Gender and Colonialism: Corrie Decker

By Griselda Jarquin – In colonial East Africa, young women faced intense scrutiny in their personal and professional lives. Today, in a series of connected projects, Associate Professor of History Corrie Decker investigates how those lives played out in Zanzibar, Kenya, and beyond.

While at Bryn Mawr College, Decker developed an interest in colonial studies and African history. But it was a Swahili language class that eventually cemented her focus on East Africa. Later, pursuing a doctorate at UC Berkeley, Decker undertook a comparative study of the Kenyan coast and Zanzibar, examining the connection between forced student labor and British colonial development projects.

Zanzibar—an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, just off Tanzania—shares a culture and history with the Kenyan coast—one influenced by Africa, the Middle East, India and China. Zanzibar experienced Arab colonization under the sultanate of Zanzibar and later, in 1890, became a British protectorate. Independence followed in 1963. 

A conversation with late Oxford University historian Jan-Georg Deutsch, who expressed disbelief and fascination at one of Decker’s archival findings, shifted the latter’s focus to girl’s education in Zanzibar. While in London, Decker found a 1932 document that referenced an Arab Girl’s School in Zanzibar. It described schoolgirls presenting the Queen of England with dolls in two outfits—one Arab, one European—that they had sewn themselves. As Decker explained, “While the teachers asked the girls to sew Arab outfits for the Queen as an expression of imperial pride, the girls themselves wanted to show off their “modern” sewing skills by making an additional set of “European” clothes for the dolls.”

Conducting research in 2004 and 2005, funded by the Fulbright Institute of International Education, Decker traveled to the United Kingdom, where she spent time at the UK National Archives, the British Library, and the School for Oriental and African Studies. She also visited Kenya and Zanzibar, where she poured over colonial and government archives, reports, newspapers, and correspondence. Although she also conducted interviews with women who attended colonial schools, they seemed to reflect a perspective similar to that of the colonial archival record.

Respectability and self-reliance

For her first book, Mobilizing Zanzibari Women: The Struggle for Respectability and Self-Reliance in Colonial East Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Decker returned to Zanzibar in 2013 to conduct additional interviews with women and men about their views on women’s professionalization during the 1950s. She also revisited the earlier oral histories she had conducted in both Swahili and English.

“I looked more deeply at the oral interviews and really thought about how these women were representing themselves and their pasts,” she says. “Not just their
experiences as schoolgirls but also how this contributed to their maturation, how they saw their education as part of their own coming-of-age story—their own story about being part of this broader apolitical women’s movement. This was part of a broader transformation in women’s rights that focused on economic rights, protections, and survival.” 

Mobilizing Zanzibari Women argues that, from the late 1920s through to the end of the British colonial period in 1963, Muslim women expanded the ideal of heshima or respectability and successfully associated it with a professional public figure that was instrumental to the state’s colonial economic and political development and welfare schemes. Decker’s study examines the tension between men’s discourses—in which Arab male elites and colonial officials called for the establishment of girl’s education to uphold “regimes of respectability” that included seclusion and propriety—and women’s actions, whereby Muslim women transformed social definitions of respectability to make space for their entry into professional forms of employment, public sphere activities, and self-reliance.

 “Zanzibaris were the ‘pioneers’ of Muslim women’s professionalization in twentieth-century East Africa,” Decker explains. Their entry into professional employment mirrored similar global trends, which “challenges Western perceptions of African and Muslim women as oppressed by local forms of patriarchy.” In addition, “Zanzibari women’s advancements during the colonial era paved the way for Muslim women’s social and economic mobilization across East Africa in the postcolonial era.”

Ideological tensions in sex education

Decker’s current project, a history of childhood and sexuality in colonial East Africa, draws upon some of the material she gathered for Mobilizing Zanzibari Women. “When I was doing interviews with people and asking them about growing up in the schools, questions of puberty, initiation, and marriage came up.  People would tell me all about the various things they learned when they got their period for the first time, or when they were sent to the kungwi (the instructor who taught them lessons about hygiene), marriage, etc.” This resulted in “Biology, Islam and the Science of Sex Education in Colonial Zanzibar,” published by Past & Present in 2014, which examines the role that sex education played in shifting alliances and tensions between the British and Arab ruling elite over “colonial intervention, religious reform, and local custom."

