The Creation of Difference Empire, Race, and the Discourse on Prostitution in Colonial Bengal, 1880-1940

Farida Begum

The Creation of Difference Empire, Race, and the Discourse on Prostitution in Colonial Bengal, 1880-1940
Begum, Farida
Thesis Advisor(s):
Surkis, Judith
McDermott, Rachel Fell
Undergraduate theses
History (Barnard College), Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures (Barnard College)
Permanent URL:
Senior thesis, Barnard College.
This paper examines the problem of prostitution in late 19th century and early 20th century colonial India by focusing on who the people involved in the debates were, especially with regard to colonial Bengal. In the late 19th century, Victorian imperial feminists who were involved in the prostitution debates in England began to see regulation of prostitutes as immoral and degrading to women until they were able to repeal the regulation acts in England. These imperial feminists then turned to India and believed it was their duty to 'help' their 'oppressed sisters' in India who were imagined as victims of Indian men and Indian culture and traditions. By the early 20th century, prostitution was debated on the international stage as the League of Nations passed numerous resolutions and created committees to investigate the problem of prostitution and trafficking. In these discourses, the League's documents were highly focused on deporting European prostitutes from the colonies rather than trying to combat all prostitution everywhere, as race became a signifier of which women should engage in prostitution. In response to the international discourse, Indians themselves began passing laws and speaking out against prostitution within their society. A few Indian male writers lent their voices to the debate by arguing that prostitution in India was a societal problem as it was everywhere else, and it was not unique to Indian culture and traditions. Similar to what the imperial feminists had done in England, these Indian reformers stressed men's complicity in perpetuating prostitution in all societies. They emphasized a need for reforming social problems through various means, with educating the public as one of the most important suggestions. Throughout all of this, the Indians' argument makes clear the case for prostitution as a symptom and marker of modernity, rather than cultural backwardness.
South Asian studies
Women's studies
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