Colonialism, Morality, and Biopower: A Case Study

History May 06, 2023
A woman dyes textiles in Kandy, Sri Lanka (via user Peter van der Sluijs on Wikimedia Commons)

The European colonial powers, notably France and the U.K., once controlled nearly a third of the world’s landmass (Taagepera, 2017). With these various regions came thousands of tribes, hundreds of cultures, and millions of people who were all subject to colonial rule stripping them of their civil liberties. To manipulate and maintain these newly acquired territories, the colonial overlords often pitted different groups against each other as a means to their ends. By having different tribes focused on infighting, they would not be able to organize and unite to fight for freedom.

More often than not, there are still important remainders of this colonial biopower—the control of people through societal disciplinary institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank) in the developing world and many neoliberal policies. This can be seen in the modern female labor discipline of ex-colonies. The central political and cultural implications regarding female labor discipline are widespread, including public intervention in the private sphere by the modern state, variations in colonial policies, and the establishment of a binary moral compass for women. This piece examines the case studies of British colonial rule in Kenya and the role of gendered discipline in the industrialization of Japan and Sri Lanka.

Colonial Biopower Over Women

Colonial biopower was and still is a public intervention in sexuality. In a sense, it led to a clash between productivity and reproductivity, or the public and private spheres in the societal and economic realms. Michel Foucault, a philosopher whose work focused on power relations, the nature of knowledge, and how various forms of power construct and shape human subjects, elaborated on the idea of the modern state by stating that it could now control peoples’ lives and deaths. He argued that power is not just repressive but productive and operates at all levels of society, from the micro-level of individual interactions to the macro-level of institutions and systems. The sovereign power could accomplish this through two main forms: It could either use a disciplinary intervention of the state in the private sphere or construct moral binaries with imagined “good” and “bad.” This led to political dominance over the population, thereby instilling legitimacy and a monopoly on moral values.

Michel Foucault, 1974 (via Wikimedia Commons).

The disciplinary tools of the state include laws, the modern state apparatus, such as stable and bureaucratic institutions, and language. An example of this may be law and moral discipline. As Foucault had elaborated, “Power is essentially what dictates its law to sex. Which means first of all that sex is placed by power in a binary system: licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden” (Foucault, M 2020). There were many goals of colonial biopower. The first of which was political dominance through colonial paternalism and violence. The second is the procurement of a monopoly on constructed moral values. These goals are achieved through the interlinkage of law, the modern state apparatus, and discourse used by government officials. There are also the establishments of essentialized gender binaries and an idea of cultural superiority between civilized and “backward” indigenous peoples (Thomas, L 2021).

This control over women’s bodies was important as it helped colonial leaders control the birth rates of their territories. An interesting case study would be that of Kenya in the early to mid-1900s. The colonial administration there first promoted anti-circumcision groups as circumcision was deemed barbaric and inhumane. (Thomas, L) Later, when they realized women would not have children until they were “circumcised,” they decided to promote it at an earlier age. (Thomas, L) It should be noted that what the British considered as female circumcision is, nowadays, better known as female genital mutilation due to its particularly gruesome and painful procedure. This was done purely out of material greed. The British colonial leaders needed manpower for extractive purposes yet did not want more “inferior” people being born. This shows a paradox in the colonial administration. On one side, local practices advocated for female circumcision as a means of sacredness and obtaining womanhood. The anti-colonialism and Kikuyu Central administrations, an institution that had for goal of the preservation of local culture, promoted local traditions by encouraging female circumcision. They saw this promotion of local practices as a way to fight against the cultural genocide that the British enforced on the general population.

On the other hand, colonial regimes used this issue as a public welfare policy. It provided formal medical procedures with top-down welfare and clinics; this was legitimized under the guise of modernity. While the anti-colonial nationalist civil society actors of Kenya advocated for female circumcision as a means to resist against the British, those same Anglo-Saxon colonizers promoted female circumcision for political and material goals. Therefore, while the goal of the Kikuyu Central Association was to resist the British, they were aiding them by providing them with a large labor pool for forced labor. This is because the earlier women were circumcised, the more children they could bear, according to local traditions. This shows the cause-effect between female circumcision and higher rates of population growth, which can be associated with labor exploitation. (Thomas, L)

This can be linked to a second paradox; the simultaneous empowerment and disempowerment of women. The state’s reproductive control or promotion of female circumcision led to biopower over women. On one side, this empowers women as they are pushed to become independent to have children or not. Women can then break their chains and dependence on the men in their lives. By choosing when and if they decide to have children, women are no longer constrained to the home due to childcare. However, despite this feminist idea of liberating women from their reproductive burdens, many of these policies promoted the civilizing mission of colonial masters. In reality, by facilitating women’s access to abortion and birth control, colonial rulers promoted systemic discrimination by encouraging racialized low-income groups to “stop proliferating.” (Vasconcellos, 2018) There is also the issue that the groups advocating against female circumcision focused on Western ideals and standards of morality. The British feminist groups and protestant missionaries therefore enforced Christian and Western ideas of morality on the local population.

