Gender Regulation in the Dutch East Indies in 19th and 20th Centuries


The development of immigration, social, and sexual regulations between men   and women administered by the VOC and later Dutch government was not planned   nor linear relative to certain other spheres of government interest. It   experienced many modifications and corrections before it reached a more final   form in the early 1900s. The government regulated many parts of gender and   familial relations from marriage, immigration, children, domestic life, etc.   This changing set of regulations was due to government responses to social   pressures, modernization, efficiency, and organized society based on European   ideals. These factors eventually produced a set of more liberal regulations   like those existing during the colony’s early history. To discount the process   as having little affect in the end would be incorrect since the government   genuinely had to modify its regulations initially to achieve the kind of   “civilized” society it wanted to portray to the natives and to manage a society   based on the ideas of European colonialism. In addition, from an economic and   political perspective, during the 1800s such revisions and changes of policies   were necessary in molding a colonial society corresponding to its state of   economic progress as viewed by the Dutch government in Batavia and upholding   a sense of European prestige in the East Indies. The course of development of   gender relations was controlled by the colonial government and reflected   government policy. The essay recounts the revising of regulatory codes in gender   relations chronologically from the ban on female immigration in the mid 1900s,   to the promotion of concubinage, and finally the policy of European marriage and   promotion of a strong European society in the East Indies in the late 19th and   20th centuries.

Influence of Political Goals on Gender Regulation in the Dutch East Indies

Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia beginning in the 19th century had two   main driving factors: political and economic power. Although these and othe   factors affected the process of gender regulation in the Dutch East Indies,   the policies of the Dutch colonial government regarding this issue show that   political goals were the predominant force in governing European male relationships   with either native or European women. By gender regulation what is meant is the   governing of the sexual, conjugal, and domestic lives of Europeans and   specifically European men. These political goals often conformed to economic   or religious ideologies, but major changes in gender regulation had the primary   purpose of satisfying political ends. These ends were those for the furthering   of colonial power in the Dutch East Indies through the control of population   (both native and European), fulfilling the “civilizing mission”, and the expansion   and assertion of Dutch power over the Netherlands East Indies (Loos).   examination of the process of colonial government policies concerning gender   regulation and how they changed results in two main time periods, that of the   mid to late 19th century when native concubines were emphasized and that of the   early 20th century when marriage between Europeans was promoted and concubines   discouraged. However, before understanding what happened during this period and   how the Dutch colonial government policies changed in the 20th century, the   political goals of the government during the 19th century must be examined.

During the 19th century, the Dutch colonial government like other European   colonial governments in Southeast Asia executed their plans to civilize and   modernize the region. The ideology held by these governments was that there   was single evolutionary path to modernity and Europe was at the highest   point of human development (Loos). Because of this view, which matched with   concepts of imperialism and colonialism, the colonial government felt it   necessary to portray the superior elements of European society to the natives   and clearly delineate the separation between the colonizer and the colonized   (McClintock et al. 348). The ability to achieve these political goals was due   to the colonial authoritarianism that existed in the Dutch East Indies   throughout most of the colony’s history (Taylor 7). In her essay   “Making Empire Respectable”, Stoler argues that the part of the colonial   government’s goal to preserve European superiority was through “sexual”   (European male) dominance in domestic affairs (McClintock et al. 346).   As a result, Stoler states that sexual prohibitions were   “racially asymmetric and gender specific” (McClintock et al. 366).   This resulted in male dominated Dutch populations such as the 2:25 women   to men ratio in Sumatra during the late 19th century.

The regulation of gender in the Dutch East Indies that first appeared   in the early 18th century was specifically targeted at restricting   female immigration to the colony either by preventing female immigration   or refusal of employment of married men by colonial Dutch companies   (McClintock et al. 349). The reason for this policy was due to the   nature of the women who had come to the colonies previously. Many of   these women came from the lowest elements of European society and it   was government’s view that these women “scandalized” the natives through   their actions by misrepresenting European society. As a result,   the colonial government placed a ban on female immigration exempting   only wives of officials. The Dutch colonial government then went further   to secure its goal of portraying the Europeans society as superior by   banning European males from returning to Europe unless they had financial   capabilities to provide for their natives wives forever. Since many of these   men were poor workers or soldiers, it was essentially a disincentive to marry   native women (Loos). Therefore, by the late 18th century, women in the Dutch   East Indies faced more rigid social regulation in Southeast Asia than in   metropolitan Europe (McClintock et al. 344). The government’s answer to the   “needs” of European males was concubinage. Stoler defines concubinage as the   “cohabitation” of European men with native women for domestic and sexual   affairs (McClintock et al. 348). The government and Dutch colonial companies   adopted a policy to promote and accommodate such a lifestyle to compensate   for the lack of European women in the colony. Concubinage suited the colonial   political goals at the time and encouraged a cheaper, healthier, and more   stable lifestyle for European males corresponding to the development level of   the colony. As a result, the policies mentioned above and native concubines   were the core gender regulations of the Dutch government before the early 1900s.

