Understanding Spatial and Historic Sexualities

Expunging or rejecting texts because we don’t like the contents or the politics of their authors does not cleanse us of our histories, writes Afiya Shehrbano Zia

Understanding Spatial and Historic Sexualities
Even before any specifics were revealed, the Punjab government’s decision (as per the Tahfuz e Bunyad e Islam Bill) to expunge ‘objectionable’ texts and history books prompted a deep anxiety amongst our lettered classes. This is a reflexive suspicion that links the destruction of historical texts, monuments, and artefacts with the project of religio-nationalism and social re-engineering. Even if the past century has been testament to a deeply violent and unhappy time, the idea of a symbolic amputation from our history seems to unmoor us from our present or potential future.

Chronicles of the past are something South Asians have valued as faithfully as the colonisers who were committed to documenting it. This is despite the fact that archives have been questioned as impartial sources and that we rarely access these or use them for any progressive project or intellectual reckoning.

The key markers that have distinguished modern intellectual history from primitivism have been the power over knowledge production and preservation in written/printed form. As the 19th and 20th centuries’ scope of intellectual inquiry expanded into new disciplines - beyond medicine and the sciences - so did European colonialism. This led to imperial studies of colonised peoples across Asia and Africa, their traditions, religions and sexualities. Experts in the fields of anthropology, philology, cartography, and a range of social taxonomies relied on new tools of inquiry such as, maps, censuses, photography, and participant-observation methods. The coloniser ruled and archived from his vantage while the natives became subjects but also, collaborators of such studies.

Sexing the record

While several postcolonial and feminist scholars of sexualities studies have advised to move from the ‘archive-as-source to archive-as-subjects’ (Ann Stoler, Mrinalini Sinha, Ashwini Tambe), it was the subaltern scholars of India who first contested reliance on colonial archives as the source of historic or objective truth. They proposed to make subalternity, or the hidden racialised subject herself, the focal point of historical narration – a bottom-up history.

A pioneering advocate against the extractive or additive model (finding or filling in gaps in colonial archives) was Gayatri C. Spivak, whose work on the Indian female subaltern’s agency has been influential. Another caution has been against scholarly reliance on literary sources and discourse analysis, rather than clear historical documents - Imperial Leather by Anne McClintock (1995) is an excellent source of mixed disciplinary reading of cultural sources.

Historiographical studies on sexualities, especially male homosexuality in colonial India, have also tended to treat colonial archives as tomes that have either suppressed, or misread, or missed the subaltern sexual subject. This dependency on finding hidden sexualities in colonial archives – the lost and found project – is increasingly being challenged by South Asian scholars of sexualities studies. They note how colonial and Indian medical and legal experts constructed the condition of native sexual deviancy by admitting the prevalence of sexual ‘perversion’ but the lack of documentation meant it didn’t officially exist.

In other words, until sexual practices and categories of perversion were studied and documented (literally underwritten) by the colonial archiver and local expert, these could neither be criminalised nor civilised. Since these practices were obvious, elusive and anecdotal, they had to be authenticated via documentation and categorised formally (for e.g., under The Contagious Diseases Act of 1864), in order to be controlled or outlawed.

Complicit desires

Anjali Arondekar (2005) notes that the Indian Penal Code, established in 1860/61, contains numerous references to successful sodomy convictions and that 41 persons were convicted in the north western provinces in 1879, with twice the number of cases still on trial. But she finds very few transcripts or judgements of cases under Section 377 (the anti-sodomy statute). The Queen Empress v. Khairati (1884) case that served as precedent was the only one ending in acquittal. Initially, Khairati’s cross dressing, singing and syphilis was proof enough of his being a ‘habitual sodomite’ but the Allahabad High Court overturned the earlier conviction for lack of discovery (as Arondekar notes, by a Judge Straight!).

Arondekar also discusses a more intimate geographic history of sexualities. In 1845, annexer of Sind, Gen. Charles Napier (the “Devil’s Brother”*) tasked the Arabic and Sindhi speaking Orientalist, Richard Burton, to gather intelligence on “immoral activities” between native subjects and rulers in three brothels of Karachi, where not women but boys and eunuchs offered services for nearly double the price. Burton disguised himself as Abdullah the Bushiri to visit as the multiple sites of ‘porneia’ as participant-observant. He submitted the report on pederasty which landed up with Napier’s rivals in Bombay instead, and ended Burton’s career. The story of the archival disappearance of this report is ‘found’ only when Burton’s widow confesses to having burned his 500-page treatise on homosexuality, along with the Karachi report.

Christopher Ondaatje in ‘Sindh Revisited’ (1990) retraces Burton’s years, looking unsuccessfully for the infamous report. Arondekar notes that the Karachi report gestures to native vice but equally implicates British participation; as a mediating form, the “excesses of the primitive cover over any excesses of the civilized.” While the focus was on the ‘infamous beasts,’ the fear of physical and moral contamination lurked in the colonisers’ mind.

Deviant women

The intellectual collaboration between colonising and colonised Indian men can best be found in the scientific and archival treatment of prostitution, polygamy or ‘deviant’ sexual practices. This found its cultural alterity in the figures of the Indian tawaif/courtesan, the devadasi, dancing girl, the hijra, the high-caste widow.

Instead of taking the heterosexual/homosexual definition as a driver of modern sexualities, Durba Mitra (Indian Sex Life, 2020) excavates the prostitute as the embedded figure from the late 19th century Indian/colonial archives. She finds in multiple archives from eastern India, that the prostitute is described as female and there are different Bengali terms for “deviant women.” As a collusive project between the British colonial authorities and the indigene – particularly, the Bengali elite male intellectual – Mitra argues that the prostitute served as the endless resource for the development of a narrative of modern sexuality, as shaped by the excesses of women’s sexuality and sexual deviance.

