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Arunima Datta

Apr 5, 2021

Fleeting Agencies

A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya

Cambridge University Press 2021

Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya (Cambridge UP, 2021) disrupts the male-dominated narratives by focusing on gendered patterns of migration and showing how South Asian women labour migrants engaged with the process of migration, interacted with other migrants and negotiated colonial laws. This is the first study of Indian coolie women in British Malaya to date. In exploring the politicization of labour migration trends and gender relations in the colonial plantation society in British Malaya, the author foregrounds how the migrant Indian 'coolie' women manipulated colonial legal and administrative perceptions of Indian women; their gender-prescriptive roles, relations within patriarchal marriage institutions, and even the emerging Indian national independence movement in India and Malaya. All this, to ensure their survival, escape from unfavourable relations and situations, and improve their lives. The book also introduces the concept of situational or fleeting agency, which contributes to further a nuanced understanding of agency in the lives of Indian coolie women.

Arunima Datta is a historian of South and Southeast Asia and the British Empire. Her main area of research interest focuses on the transnational mobility of South Asians in the colonial period (nineteenth and twentieth century) across different parts of the British Empire. Much of Dr. Datta’s research has simultaneously also focused on themes of labor history, transnational Indian nationalism, women’s and gender history. In addition to Fleeting Agencies, she has also published a number of articles and chapters, concerning South Asian labor, migration and women’s histories. Her current research project is centered around the migration and mobility of Indian Travelling Ayahs (travelling nannies) across the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Dr. Datta also serves as a member of the editorial board for the journal Gender & History, Journal of Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and Asian Journal of Social Science Studies.

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