This work, an important contribution to the gendered history of colonial Indian labour migration, offers a fresh perspective on coolie women’s everyday experiences and their contribution as producers and reproducers of labour to the plantation economy of Federated Malaya States (FMS) in British Malaya. The author challenges works which located women as passive victims of colonialism, nationalism, war, or patriarchy and captures the coexistence of traits of complicity, resistance and survival within coolie women’s everyday acts through proposing the idea of fleeting or situational agency. Beyond open and defiant acts of resistances and long-lasting societal transformations, fleeting agency, she argues, can be traced in short-term relief or advantage, and implicit, covert, episodic, and non-oppositional agential acts of self-determination. The chapters explore the roles and everyday experiences of coolie women in spaces of labour, domesticity, intimacy, nationalist politics, and military services and how they actively negotiated the complex structures of gender, race, class, and migration. Coolie women’s engagements with patriarchy, migration policies, plantation economy, and social arrangements as well as British colonialism, Indian nationalism, and Japanese occupation during World War II are important parts of this work.
The work highlights the agential acts of coolie women who chose to migrate, with or without relatives and become migrant labourers in their own rights. Malayan administrators and planters incentivized migration of coolie women and family to ensure a local means of reproducing labour and to curb the Indian nationalist critique that skewed sex-ratio resulted in rising cases of immorality and violence on the estates. The sex-ratio among Indian labour migrants in Malaya witnessed a gradual improvement from 171F:1000M in 1901 to 482 F:1000M in 1931, yet remained disproportionate. One reason was that Rule No. 23 which mandated a fixed number of women migrants to improve the sex-ratio on the estates was not applied in Malaya. The uninterrupted supply of large and cheap labour force to Malaya remained the priority of the colonial governments and planters. Moreover, the number of single women migrants remained significantly low. In 1931, there were 237,288 single adult male labourers and only 61,230 single adult women labourers excluding dependents under five years of age. Thus, single adult women remained hesitant to migrate despite the colonial checks and balances to curb instances of fraud and deception, incentives to promote women’s migration, and efforts of leaders like Periyar that Datta talks about.