However, whereas local traditional and anti-colonialist movements encourage female circumcision, so does the colonial government. The latter does this as a means of reproductive control. Early-age female circumcision, maternity clinics, public health, anti-abortion campaigns, and laws to deter pregnancy before marriage were all used to control population growth for material gains. The British colonial institutions wished to increase production through more labor. Promoting early-age circumcision led to fewer abortions, which increased population growth and, as a result, provided a stable labor supply for the British and their extractive goals in Kenya. This resulted in long-term colonial policies which still impact Kenya’s reproductive education and health clinics (Thomas, L).

Whereas colonial leaders used women as a means to an end, utilizing them to get children who would work in colonial ventures, (Vasconcellos), other nations cut out the middleman and instead used women as labor directly. This was the case in Japan and Sri Lanka, where local authorities used women as a way to industrialize quickly through biopolitical institutions (Caitrin Lynch).

At the missionary-run Kijabe Girls' Home in Kijabe, Kenya, circa 1914 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gendered Discipline in Industrialization

There is an oft-overlooked interaction between industrialization and female labor discipline. More specifically, women’s key role in Asian industrialization. In the case of Japan, there was a major mobility-immobility paradox concerning female labor participation. On one side, promoting women’s labor in Japan created many opportunities for the women involved who had previously been left behind. Japanese women could now have a stable income and empower themselves by no longer being dependent on the men in their lives. However, this employment also came with devaluation as women were paid less and had worse working conditions. Women were also disempowered as their factory owners subjugated them by controlling their private lives. In essence, women solved the question of industrialization in Japan through the economic domain as they provided cheap disposable labor for local markets. On the other side, women were used in the social domain as a vector of national values and civic duties; they represented gender norms and sexual orders.

In order to maintain the gendered moral discipline essential for Japan’s industrialization, the government, like the British in Kenya, used moral norms and surveillance tools. The moral binary instilled by the Japanese normalized labor docility by associating womanhood with being a good wife and a wise mother. (Elyssa Faison, Managing women: Disciplining labor in Modern Japan) Surveillance tools devalued female labor through physical institutions like factories and dormitories and discursive speech through corporate paternalism (Elyssa Faison, 2007). Substantially, the capitalist labor discipline of gender solved a number of societal issues. It absorbed female labor and the rural poor, promoted labor discipline through labor surveillance and moral discipline, and enabled high productivity (most notably in the textile industry) with limited costs. In fact, the physical surveillance occurred in the workplace with the factory floors, which resemble panopticons and dormitories where guards observed the women. This replicates the modes of control as discussed by Foucault. By surveilling their dormitories, the factory owners control the actions and bodies of their female employees. The moral discipline, however, was more hidden. It mainly occurred through forms of corporate paternalism, where the factory owner needed to protect the “daughters of the nation,” thereby promoting familialism. Family paternalism truly played a central role in Japan’s nationalist goals. The familial obligations and paternal orders were linked to militarism on one side with male discipline and industrialization with female discipline. Militarism and industrialization were both linked to nationalism through their respective “fathers,” the emperor on one side and the factory owners on the other.

The case of Japan can be paralleled with Sri Lanka’s industrialization and use of female labor discipline. Sri Lanka’s economic liberalization in the late 1970s. This was part of Sri Lanka’s larger national goals of industrialization, militarism, and nationalism. The idea was that industrialization would be the stepping stone for militarism, which in itself would promote nationalism. The regime believed it needed to achieve these goals in order to develop economically. However, these goals would be unachievable without a fourth hidden goal- gendered moral discipline (Caitrin Lynch, 2016).

