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What made Hindu and Muslim women take up prostitution? The British really wanted to know

In ‘Indian Sex Life’, Durba Mitra traces the colonial origins of modern thought and how women’s sexuality was seen as a space for state intervention.

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Concurrent with the colonial survey, as we saw in the chapter “Origins,” philologists were creating their own taxonomies that could account for the prostitute as the genesis of deviance in Indian society. Women’s sexuality could be the premise for the scientific study of social life, as an investigation into ancient orginary tests and through legal surveys that would generate new codes for Indian social life. The sexual deviance of diverse women, brought into view through the practice of the survey, was not only an object of knowledge but also a potential site for state intervention.

W. Wavell, magistrate of Moorshedabad and the superior of Bankim Chatterjee, had commissioned Chatterjee’s report for the sake of accuracy; he argued that the perspective of a Bengali man was the most accurate depiction of “native” society. Wavell distilled Chatterjee’s extensive descriptions into a systematic taxonomy of all women who the state must mark as prostitutes. His list includes Muslim women living under the “guise of nika marriage,” girl children forced into Hindu marriage, high-caste widows barred from remarriage, and the “Hindoo form of polygamy known as Coolinism.”

According to Wavell, women became prostitutes as a result of ancient Hindu law: “There are bad ones among the wealthiest or the highest in social rank and I think perhaps they have here more excuse in consequence of the unhappy law laid down by Manu.” This explanatory mode attributed contemporary Hindu social practices to the laws laid down in ancient texts. The widow was, in the view of Wavell, an inevitable prostitute. This form of reasoning placed ancient texts as the primary origin of the Indian prostitute. According to Wavell, the secrecy of a woman’s sexual transgression resulted from the static nature of timeless social customs that led to an inevitable problem of widowhood and prostitution.

With a similar inventory of women, Alexander Abercrombie, the commissioner of Dacca (Dhaka), differentiated Hindu prostitutes who fell into prostitution as a result of religious stricture from Muslim prostitutes in his response to the 1872 query. According to Abercrombie, Muslim women prostitutes hid their sexual deviance in false marriages. He understood this difference in sociological terms. According to Abercrombie, women who turned to prostitution had fallen permanently out of society. If Muslim, women could find menial jobs like housekeeping because of the relative tolerance of sexual promiscuity among Muslims. As a result, they had a more stopgap or casual relationship to the act, and often were at once prostitutes and workers. “Mussulmans,” Abercrombie claimed, “may contract a nika marriage . . . and a Mahomedan thinks nothing of contracting such an alliance.” When the Muslim couple became “thoroughly tired of each other,” they separated “without difficulty and the woman is free to go nika with another man or set up again for herself in the bazar.” Hindu women, on the other hand, had no means of earning a living after falling out of society. Disreputable Hindu women converted en masse to Islam to be free from social condemnation, as Islam had “nothing conservative in its tenet.” While Muslim women were sexually promiscuous, they were unregulated by regimes of shame and social condemnation like their Hindu counterparts.

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In these taxonomies, Muslim women were characterized as more sexually brazen than their Hindu counterparts, with insatiable sexual appetites and a dangerous promiscuity unleashed by the system of temporary marriages. That said, administrators stressed that women of all religious communities were potential prostitutes. Across these letters, the same categories and social behaviors are linked to prostitution. Babu Taraknath Mullick, deputy magistrate of Madaripur, insisted that the marriage customs of Hindus led to widowhood and the polygamy of Muslims led to prostitution. For Mullick, Muslims were always leading lives of disrepute.

Similarly, explaining how Muslim women were prostitutes as often as Hindus but hid under the guise of marriage, D. R. Lyall, magistrate of Dacca, argued that officials must broaden the definition of what constituted prostitution. If prostitution meant “simply one that indiscriminately carries on intercourse with men whether openly professing prostitution or not,” then the number of Hindus acting as prostitutes would be significantly less than “that of Mohamedan prostitutes.” Lyall describes how “respectable men” of elite Muslim families had official wives who were, in fact, prostitutes, alongside their ayahs, nannies, who were “mostly prostitutes who escape notice.” The other important segment of Muslim prostitutes were the well-known dancing girls who continued in courtesan traditions, described variously as “Nottees” and “Nautch” by administrators.

