Hidden lives and white women’s burdens: Victorian Images of the Indian Zenana.





Victorian novel, zenana, missionaries, feminism, islamophobia


The article considers how the Zenana, the portion of the house in which Indian women live, has been represented in a selection of texts that include British nineteenth century novels, missionaries’ reports and feminist writings. The zenana is portrayed in exotic, orientalist and islamophobic terms,that voice the authors’ cultural bias. In the eyes of the Victorians, the zenana is a fascinating space which gives them the opportunity to compare and discuss the social position of native women and memsahibs. As a consequence, the representation of the zenana works as a symbolic identity battleground and a cultural benchmark that measures the distance between oriental backwardness and western civilization.

In particular, the Indian women’s segregation offers British women the prospect to design their own colonial task, complementary to the male one. The memsahibs claim a specific role as Indian women’s ‘saviors’, defining their own white women’s burden. As missionaries who are allowed to penetrate the rooms forbidden to white males, British women become the champions who conquer the most secluded Indian territory. As feminists, they yearn to defeat Indian male barbarous oppression, disregarding their own subjugation in Britain. In both cases, women missionaries and feminists are not totally aware of their entanglement with imperialist male tenets, the same beliefs that keep them on the margins of British society. For these reasons, we may conclude that the analysis of the manifolds representations of the zenana disclose many Victorian epistemic complexities and colonial ambiguities.

Author Biography

  • Flaminia Nicora, University of Bergamo

    Associate professor

    Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures

    Room 212 – Piazza Rosate  2     24129 Bergamo (Italia)

    Tel. 0039 035 2052709



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