In this joint male project, large scale surveys, classifications and social categories were used to draw the boundaries of promiscuity and to distinguish modern society from primitiveness. Female transgressions become the signifying threat of the breach of these constructed moral boundaries. Elaborate taxonomical charts of the prostitute brought together different Sanskrit, Bengali, and English categories for women. These then condensed into a consensual moral ethos that implied that any woman engaged in a non-monogamous relationship was deviant and every woman, a potential prostitute or ever-present threat.

This seed idea then fed into the broader concerns of caste, communalism, gendered, and social difference. Mitra notes how “Hindu intellectuals produced, through scientific ideas of sexuality, a vision of an ideal society in the model of an idealized upper-caste monogamous conjugality.” Such ‘social analysis’ also cast Muslims as sexual deviants, prostitutes, criminals and responsible for subjugation of Hindu progress via sexual degradation. They were also blamed for denying Hindus their status as ‘natural inheritors’ of the ruling apparatus of India.

Sexuality studies have played a central role in archival mythmaking and so, feminist historians caution on remaining alert to methodology but also, analysis. Tanika Sarkar, in Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation (2001) critically traces the relationship between imperialism, nationalism and patriarchy in 19th century India. She argues against the dangerous form of indigenism that legitimates all forms of power as authentically Indian, as long as they are seen to exist in opposition to a fixed and unchanging British colonial authority. Sarkar notes that, “The assumption that colonialism had wiped out all past histories of patriarchal domination, replacing them neatly and exclusively with Western forms of gender relations, has naturally led to an exclusive identification of patriarchy in India with the project of liberal reform.” In other words, history and sex are messy but histories of sexualities even more so.

Sexual service for Empire

While there is far less historical or contemporary work on sexualities in Pakistan (beyond transsexualities), a recent paper by Rukhsana Iftikhar (“Colonial Desire, Orient Beauty: Army and Prostitution in British India,” 2018) sources reports from the Home Department of Punjab in Lahore and makes an interesting connection between the themes of prostitution and spatial and moral boundaries in colonial India.

Along with The Contagious Disease Act of 1864, the Cantonment Act of 1864 was passed concomitantly as an attempt to discipline the sex trade in British military towns. Iftikhar counts four proceeding Acts of 1880, 1889, 1893 and 1897 that “opened a way for registration, supervision and inspection of prostitutes in the major cities and towns of the Empire especially on seaports where the European were greater in number.” She notes that the establishment of the Cakals (red light zones) in every British cantonment was overseen by a super-intendant who issued licenses to sex workers in a 19th century bid to control the spread of venereal diseases due to colonial sex commerce in India.

Some European soldiers died from these diseases and Iftikhar notes that an increasing number of women prostitutes were hauled up before a magistrate, presumed guilty for being the ones who infected the deceased procurers. Some of these prostitutes were even sentenced to life imprisonment. The Caklas were formed to specifically service European military soldiers as a legitimate need. Sex workers servicing these bases were granted legal impunity but subjected to hygiene and medical treatments in the cantonment Lock hospitals. Non-registered or second class sex workers who serviced native men were routinely arrested as illegitimate prostitutes.

Charitable wives of colonial officers visited and monitored the spread of disease in the Caklas, and Iftikhar notes that the health memorandum of 1905 “advised white men that every woman and prostitute in India is infected with Venereal diseases.” The ‘sensuous East’ and hot climate were blamed for triggering the lust of white colonisers serving the Empire.

In the early 20th century, white prostitutes were trafficked to the colony to counter the threat to racial purity, thus expanding sex commerce in inventive ways. Complexly, the white sex trade also motivated a resistance and missionary counter-movement to end prostitution under official guise. The advice to read histories as symbiotic moments of subjugation and liberation is pertinent for scholars and activists alike.

Moral rescue and redemption

Several studies attribute the initiative to archive the prostitute in colonial India to the publicisation of the gruesome murder of a prostitute Akootai, who tried to escape a brothel in Bombay in 1917. This led to a vast collection of ethnographic and statistical information gathered between 1917-1939 about the prostitutes but now, as subjects for redemption rather than carriers of disease. It fashioned a benevolent paternalism and social reform assumed on part of the Empire. The subsequent hanging of the owners of the brothel for the death of Akootai was a fig-leaf to deflect from the historic sexual exploitative practices of the colonial administration. The major legislative change came only with the repeal of the colonial system of state-regulated brothels in 1888, which led to its gradual abolition.

Despite the legal repeal of the state-sponsored brothels, unofficial red-light districts continued to flourish across cities of British India and the exploitation of women persisted. The spatial management and containment of prostitution in the mid-nineteenth century via medical and legal taxonomies may have been limited but the gendered, sexual, communal, ‘scientific and social analytical’ logic that it embedded, continues to hold sway in present-day South Asia.

The historical suspicion and contempt for women’s sexualities pre-existed colonial machinations but is a legacy that now sits well with contemporary South Asian misogynies. It is evident in medico-legal practices but also across other academic disciplines and institutions. It is one that its promoters happily hold onto, long after the departure of the white colonising masters of sexual exploitation.

Expunging or rejecting texts because we don’t like the contents or the politics of their authors does not cleanse us of our histories. Studying and debating contesting testimonies about the complex documented and lived experiences from the past does allows us to forge new understandings about our subjugated selves in order to become more sovereign peoples.

(*said to be named by the ‘Seinde’ (Sindhi) people)