Stressing the “extreme” nature of Muslim temporary marriages and the inevitable return of these women to prostitution, Magistrate Mullick emphasized the fluidity of Muslim social institutions and the virtual absence of propriety when compared to Hindus. The only redeeming feature of Muslim polygamy, when compared to Hindu Kulinism, was that wives lived under the supervision of their husband:

Polygamy and Coolinism also augment the number of Hindoo prostitutes. The Mohamedans, indeed, indulge in the plurality of wives, but their customs in this respect are very different from those of the Hindoos. A Mohamedan, whatever may be the number of his wives, keeps all within his harem but the wives of a Hindoo lie scattered over different places and districts…. Sometimes for the sake of Koolinism, parents or other guardians of young girls marry or rather sacrifice them to men old enough to be their grandpapas. It is not therefore surprising that the wives of such Koolins and polygamists should become prostitutes.

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Here, Muslim polygamy is the foundation of the harem, governed at all points by the Muslim man. Mullick notes there is a “Shastric” dictate for Kulin Brahman polygamy, a textual origin for a social practice that left women outside of the domain of the conjugal home. Like the prohibition of widow remarriage among high-castes, polygamy of the Hindus created a class of unrestrained women who existed outside of monogamous marriage. In his formulation the harem, despite all of its dangers and perversions, was a means for women’s sexual regulation, whereas Hindu dictates left high-caste women exposed to the dangerous result of their own sexual desire.

Many officials, including Mullick and Lyall, cited texts like Manu and the shastras as the primary reason Hindu women transgressed social bounds. For these administrators, it was not economic circumstance but the strict religious dictates of caste and ancient Hindu law that led women who were outside of a monogamous conjugal home and without the oversight of a husband to sexual transgression. Ancient law, defined through colonial engagement with a particular canon of Sanskrit text, was thus essential to the state-sponsored sociological project. Sexual transgression was hidden by the façade of caste, and required exposure through authoritative practices of description from ad- ministrative experts who would illuminate the true facts of sexual transgression. Ultimately, according to this colonial sociological survey, women who resided outside the conjugal home were almost inevitably sexual deviants—no matter the context that would have led them to desperate conditions or absolute social exclusion and condemnation.

This excerpt from ‘Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought’ by Durba Mitra has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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  1. Nonsensical article. Prostitute is defines as someone who offer sex for money.

    Polygamy is not prostitution as its a husband and wife relationship, where most old societies permit until West ideology of one man one wife influenced the world through colonization.

    According to Islam, Muslim is allowed to marry one wife, and take in max up to 4 wives, only as duty to provide refuge for helpless woman that has no one to rely upon, such as a widow, sister of wife who lost all her dependents, etc. He must first get his wife approval, also needs to be financial affordable to provide all.

    However, most would abuse by threatening to divorce the wife if she refuse, and taking new wives with various excuse. In Malaysia & Indonesia, some mullahs have dozens of wives.

    Whereas for Hindu, Chinese, Asians polygamy, its not tied to religion but a society cultural norm for the wealthier ones. The rich usually has a few wives, with normal one often had two.

    Polygamy actually ensure the most abled and wealthier ones have more mates to breed more offsprings having better upbringing, hence a cycle of nation improvement. It also helps resolve single unmarried women problem like most nations facing now, as women ratio usually is higher with longer lifespan.

    Moreover, polygamy does help reduce adultery, prostitution and HIV/STD.

    • This is a pathetic article to demean Muslim women

      There was no Muslim prostitutes at all

      Neither during the Mughal nor British era

      98% of Anglo Indians are from South and east India

      Islam dominated the northwest the most from Lodhi to recently

  2. Because the prostitutes are identified by religion, then obviciosly missing from this discourse are the Christian prostitutes : natives, anglo-Indians and Europeans.
    The other curious fact seems to be that only females are identified as prostitutes whereas given the tastes of the English and other members of the previledged class e.g unsatisfied royalty of either gender, Khans etc, demanded youger male prostitutes.
    Ordinary well to do were preferred boys In Most Urdu Shayari, the word SAKI literally means a male wine server.
    (The demand for boys arose from the fact that relationship with females would lead to pregnency and emotional bonding of a forbidden order)

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