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Collet’s Cosmopolitan Feminism

Collet’s deep attraction to Roy and to the Brahmo Samaj was not only based on a sense of spiritual affinity; it was also based on her approval as a feminist of the priority Roy and his movement gave to improving the position of Indian women. Her spiritual cosmopolitanism and her cosmopolitan feminism were inseparable, just as Roy’s position as a religious and social reformer was inseparable. This is unsurprising, given her background. The radical Unitarian congregation in which she was involved in her youth was at the centre of the development of early feminist thought. In this milieu, commitment to improving the position of women was understood not simply as a Western or Christian prerogative. It could also involve reformist Indian men like Ram Mohan Roy, celebrated not only as a religious reformer but as the man responsible for the abolition of sati, the Hindu practice of burning alive widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Collet became one of a group of Freethinking feminists who challenged male religious authority and ‘condemned the oppression of women in Scripture and the subordinate position assigned to them by Christianity’.64 This was a stance which stood in sharp contrast to mainstream evangelical missionary and colonial discourse, which emphasised the privileges accorded to women in Christian nations and contrasted these with their oppression in ‘heathen’ lands. Collet’s biography of Roy not only included a detailed discussion of his role in the abolition of sati but also emphasised the cosmopolitanism of his feminism, noting his ‘thorough defence of women in general and Indian women in particular’.65

Collet’s initial hero-worship of Sen in the 1870s was similarly based on her enthusiasm for his combination of religious reform with a commitment to social reform focussed on the position of women. She was also very excited to discover that Indian women were beginning to take initiatives of their own to improve the position of women, and she saw the ‘pure faith’ of Brahmoism as responsible for stimulating ‘the female intelligence of India’.66 She wrote in Bengali to Radharani Lahiri, secretary of Bama Hitohishini Shobha (the Women’s Welfare Committee), to find out more about Brahmo women’s own engagement with the ‘woman question’, stating that she was seeking the information in the spirit of ‘appreciation and deep empathy for all of you who are devoting their time and energy for women’s advancement in Bengal’.67 As I have discussed elsewhere, Collet’s engagement with Brahmo women activists shows a spirit of equal exchange on the ‘woman question’ rather than an imperial feminist assertion of her authority and power as a white woman to rescue victimised Indian

women.68

Having actively supported Sen’s controversial campaign against child marriage,69 Collet was horrified when in 1878 he decided to marry his under-age daughter to the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. Her disillusion with Sen’s new religious direction, discussed above, was intertwined with her anger at his betrayal of the Brahmo social reform agenda.70 She then threw her support behind the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj both because she felt that it was adhering to true theism and because of its ‘cordial recognition of the equal value of both sexes’71 Her Brahmo Year-Books reported on its progressive initiatives in developing women’s education, and detailed women’s own organisational activities.72

In the mid-1880s, Collet found a way of directly linking her support for the British feminist movement with her support for Brahmo social reformers, to their mutual benefit. She was instrumental in connecting leaders of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj to the journalist William Stead, who was the standing trial for his involvement in a controversial campaign against child prostitution in Britain, and to the outspoken feminist activist Josephine Butler. She helped persuade Butler to turn her attention to the abolition of the Contagious Diseases Act (C.D. Acts) in colonial India, following Butler’s success in securing the repeal of the C.D. Acts as they applied to Britain.73 As she explained in a letter to a friend, she was ‘anxious to do all I can to bring Brahmo workers en rapport with English philanthropists and true Christians and no cause can be more vital than this’.74

 
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