Missionary Journals and a Rhetoric of Rescue: The Church of England Zenana Missionary Society and India’s Women (1880-1940)

Christian female missionaries played a prominent role in the spread and development of female education in colonial India. The missionary aim of ‘evangelisation through education’ placed literacy and learning high on the agenda of ‘women’s work for women’.[1] Such work and its attendant successes, setbacks, obstacles, and failures, were extensively recorded by female missionaries, and sent back to missionary society headquarters in the metropole as regular reports. These reports were included in such journals, as a means to inspire and justify women’s work abroad, at a time when the male enterprise of empire acknowledged, and to a large extent upheld, the sexual division of labour as understood by Victorian ideals of gender.[2] The need to justify such work gave female missionaries an added impetus to elaborate on the great need of Christianity for their ‘Indian sisters’, and highlight the many social ‘evils’ of Indian society that adversely affected Indian women and kept them in a subjugated and low position. Indian women were frequently portrayed as ‘victims’ in missionary journals and publications, who needed rescuing or ‘saving’ from the restraints and injustices resulting from their adherence to Indian religions and customs.[3]

indiaswomen00churuoft_0007One such organisation was the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society (CEZMS). Founded in 1880, the CEZMS was an all-female missionary society whose primary aim was to spread Christianity to the women of India (specifically stated as ‘heathen’ and ‘Muhammadan’) through education and medical care. The CEZMS monthly journal, India’s Women, included detailed reports by individual missionaries from each mission station in India. A survey of publications and journals by the CEZMS and an analysis of its changing rhetoric, reveals how missionary writings evolved relative to the changing colonial context and social circumstances of Indian women.

The rhetoric of rescue employed by most female missionaries, focused on the obstacles they faced in accessing Indian women, particularly for the purpose of a Christian education. Among such obstacles were the practice of female seclusion and child marriage. The practice of female seclusion meant many Indian females were unable to attend missionary schools, hence the focus of this society on zenana visitations. Female missionaries described the zenana in their reports as a prison, a place of filth and disease, where the Indian woman was confined to live out her dreary days.[4] Such a depiction of the zenana, contributed to the rhetoric of rescue, which emphasised the missionary’s need to free Indian women from their imprisonment within the four walls of the home.

On the other hand, the practice of child marriage was a major hindrance to the continuation of many Indian girls’ education, as they were pulled out of mission schools, or zenana teaching to be married off.[5] As a result of such occurrences, many missionaries spoke of the ‘souls lost’ to cultural practices. Missionary interactions and experiences with these women, thus gave rise to a high critique of Indian customary practices, particularly those of women. The practice of seclusion and child marriage were highly critiqued and used as justification for the continuation of missionary work. It was hoped that through conversion to Christianity, Indian women would abandon such practices, and their conditions would subsequently be improved. Female Christian missionaries thus engaged in the late colonial discourses on social reform for Indian women, albeit within a rhetoric of rescue.

While earlier missionary writings focused on these obstacles and a critique of them, towards the early twentieth century, such a rhetoric began to change. With the rise of larger national movements in social reform, and Indian women’s greater public involvement, this rhetoric of rescue changed from one of a patronising critique of Indian women’s practices, to an acknowledgment of their raising self-consciousness, and awareness of their social conditions.[6] The relative success of reforms for Indian women, and the growth of Indian women’s organisations contributed to a marginalisation of female missionaries, as their work declined and CEZMS pupils decreased significantly by the 1920s.

Photograph of Indian suffragettes on the Women's Coronation Proc

By the late 1930s the female missionaries of the CEZMS attempted to regain the prominent place they once held in female education and social reform for Indian women. CEZMS missionaries attributed the successes of advances in Indian women’s conditions to the work of societies like themselves, and emphasised the continuing need of their ‘Indian sisters’ for ‘women’s work for women’. However, the patronising tone of missionary views towards Indian women continued, as the rhetoric within missionary writings changed from one of rescue to one of guidance. Indian women were seen as children walking out into a new freedom, which CEZMS missionaries attributed to their own efforts, and needed guiding through their entry into the world. Thus, the change in rhetoric reflected the rapidly changing social situation in late colonial India.

While the influence and effect female missionaries had on the social reform of Indian women is debateable, they did play a prominent role in the development of female education in India, whether it was through mission schools and zenana teaching, or the indigenous, sometimes hostile, response to Christian education which prompted campaigns for female education among both Hindu and Muslim reformers.[7] Increasing literacy among Indian women also contributed to their greater public activity, which subsequently led to demands for improved social conditions, which were to some degree obtained.[8] Thus, towards the end of empire in India, female missionaries believed their purpose of rescue had been achieved, and all that was now required of them was to make Indian women their own evangelists.


[1] Female missionary work was commonly called ‘Women’s work for women’. For a more thorough reading of female missionary activity in India see: Eliza F. Kent, Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India, (Oxford, 2004); Kumari Jayawardena, The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Colonial Rule, (New York, 1995); Maina Singh, Gender, Religion and “Heathen Lands”: American Missionary Women in South Asia (1860s-1940s), (New York, 2000).

[2] Antoinette Burton, At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley, 1998), pp. 72-109.

[3] This analysis is based on a survey of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society journal, India’s Women, published between 1880 and 1940. The name of the journal was later changed to India’s Women and China’s Daughters, to reflect the geographical expansion of CEZMS work.

[4] Janaki Nair, ‘Uncovering the Zenana: Visions of Indian Womanhood in Englishwomen’s Writings, 1813-1940’ Journal of Women’s History, 2:1, (1990)

[5] See: Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism, (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010).

[6] A selection of works that consider such movements: Gail Minault, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998); Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Muslim Women, Reform and Princely Patronage: Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum of Bhopal (London: Routledge, 2007); Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Kumkum Sangari, and Sudesh Vaid, (eds.), Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990)

[7] Tomila Lanika and Lullit Getachew, ‘Competitive Religious Entrepreneurs: Christian Missionaries and Female Education in Colonial and Post-Colonial India’, British Journal of Political Sciences, 43:1 (2012), pp. 103-131.

[8] Among such reforms were a series of legislation in the 1920s and 1930s, including the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, and the implementation of Muslim personal laws granting Muslim women the right to succession, while female education developed through the growth of women’s institutions and admissions to universities. Women also began to involve themselves in politics and a select few held political positions.


2 thoughts on “Missionary Journals and a Rhetoric of Rescue: The Church of England Zenana Missionary Society and India’s Women (1880-1940)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s