In the 1920s, British officials contemplated how to teach ‘the facts of life’ to girls who would likely marry ‘too early.’ Rather than outlaw child marriage, British officials focused on initiation ceremonies that preceded it. This unified British colonial officials and their Arab counterparts in their disdain for an ‘uncivilized African’ custom because it was “controlled by women and exposed girls to putatively pornographic information about sex.”

In order to resolve this issue, the dual ruling powers created government schools that “upheld religious values and elite sensibilities.” These efforts launched a debate in the 1950s about whether (and how) to undertake sex education in schools. Such debate highlighted the ideological tensions that existed between Western science (specifically, biology) and “Islamic discourses that rejected Western interpretations of puberty and sex.” These debates threatened the collaborative relationship between British colonial officials and the Arab ruling elite during the nationalist era.

Colonial power, colonial prey

Researching sex education in Zanzibar, Decker discovered a 1934 court case in which a British doctor working for Zanzibar’s Medical Services Department was accused of seducing a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl.  The resulting article, “The Elusive Power of Colonial Prey: Sexualizing the Schoolgirl in the Zanzibar Protectorate,” published by Africa Today in 2015, addresses “the extreme measures taken by local elites and colonial elites to ensure their respectability and protect them from men’s sexual advances, which made Zanzibari girls viscerally aware of the power of their sexuality.”

In order to assuage the local elite’s fears of adolescent sexuality, British colonial authorities followed rules of conduct within the schools that enforced heshima (respectability) via strict seclusion of women from public view. Although the schoolgirls were still shielded from the public male gaze, they encountered male Europeans doctors and teachers in their day-to-day school activities, such as the regular school medical examinations.

Decker thus demonstrates a marked shift in colonial thinking from Victorian notions of childish innocence and asexuality to a fetishization “of schoolgirls as flirtatious sexual beings.” Thus, we witness the “sexualization of Zanzibari schoolgirls in the colonial discourse.” Furthermore, some European men, in their attempt to shelter and protect these schoolgirls from early marriage, ended up possessing and violating these unmarried adolescent schoolgirls.

The British colonial officials investigating the 1934 case of the affair between the European doctor and Dadi, the fourteen-year-old girl, confirmed the child’s sexual allure and believed the doctor’s defense that his resolve against her sexual charms was weakened due to the tropical environment. At the same time, the investigators declared that, despite her allure, the girl was still “ignorant” about sex and therefore found not to have been violated by the doctor. The council refused to criminalize him.

This case, Decker claims, epitomizes the complex mixture of protection, control, and fetishization that characterized colonial discourse on Zanzibari schoolgirls. Decker highlights the extent to which these schoolgirls needed to be self-aware (that is, to pretend to know nothing about sex) because to behave otherwise would be to demonstrate that they were no longer innocent children in need of protection. The case illustrates the “power of the secret of sex that officials sought to draw out and Zanzibari girls worked to conceal.” 

Imperial fetishization

Decker’s next book, currently in progress, has the working title Precocious Play: The Debate Over Rights and Sexuality of Children in Colonial East Africa. It continues her research on child sexuality, child protection and child rights. International child and youth rights movements came to East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) during British colonial rule in the early twentieth century. These movements often used sexuality to delineate between the child and the adolescent or adult, though discourses on childhood sexuality among East Africans were more ambiguous.

Debates surrounding the sexuality of children and youth fell into two camps. “One sought to protect the innocent and asexual child in the name of universal rights. The other advocated the preservation of cultural practices that were deemed essential for children to learn how to fulfill their future social and sexual roles within their given societies.”

Decker, however, aims to show that “both discourses fetishized the African child” as the object of their causes.  Moreover, both discourses emerged from particularistic cultural positions, and both made universalist claims about the nature of childhood. With the support of the Division of Social Sciences Dean’s Innovation Award, Decker will travel to Uganda and Britain this year to complete the research for this project.

Learn more about Corrie Decker.