The Coloniality of Gender and Sexuality

What is the Coloniality of Gender?

© Wikimedia Commons | “Mexican castas/Lineage.” Ignacio María Barreda, 1777

The coloniality of gender describes how relationships between women, between men and between women and men, changed through the unequal social interactions that began with colonialism and continue to this day.

This  colonial “contact zone” is a space where people who have historically been separated, come in to contact with one another and establish ongoing relations, usually in conditions of racial inequality, violence or coercion (Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 1992).

© Wikimedia Commons | “Mexican castas/Lineage.” Ignacio María Barreda, 1777

The white European and Christian Man became the standard by which all of humanity was ranked and his position was reinforced by controlling nations and communities of people that were colonised. Like the Wixaritari, many of the nations that were colonised had a more equal gender structure before colonialism: some had women leaders and parallel or complementarity gender systems, meaning that although women and men held different roles, these were equal in status.

The colonial gendering of native people also shaped dominant structures of gender, and the identities, roles, appearance and social organisation of white women and white men changed when they assumed racial superiority over people of colour. By the 19th Century the ‘housewife/breadwinner’ model of European patriarchy was firmly established as the natural order of society and laws and institutions were used to enforce this structure. The role model of the Victorian wife as delicate, weak and sexually reserved, contrasted sharply with images of promiscuous and barely dressed women in the colonies.

‘Mass marriage scene’ from Ukari Wa’utiska animated film (Artwork by Susie Vickery) | © Susie Vickery 2022

Coloniality is an enduring process that did not end when states became independent. Today globalised ideas of masculinity and femininity that are based on Western stereotypes and reproduced by commercial interests have replaced colonial structures of domination.

How did Colonialism and State-making influence Gender and Sexuality?


“Do you honor your husband? Do you obey him in all the good things he asks you to do? Have you caused him any big problems?”.
Confessionary in Mexican and Spanish, 1840. By a priest from Puebla, Mexico.
© Editorial Imprenta Antigua en el Portal de las Flores

This process happened directly through encounters such as the visits or residency of missionaries in Indigenous lands and the imposition of a Western education system.

It happened legally and politically through the introduction of laws regarding marriage, land ownership, inheritance or sexuality.

And socially through the acculturation that occurs during sustained contact with government services, in times of conflict or migration and more recently through television, social media and consumerism.

Confessionary in Mexican and Spanish, 1840. By a priest from Puebla, Mexico.
© Editorial Imprenta Antigua en el Portal de las Flores

Click on each 'Contact Zone' above to find out more

The Male Gaze:
Men Writing Men’s Stories


Archive data can only tell a limited story as most archives are collections of documents gathered by the state or powerful institutions and told by men.

Male authored Wixárika histories and ethnographies. © Humberto Fernández Borja, 2022

The history of Mexican colonialism and state-making until at least the 1960s, is dominated by men writing stories about and for other men. This white Christian male gaze was defined by beliefs in cultural, racial and sex-based supremacy. 

The presence of male anthropologists also taught Indigenous people their subjugated place in the racial and gendered hierarchy. These were some of the conditions and power relationships that shaped early accounts of Indigenous gender relations.

Carl Lumholtz, Sierra Madre, March 20, 1892.
© C.H,Taylor. American Museum of Natural History Library no. CL0020

Konrad Theodor Preuss (1896-1938), German ethnologist.
© Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut CC NC BY SA

'Huichol Indian' Print by León Diguet, 19th Century ©Musee du Quai Branly

'Huichol Indian' Print by León Diguet, 19th Century ©Musee du Quai Branly


This photo is being used to show how anthropological research was used as evidence for theories of scientific racism.

Léon Diguet (1859-1926) a French Naturalist. © Wikipedia Creative Commons CC BY SA.

‘In contrast to the ugly, churlish Tarahumara women, who nag their husbands constantly to maintain a status equal to that of the men, the prettier and much more affectionate and amiable Huichol women are poorly treated.’


The Huichols, Primitive Artists, Robert Zingg (1938), p.142

Robert Mowry Zingg, taken in Tuxpan de Bolaños, 1934 by Charles Wisdom.
© Amerind Foundation ZH-24-09-684


Who are we?

