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  • Cited by 19
Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
December 2020
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Book description

Fleeting Agencies 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.


Winner, 2021 Sarah A. Whaley Book Prize, National Women's Studies Association

2022 Gita Chaudhuri Prize, Western Association of Women Historians

Winner, 2022 The Stansky Book Prize, North American Conference on British Studies


'In this landmark study, Arunima Datta takes aim at decades of historiographical refusal to see and hear the situational agency of coolie women in colonial Malaysia. Drawing on a remarkable combination of archival evidence and oral histories, she makes an irrefutable case for recognizing coolie women's work as the key to plantation economies and by extension, to the history of colonialism written at large. Fleeting Agencies is world history from below at its principled best. It's also a model of anti-imperial, feminist transnational labour and migration history, and a handbook for how to decolonize archives upon which exclusionary histories have been built as well. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the gendered history of radicalized capital wherever it has taken root.'

Antoinette Burton - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

'More than victims of planters, colonial authorities, and their own men, Indian coolie women in Malaya emerge from this finely grained and sophisticated history as depot wives, rights-bearing labourers, entrepreneurial householders, absconding lovers, and armed resisters of British, Japanese, and elite rule. Arunima Datta finds situational agency in their everyday lives with broad implications for the gendering of global labour migration, colonialism, and politics of work and intimacy.'

Eileen Boris - University of California Santa Barbara

'Fleeting Agencies is a major contribution to the history of global migration. With creativity and nuance, Arunima Datta recovers from archival fragments the experiences of Indian women workers on the plantations of colonial Malaya. This book will be widely admired across fields – and admired as much for its methodological sophistication as for its moving and engaging narrative.'

Sunil Amrith - Yale University

‘… This book is a strong intervention in a field of research that has received little attention, and importantly, no investment, for decades. That field is women’s social history in Malaya and Malaysia … Datta has broken new ground by centring the stories of workers who were doubly marginalised, on racial as well as gender grounds.’

Amrita Malhi Source: History Australia

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