Dutch gender regulation started to change in the early 20th century from it   previous policies due to several factors including changing ideologies, medical   knowledge, technological improvements, and crises. Already in the 1870s, political   and economic stability in the Dutch East Indies along with technological   improvements of the steamboat and the Suez Canal increased immigration of   European families (and thus female immigration). This trend of growing female   immigration continued into the 20th century and changes in political goals   and thus Dutch colonial gender regulation were due to several reasons. Bankoff   in his essay “Europe’s expanding Resources Frontier: Colonialism and Environment   in Southeast Asia” sites one reason for general policy changes which is that   in the late 19th century, Southeast Asian colonial governments increasingly   looked to a long-term occupation of the region including minor materials   processing and markets instead of short-term resource extraction (Barrington 86).   This meant that the Dutch colonial government had to increase it control over   the colony and this idea was physically reflected in military campaigns and   on a domestic level reflected as gender regulation. Another reason for   political goal changes was the supporting of a strong European family setting   in colonial society where women were viewed as the “custodians of family   welfare and respectability and as dedicated and willing subordinates to   and supporters of, colonial men” (McClintock et al. 355). Along with these   views supporting female immigration to the Dutch East Indies, another   factor that changed Dutch views of gender regulation was the serious problem   of “degeneracy” as viewed by the Dutch colonial and home government. The   degeneracy of European colonials was defined through elitist and racist   standards as being “unlike one’s race” and moral corruption due to long   periods of time in the colonies. (McClintock et al. 355) The supporters   of this idea in the government felt the need to guard against degeneracy by   increasing the European population in the colonies and essentially using women   for the sole purpose of reproductive activities (McClintock et al. 356-7).

the early 19th century, overall, the colonial government felt that through   the promotion of families, it could build a strong, stable, and influential   European population in the colony through European families. European superiority   could be achieved and maintained by increasing the Dutch population growth.   The reason for this need for control by Europeans had economic reasons, but   also strong political reasons to continue the authoritarianism and imperialism   of the past colonial government (Barrington 85). This move was also reflected   in the takeover of production and exchange by Europeans, which previously had   been left to the natives (Barrington 94). The colonial government implemented   its new gender regulation policy by lifting family restrictions, sponsoring   European families on various Sumatra plantations, and keeping surveillance of   native men for the protection of European women. The colonial government   desired an increase of European influences in agriculture and raw materials   processing and European families were seen to be able to achieve these goals by   producing hard-working and stable family workers (Barrington 85). Stoler states   “redefinitions of sexual protocol and morality occurred during colonial crises”   (McClintock et al. 365). One colonial and global crisis that added to the need   to reform gender regulations and overall governmental policies was World War I.   After 1918, the Dutch East Indies witnessed a movement that questioned the   superiority of European society. As a result, colonial political policies   were geared towards increasing and asserting Dutch power in the colony. Thus   the decline of concubinage in the early 1900s coincided with the standardization   of the Dutch colonial administration that served to strengthen the Dutch hold   of the colony. Also, by this time medical experts along with an easy journey   from Europe to Southeast Asia confirmed the benefits and possibilities of   well-defined European society in the Dutch East Indies (McClintock et al.366).   A lesser driving force in the political process to promote European families   and discourage concubinage but nonetheless important was the European women   themselves. Stoler contends that the influx of women in the Dutch colony helped   clarify racial lines and brought about a decline in unrestrained social freedom   enjoyed by men prior to a large amount of female immigration   (McClintock et al. 352). Therefore, the change in political ideologies further   were strengthened by the presence of women thus creating a policy of gender   regulation promoting European families and discouraging the previous practices   of concubinage and bans on female immigration.

The process of gender regulation in the Dutch East Indies from the mid   1800s to the early 1900s reflects the change in colonial political ideologies   because changes in the regulation of European male-female relationships were   primarily brought about to achieve political goals. These goals at first were   to portray a superior European colonizer to the native populace that was   reflected in European male dominance in domestic affairs and carried out by   policies encouraging concubinage and selective banning of female immigration   to the colony from Europe. Due to ideological changes, crises, the problem of   degeneracy, and the efforts of women, the political goals of the early 20th   century had changed from those of the 19th century to a more European orientated   colony where Europeans where not only superior in race but were in control of   economic affairs and had a strong stable society based on families. As a result,   old policies where discarded in place of new regulations allowing more liberal   immigration practices, the sponsoring of European families financially, and the   provision of the necessary European amenities to support such a colonial society.

Works Cited

Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Eds. Dangerous Liaisons. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Barrington, Brook Empires, Imperialism, and Southeast Asia: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Tarling. Clayton: Monash University, 1997.
Loos, Tamara. “Colonial Modernity in Netherlands East Indies.” Cornell, Ithaca. 26 Feb. 2001.
Stivens, Maila ed. Why Gender Matters in Southeast Asian Politics. Glen Waverley: Aristoc Press Pty. Ltd., 1991.
Taylor, Jean Gelman ed. Women Creating Indonesia. Clayton: Monash Institute, 1997



  1. Great job! U made this student very very happy! 😀 I wonder what uve studied, and why u wrote this essay. Thank u again. My study is South South East Asia Studies 😉


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