This exhibition, supported by the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research (SDCELAR) at the British Museum, showcases the findings from Gender, health and the Afterlife of Colonialism: engaging new problematisations to improve maternal and Infant Survival, a Wellcome Trust Funded research project (Project number 215001/Z/18/Z).

We have used archive searches, revision of bibliographical material and interviews as part of the Tuapurie Oral History Project to understand how gender has changed through contact between the colonial State and later independent Mexican Republic and Wixárika indigenous communities.

The research project is a collaboration between:

University College London (UCL), Institute for Global Health

CIESAS Occidente (the Centre for Research and Studies in Social Anthropology) 

Conservación Humana AC (CHAC) 

And members of the The Wixárika Community of Tuapurie, Mezquitic, Jalisco.

Project Director
Dr. Jennie Gamlin,
Associate Professor, Medical Anthropology and Global Health, UCL Institute for Global Health.
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Exhibition Curator
Humberto Fernández Borja,
Conservación Humana A.C.

Archive Research team director
Dr. María Teresa Fernández Aceves
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Archive Research team leader
Dr. Paulina Ultreras Villagrana
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Archival Research
Ileana Cristina Gómez Ortega
Tania Fernanda Aguilar Silva
Frine Castillo Badillo

Field work director
Totupica Candelario Robles

Field work assistant
Claudia de la Torre Carrillo

Susie Vickery

Curatorial, image research and production assistants
Ana Laura Mejía Ruiz Esparza
Daniela Guraieb Elizalde
Lorena Silva Lordméndez
Daniela Altamirano Visoso
Anaïs Oropeza Jochum
Maika Vera Martínez

Jennie Gamlin:
Institute for Global Health,
30 Guilford St., London, WC1N 1EH.

We would like to thank The Wellcome Trust for funding this project as part of a Research Enrichment-Public Engagement award.

Digital exhibition

This exhibition was made possible thanks to the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research (SDCELAR) at the British Museum and the generosity of Alejandro & Charlotte Santo Domingo, and Mrs Julio Mario Santo Domingo with Andrés & Lauren Santo Domingo.

Digital Curator
Magdalena Araus Sieber
SDCELAR, British Museum

Lilo Web Design
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Image credits

We would like to thank the following organisations and individuals for gifting materials and copies of materials that have been used in this exhibition:

Ivan Alechine

American Museum of Natural History Library for gifting prints from the Carl Lumholtz Collection to the CHAC Archive

Archivo General de Indias
[General Archive of the Indies]

Archivo Histórico de Jalisco
[Historical Archive of Jalisco]

Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco “Juan José Arreola” de la Universidad de Guadalajara
[Public Library of the State of Jalisco “Juan José Arreola” at the University of Guadalajara]

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

CHAC Archive: Conservación Humana AC

Catholic Church Records, 1590-1979, Mezquitic, Jalisco, Mexico
[Registros Parroquiales, Mezquitic, Jalisco]

Fundación Cultural Armella Spitalier

Museo Zacatecano – Instituto Zacatecano de Cultura Ramón López Velarde


Universidad de Guadalajara

Publications related to women’s and maternal health with Wixárika communities by the author of this exhibition


Gamlin, Jennie B. (2013)
Shame as a barrier to health seeking among indigenous Huichol migrant labourers: An interpretive approach of the “violence continuum” and “authoritative knowledge”
Social Science and Medicine 97 75-81

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2023)
Wixárika Practices of Medical Syncretism: An Ontological Proposal for Health in the Anthropocene
Medical Anthropology Theory 10 (2) 1-26

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2020)
“You see, we women, we can’t talk, we can’t have an opinion…”. The coloniality of gender and childbirth practices in Indigenous Wixárika families
Social Science and Medicine 252, 112912

Jennie Gamlin and David Osrin (2020)
Preventable infant deaths, lone births and lack of registration in Mexican indigenous communities: health care services and the afterlife of colonialism
Ethnicity and Health 25 (7)

Jennie Gamlin and Seth Holmes (2018)
Preventable perinatal deaths in indigenous Wixárika communities: an ethnographic study of pregnancy, childbirth and structural violence BMC
Pregnancy and Childbirth 18 (Article number 243) 2018

Gamlin, Jennie B. and Sarah J Hawkes (2015)
Pregnancy and birth in an Indigenous Huichol community: from structural violence to structural policy responses
Culture, health and sexuality 17 (1)