Art for Empire and Degradation.
Two Eastern Bengali women, 1860s. | British Library
Rafia Zakaria,  September 15

Empire and Degradation

On the links between colonialism and sexual control

Two Eastern Bengali women, 1860s. | British Library
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Convicted of not submitting to the medical exam required of “common prostitutes,” Sukhimonee Raur gave this defense to a higher court upon appeal: “I did not attend for examination twice a month, as I have not been a prostitute. I had my name registered at the thannah [police station]. The Inspector registered my name. I did not voluntarily register my name at the thannah.” Raur, a Bengali woman, spoke these words concerning an incident that took place on June 3, 1869, in British Bengal, when she was given a registration ticket that classified her, against her will, as a prostitute. As scholar Durba Mitra recounts in her book Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, Raur had been rounded up under the purview of Chapter XIV of the newly passed Contagious Diseases Act of 1868. According to the act’s provisions, any woman registered as a prostitute had to present herself for genital examinations by law enforcement and medical professionals. It was a deft act of subjugation: empire’s tentacles deployed to effect sexual control.

Raur’s defense was successful, as the high court ruled that there was nothing in the Contagious Diseases Act that gave police “this irresponsible power” to classify an unwilling woman as a prostitute. And yet the particular imperial cruelty in this case was in the widespread use of the word “prostitute.” Usually used to indicate a sex worker, there was no such simplicity for the British, engaged in ruling a population of which they remained (particularly a mere decade after the Indian Rebellion of 1857) exceedingly suspicious. As Mitra writes:

In colonial India, the term “prostitute” was used to describe virtually all women outside of monogamous Hindu upper-caste marriage, including the tawa’if, the courtesan, the dancing girl, the devadasi, high-caste Hindu widows, Hindu and Muslim polygamous women, low-class Muslim women workers, indentured women transported across the British empire, beggars and vagrants, women followers of religious sects, mendicant performers, professional singers, the wives of sailors, women theater actors, saleswomen, nurses, urban industrial laborers, and domestic servants.

In short, Mitra reports, in her research into disparate archives, “I found the prostitute everywhere.”

It was a deft act of subjugation: empire’s tentacles deployed to effect sexual control.

The thought of white men imagining all of brown women’s sexuality being available to them for purchase came to me following more recent historic revelations. On September 3, the New York Times published an article detailing President Richard Nixon’s racist comments regarding Indian women. “Undoubtedly the most unattractive women in the world are the Indian women,” he said at one point. Later he remarked, “They turn me off. They are repulsive and it’s just easy to be tough with them.” Notably, the latter came during tense discussions between Nixon and the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the topic of avoiding war with Pakistan.

Indira Gandhi was not trying to seduce Nixon, but such perhaps is the enduring state of the white male imagination, that all Indian women are prostitutes who must show up twice a month for genital exams or face fines and prison sentences. Nixon certainly couldn’t tolerate the idea he would have to negotiate as an equal with India’s female prime minister.  All his notions about white superiority, however deeply embedded, came to the fore. If he wasn’t “saving” a brown woman and she didn’t guarantee her subordination to him, he found her “repulsive.”

In fact, both Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, held deeply prejudicial attitudes toward the people of India and Pakistan, as White House tapes of their closed-door sessions would document. There is a straight line between the dehumanization we see in the British colonial history and that of Nixon and Kissinger—and the results in 1971 should not be forgotten. After Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan won a democratic election, the Pakistani regime engaged in a brutal crackdown. As author Gary Bass described it in the Times, “Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger staunchly supported the military regime in Pakistan as it killed hundreds of thousands of Bengalis, with 10 million refugees fleeing into neighboring India.” Just as British and American colonialists were unable to accord women their full humanity, they proved capable of the next step too: shrugging off genocide when it seemed “necessary” for their geopolitical strategies.

Misogyny is intertwined with colonialism—perhaps even essential to it. Such is one of the lessons suggested by Durba Mitra’s work, which recognizes “Bengal [as] a key site for the development of colonial policies.” Though Sukhimonee Raur’s 1869 appeal was successful, hundreds, even thousands, of women are unlikely to have appealed their classifications as prostitutes and simply submitted to their exams twice a month, assuming that the British not only ruled the country but also, quite literally, their bodies. In presenting their bodies for examination, they became the evidentiary fodder for all sorts of theorizing regarding the nature of the Indian woman and of Indians in general, bolstering claims of the moral and biological hierarchical superiority of the white race.

There was a literalness to the translation of subjugated citizens and subjugated bodies into actual specimens. As Mitra documents, the pages of old medico-legal textbooks show just how. Published in 1844, Pathologica Indica, or the Anatomy of Indian Diseases, Medical and Surgical: Based Upon Morbid Specimens from All Parts of India in the Museum of the Calcutta Medical College; Illustrated by Detailed Cases, with the Prescriptions and Treatment Employed, and Comments, Physiological, Historical and Practical was put together by a doctor named Allan Webb. The interconnection of the medical and sociological can be seen in this note about a woman’s uterus that had been sent to Dr. Webb: “Death By Criminal Abortion.” “By Dr. Greene I send to you an uterus taken with the placenta from a poor native woman who died last night from uterine hemorrhage, with which the fetus must have been expelled.” Dr. Greene does not let this fact of no fetus stop him in making his moral judgment; he ends with, “The woman was a widow. Miscarriage in all probability produced by foul means.”

Misogyny is intertwined with colonialism—perhaps even essential to it.

Forensic evidence was being gathered by the British not to solve crimes or to discern a cause of death but to condemn the women themselves. The reason was simple: longevity and health were never the real goal of this scheme of mailing uteri or dead fetuses to Calcutta. Instead, attributing “criminal abortion” as the cause of death, despite the absence of evidence, enabled a scientific condemnation of Indian women and thus Indians in general. In colonial India, Mitra notes, discourse about abortion was “driven by a system of criminal law that saw the practice as a paradigmatic example of the Indian perversion that resulted from social custom.”

There are important correlates between the deployment of brown bodies for their own self-condemnation. The formerly enslaved and formerly colonized that neo-imperialism is turning on in our present moment are right here at home. As the stories of countless police killings testify, the indictment of the dead is at issue. In colonial India, the Indian lack of worth was proven by treating brown women as undifferentiated hordes of prostitutes, each one sidling up to the white man to offer herself for money. They were accused of spreading disease, and when disease could not be found, the evidence of pregnancy, or of childbirth, was all collected and collated as testimony against a culture.

It is necessary to remember these lost historical records of forced genital examinations. Nixon’s explanation of his repulsion, brought on by a conversation with Indira Gandhi, made him exclaim, “The most sexless, nothing, these people.” He was perhaps wishful for the cruel days when a brown woman was such a “nothing” that her genitalia may well have been subject to examination under the Contagious Diseases Act.

Just as troubling is what Durba Mitra proves in her book: that so much of the social thought, the episteme, of the Western worldview, even today, is constructed on this architecture of insistent condemnation. Empire was built on this beheading of the intimate, the private and the personal, to which millions of Indian women were likely subjected, just so empire could be made good and noble.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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