Caught in the middle


During the second week of this project, I stumbled across the short film Deseos /رغبات, by Maya Mikdashi and Carlos Motta, in which two women exchange impossible letters with each other.[1] Across an expanse of ocean, Martina and Nour discuss the nature of freedom, love for other women, and the intricacies of their everyday lives. While only Martina is found in historical record – brought to trial in 1803 by a female lover who accused her of ‘hermaphroditism’- the film draws on historical knowledge to give agency back to these women, who find safety and kinship in each other. The creators endeavoured to “claim a place for Martina and Nour in the national histories of Lebanon, Syria, and Colombia and in the imperial and colonial histories of the Ottoman and Spanish Empires.”[2] This creates a narrative that is as much fiction as it is an exercise in postcolonial, nationalist history. This purpose is inescapable, illustrating the close relationship of postcolonial and queer studies – both working to disrupt constructs of identity, time, and space. 

Deseos /رغبات is the kind of thing I’d dream of writing – especially as the final weeks of this project loom up ahead, and my big claims about the power of imagination in history come knocking. But there may seem like there’s a disconnect, between the postcolonial and Eleanor Rykener. I’ll admit, this week is a bit of an excuse to read the postcolonial studies I’ve only ever seen quoted. And yet, I feel the need to do so not despite my focus on the medieval, but because of it. In recent years, scholarship has begun to reckon with the haunting of medieval studies by the colonial past. Maybe ‘haunt’ is the wrong word to properly account for the tangibility of this impact, and too easily suggests that this power is produced solely by the past. In an interview about Deseos /رغبات,  Maya Mikdashi describes the production and ordering of history as a “colonial technology.” Mikdashi echoes here the work of many influential academics.[3] As an empire claims geographical space, it also extends itself through time. In claiming modernity, colonialism exerts influence over the past, imposing a “stoppage of Native History.”[4] Through this gutting of the precolonial narrative, a middle ages between primitivity and enlightenment is produced, in which Western Europe can condemn its own past, and the present of its colonial subjects. In the words of John Dagenais, “‘the Middle Ages “shadows” modernity, its existence driven by a repeated denial of coevalness with modernity of activities like repression and brutality: a productive and exploitative anachronism.”[5] The construction of a medieval period exemplifies the colonial technology of history production. 

The denial of coevalness found in medieval studies is tied up intimately with use of the English language. Ananya Jahanara Kabir details the ways in which mid-19th Century colonial administrators advocated the learning of English in Indian schools. With typical paternalism, these politicians painted a picture of a “poor and uninformed tongue,” eventually cultivated – by benevolent superiors and their language – into one with scientific vocabulary, a “native Milton and Shakespeare” and then, finally, refinement and purity.[6] This schema is an idea of English progress, one which takes the British people and their language(s) from primitive Anglo-Saxon, to the slightly improved medieval Norman, to the Milton-marked Renaissance, and finally into the bright light of 19th Century modernity. Transplanted into an Indian context, this places Hindus and Hindi culture in the medieval – nominally advanced by Muslim invaders, but still ultimately waiting for the latinate knowledge of the Rennaisance to be bestowed on them. In encouraging the idea of an ‘English-led Bengal Renaissance,’ the British cast themselves in identical light as the Romans, who conquered Celtic Britain for its own good.[7] Again, through merit of language and resulting culture, the Indian subcontinent is annexed into a British pre-modern .

Medieval studies isn’t the only area of academia implicated by a postcolonial lens. Queer studies is unavoidably loaded with Anglo-American experience and terminology. The shortcomings of western scholarship and activism have been well accounted for, and this week I’ve been focusing on the use of transgender in India. With a rich history of gender variance across the subcontinent, and recent reform made very visible on the world stage, this seemed a good way to scratch the surface of how a postcolonial lens demands change from queer studies. Most strikingly in the articles I have looked at, is the top-down nature of the use and adoption of ‘transgender’ as an identifier. Favoured as a transnational term by the government and NGOs, ‘transgender’ is a label that is more accessible to those who are wealthier, with more access to state support and global activism.[8] Some South Asian scholars and activists, like Aniruddha Dutta and Raina Roy in their article ‘Decolonizing Transgender in India Some Reflections,’ observe that “the imagination of transgender as an expansive category for all gender-variant practices and identities risks replicating colonial forms of knowledge production or overriding other epistemologies of gender/sexual variance.”[9] With the support of the state and NGOs sometimes limited to those who use this transnational identifier, the ‘transgender’ label can become almost coercive in its application. Gender variant people may adopt it more out of necessity, than any more positive association.[10] The history of the English language across the globe makes use of anglophone labels to describe and shape identity seem particularly worrying. The use of English has shaped a teleology, in which it comes to designate the modern, and enlightened. It has had the power the erase the complex, mutable, and coeval nature of colonised histories. While the infliction of the entire English language onto India isn’t directly comparable to the use of select anglophone identity labels, their use on a global scale seems an eerie echo of colonial injuries. 

My project sits at an intersection between these two loaded discourses. While Eleanor and her story sit slightly apart from postcolonial theory, the same cannot be said for me, and my writing, which remain a product of a colonial history and academic discipline. I have waxed lyrical about the emancipatory possibilities of labels in history, but this week has taught me something different. While I remain distanced from this due to my subject matter, I must become less complicit in the erasure of postcolonial experience. In past blog posts, I have fallen short in accounting for some of the most dangerous aspects of identity labels, thinking only of the damage they could do to past peoples. While anachronism is something I can make my peace with, and sometimes even champion, the baggage these words carry of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ is something I cannot fully reckon with. These words imply an inescapably Anglo-American default, and can further blot out rich and varied cultures of gender nonconformity, by denying modernity and validity of expression. 

I don’t know how this week’s research will impact the project as a whole, which will be over before I will have the chance to process it. I hope this will positively impact the way I write history and, more importantly, how I view reform and third sector work in countries other than my own. More than anything, this week’s research has reminded me that I’ll forever have a lot more to learn.


[1] Maya Mikdashi and Carlos Motta, Deseos / رغبات
(2015) Accessed online at <>
[2] Leah DeVun and Zeb Tortorici, ‘Interview with Maya Mikdashi and Carlos Motta on Deseos / رغبات,’ Transgender Studies Quarterly 5:4 (2018), 651.
[3] DeVun and Tortorici, ‘Interview,’ 649.
[4] John Dagenais and Margaret R. Greer, ‘Decolonizing the Middle Ages: Introduction,’ Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30:3 (2000), 435.
[5] John Dagenais,‘The Postcolonial Laura,’ Modern Language Quarterly 65:3 (2004), 374.
[6] Sir Charles Trevelyan as recorded in Reports from Committees, Parliament Papers, Nov. 1952-Aug. 1853, vol. 32, Appendix N (General Report on Public Instruction in the Lower Provinces of the Bengal Presidency for 1843-44), 122-3; quoted in Ananya Jahanara Kabir, ‘Analogy in Translation: imperial Rome, England, British India,’ in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages eds. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 193.
[7] Kabir, ‘Analogy in Translation,’ 194.
[8] Shraddha Chatterjee, ‘Notes on Resignification of Gender and Sexuality in India,’ Transgender Studies Quarterly 5:3 (2018), 314.
[9] Aniruddha Dutta and Raina Roy,‘Decolonizing Transgender in India: Some Reflections,’Transgender Studies Quarterly 1:3 (2014), 321.
[10] Ibid., 232.

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