It is important to put things into context. In the late 1980s, Sri Lanka faced two distinct threats: a political and a moral crisis. The political crisis comprised the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE posed a direct threat to the state’s existence by calling for an end to the government and the establishment of new political institutions. The moral crisis was caused by globalization; it led to a loss of the nation’s “traditional culture” with increasing foreign direct investments and economic development. For example, the increased economic liberalization increased the amount of unemployment for men; this led to more women leaving their villages to work in the cities and, therefore, no longer being at home to take care of the household. By leaving their hometowns, women could no longer transmit the traditional culture to their children. The government's solution to this issue was to open 200 garment factories which would promote gendered moral discipline.

First, one may look into the political crisis in more detail. The Civil War led to a fragmented national unity, divisions between ethnic groups (the Tamil and Sinhalese), and divisions within the Sinhalese. The 200 GFPs proposed by the government were a solution as they promoted a more robust rural economy and military. The economic divide worsened with the rise of the JVP (Sinhalese People’s Liberation Front) protests in the 1980s. On one side, the educated Anglophone urban elites benefited from the economic liberalization, whereas the rural unemployed youth were left behind. This made unemployed men more likely to join the JVP and fight against the government, as they had no opportunities for economic integration. An important factor that has been forgotten is the role of rural women, who were absorbed into urban factories and became “Juki Girls.” Juki girls are defined as women colonized by globalization and, therefore, a threat to traditional culture. These are directly opposed to “Good Girls” which are uncolonized and represent the caretakers of Sinhalese culture.

Second, the moral crisis caused by globalization and gendered moral crisis. Younger girls left their native villages to work for foreign companies in the cities, abandoning their families and parents. This led to the emergence of a “Juki girl—Good girl” binary wherein Juki girls represented a threat to national Sinhalese values. This is because “Juki Girls” were seen as women colonized by globalization (Caitrin Lynch). Owing to the fact that the Juki girls were dislocated since they were no longer subject to their parent's control, the latter was disqualified for “marriageability” and represented cultural loss. On the other hand, the “good girls” were seen as caretakers of Sinhalese culture and moral values; they were viewed as pure and uncolonized.

Again, the 200 GFPs were seen as the solution as they would meet three main goals. First, they would provide rural poverty alleviation through jobs. Second, they would bring peace by preventing youth revolts like the JVP in the 1980s. Third, these garment factories had a moral and disciplinary goal, which would maintain women in their home villages. However, this caused a paradox with contradictory socio-cultural meanings of villages. The Sinhala Buddhist tradition saw them as uncolonized cultural purity, whereas it was often seen as the site of backwardness and laziness, being the root of social problems.

Nevertheless, the GFPs were economically indispensable to Sri Lanka. This is because the young rural women were seen as expendable. Their discipline represents productivity, their docility associated with Sinhalese womanhood represents fewer demands, and their socio-economic situations make them easily replaceable. Once again, it is easy to notice the paradox of mobility and immobility brought forward in this situation. The GFPs provided women with economic opportunities and certain empowerment but also reinforced the traditional subjugation of women in their familial units.

Ultimately, the disciplinary power of the modern state over individuals is exerted through two primary tools. First is governmentality, with the modern state’s imposition of absolute control over subjects' daily behaviors. Second, through biopower, which is more specific to the state’s control of the reproductive sphere. This enables the nation to meet two main goals: obtaining disciplined subjects and creating a dual morality. Using both moral constructions of womanhood in Kenya, Japan, and Sri Lanka, as well as their surveillance tools, have enabled and promoted the construction of docile workers.

A memorial to those tortured and mistreated under British rule in Nairobi, Kenya (via user U249601 on Wikimedia Commons)

Works Cited:

Caitrin Lynch Juki girls, Good Girls: Gender and Cultural politics in ... (n.d.).  Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

Faison, Elyssa. Managing Women: Disciplining Labor in Modern Japan on JSTOR., 2007

Gouvernance Globale du Travail (GGT). (2021, April 12). Elyssa Faison (2007). Managing women : Disciplining labor in Modern Japan. Berkeley, University of CALIFORNIA PRESS.  Retrieved April 12, 2021, from

Taagepera, R. “Expansion and Contraction Patterns of Large Polities: Context for Russia.” International Studies Quarterly, 19 July 2017,

Thomas, L. (n.d.). Politics of the womb : Women, reproduction, and the state in Kenya. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from

The History of Sexuality, by Michel Foucault, Penguin Classics, 2020, pp. 83–83.

Vasconcellos, C. (2018, February 01). Birth control in The DECOLONIZING caribbean: Reproductive politics and practice on Four islands, 1930–1970.  Retrieved April 12, 2021, from