda's beauty is not a gesture of adoration, but an extension of her representation as the ornament and orient.

The question then is what do the West benefit by painting the South Asian women as ceaselessly regressive? Well, it all boils down to power and politics. The dissemination of images of the South Asian woman as traditional, submissive and victimised reinforces the image of the West as progressive and advanced. In the same way sexual politics would go amiss without the white woman being contrasted to the subjected, eroticised woman. Her sexuality, seen as threatening to colonial rule is instead confined and suppressed, and so the coloniser uses these representations to mask the undercurrent of the Third World country. Thereby legitimising the British intervention in Indian affairs to destruct its indigenous population and economy.   

In these binary oppositions, the inherent issue is dominating a worldview over another culture, and which every non-European culture has become a victim to in popular culture. Andrew Davies is by no means the first or last screenwriter who perpetuates these ideologies on the South Asian, but a recent discussion with Sairish Hussain, author of the debut novel, The Family Tree, highlighted the burden of representation that was greatly felt as she tackled the major stereotypes of a British Pakistani Bradfordian family. She intentionally presented a paradigm shift when she refused to fall for stereotypes like naming her book, “The Yellow Pashmina” and having a book cover centred around bright colours, mangoes and paisleys. With interracial friendships and the mosque presented in a positive light for the vulnerable in the community, the book helped readers unlearn many stereotypes of the typical South Asian woman, and household.

It is writers like Sairish Hussain and Susan Abdulhawa, author of Mornings in Jenin and Sahar Mustafa's The Beauty of Your Face that negotiate the power of authorship as a way to decolonize minds. But authors and spokespersons from all ethnic minorities need to continue to invigorate the conversation and fill the spaces of storytelling so stereotypes can be unlearned sooner than later. 

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