It is rare to come across such a delightfully written and insightful book in the rather arid arena of law. Intriguingly, the cover of a book about prostitution in Bombay shows what appear to be two leggy, somewhat scantily clad Caucasian women, greeting gentlemen in tuxedos with bouquets. The introduction tells us that, with the rise of Bombay as a commercial seaport, the city became a key destination in a transnational sex-trade circuit, particularly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and had a sizable section of European prostitutes. European sailors, resident soldiers and British administrators comprised the client base.
Thereafter, the book moves back and forth through space and time. Ashwini Tambe, a scholar of women’s studies, relates the trend of East European women settling in Bombay’s brothels at the turn of the 20th century due to upheavals in the Russian ghetto, alongside tales of women from former Soviet republics working as call girls in posh hotels at the start of the 21st. The passing of this century seems to have made little difference in the perspective of the medico-legal establishment with regards to compulsory health checks, residential segregation of sex workers and, to use the author’s words, ‘resigned acceptance of men’s putative sexual needs’.
Tambe shows how the combination of fears over preserving ‘racial purity’ and preventing miscegenation in the colonies, alongside imperatives of providing sexual recreation to British soldiers, led to the acceptance of non-British European prostitutes. The colonial administrators preferred white prostitutes, and thus allowed white women from France, Germany, Italy and, particularly, Poland, Romania and Russia to stay in Bombay. At the same time, they deported British prostitutes over worries of impacting on British ‘national prestige’. Of course, the linking of national prestige with the chastity of women is not confined to the British. In this, Tambe sharply brings out the conservatism of the Indian Independence movement, which linked the nation’s honour with the notion of the chaste, desexualised woman. She also highlights how missionaries, social reformers and nationalists alike shared the construct of the chaste woman.
The author’s light touch in dealing with such serious issues makes the book laudably readable. In the context of the colonial government proposing to send dancing girls from India to the Empire Exhibition in England, for instance, Tambe brings out the competing nationalisms of the ruler and the ruled predicated on the chastity of the woman:
Another paper, Al Wahid, also noted in a similar nationalist vein that: ‘the famous British dancer Miss Maude Allen on her visit to India was forbidden to dance in public with her naked body in the interest of British prestige in India. It is a pity that we cannot impose our wishes on the Government in a matter of this kind. We are a subject people and must put up with such humiliations until we break our shackles’ (October 14, 1923).
Tambe also digs up material that leaves Mohandas K Gandhi looking less than admirable. In 1921, 350 prostitutes volunteered to become members of the Congress party after paying the requisite fee of 14 annas. Gandhi advised them to give up their profession and take up spinning; 11 promised to do so, while the others said they would think about it. Thereafter, the women wanted to seek office in Congress committees, but Gandhi tried to bar them, declaring that ‘no one could officiate at the altar of Swaraj [self rule] who did not approach it with pure hands and pure heart.’ The women nonetheless continued as Congress members, were elected as delegates and founded an association with the manifesto of helping the poor, nursing the sick, spinning and weaving, skills training to prostitutes and adoption of non-violence.
In 1925, on encountering the group again, Gandhi reacted with extreme anger, calling the women ‘more dangerous than thieves, because they steal virtue’, described them as ‘unrepentant professional murderers’ and citing ‘their tremendously dangerous powers of mischief’, disqualified them from becoming members of the Satyagraha movement. Tambe writes that ‘Gandhi constituted the ideal nationalist woman as selfless, plain-dressed, and high-minded, with none of the allure for heterosexual men that prostitutes supposedly held.’ The contradictory approach of seeing women in prostitution as both victims and blameworthy, highlighted as the hallmark of the nationalist discourse, continues to mark society and law’s attitude towards sex workers today.
The official approach to prostitution is demarcated into three phases: the regulation phase of the Contagious Diseases Act from 1860 until 1890; the anti-trafficking phase from the turn of the 20th century till the 1920s; and the abolitionist phase, combining anti-trafficking and nationalist discourses from 1917 to 1947. In the context of the current debate, Regulating Prostitution is able to use these past approaches to convincingly argue that regulation and criminalisation of sex work are not alternate ways of dealing with the issue itself, but rather constitute different modalities of state coercion. For instance, the current push for regulation by organisations such as the National AIDS Control Organisation comes at the issue from the public-health angle, merely viewing sex workers as potential disease carriers.
In fact, this constitutes a starkly new way of looking at such issues in the Subcontinent. Tambe points out that a range of activities in ancient eras, from music and dance performances to sexually servicing soldiers, was incorrectly translated by latter-day historians as ‘prostitution’ and ‘harlotry’. In fact, women engaged in these activities long enjoyed good standing before the state and in society, and it was only in the mid-19th century that British laws introduced the term ‘common prostitute’ in the legal lexicon. ‘In some cases,’ Tambe writes, ‘courtesans enjoyed options unavailable to married women, such as reading, writing, dancing, sculpture, and painting.’
In the present framework in India, laws on assault, grievous hurt, rape and kidnapping make no distinction regardless of the identity or profession of the victim. In reality, the criminal-justice system is a major area in which morality and stigma play a vital role in denying access to justice for crimes, and sex workers seem to be routinely subjected to beatings and rape without any consequence for the perpetrator.
In a bid to get away from the stigma attached to terms such as prostitution and prostitute, women’s organisations are increasingly using the terms sex work and sex worker. To Tambe’s credit, she makes clear her position on the issue: ‘in feigning desire, as potentially occurs in transacted sex, sex workers enact a form of deception and self-denial that is consistent more generally, and problematically, with feminity.’ This is a pointer towards a critique of an appealing radical position that commercial sex can subvert the hetero-normative sexual order and invert male dominance, by emphasising ‘the normative expectation of feminine sexual inauthenticity’ in heterosexual sex. Similarly, critical of the concept of ‘sex work’, the book makes an important point that, at times, ‘brothels may be experienced less as workplace and more as extensions of family life, filled with forms of domination and obligation characteristic of the family.’ Further, she says, the affective core of pro-sex-worker activism is rooted in the principle of respect for individuals engaged in prostitution as citizens and human beings, and not in the ‘celebration of prostitution as a form of work’.
The book also critiques scholarship that mourns the conflation of an earlier varied range of activities such as musical and dance performances into brothel work, as being in tune with the general stigmatisation of brothel workers as abject figures. However, the chapter ‘Akootai’s Death: Subaltern Indian brothel workers’, meant to represent the kinds of lives Indian women in prostitution lead, strikes a discordant note, as it only reinforces a number of stereotypes. In this textbook story from the early 20th century, Akootai, who suffers from a venereal disease, refuses customers, is repeatedly assaulted, attempts to escape and is beaten to death when caught. The details of Akootai’s life have been reconstructed from the depositions of her co-workers at her subsequent murder trial. But the emotional impact of the horrific descriptions overwhelms the stereotype-free frame of the rest of the book. Meanwhile, the total absence of reference to male, transgender or hijra sex workers in the book is an odd lacuna, especially given their visible presence in sex-worker collectives today.
Since Independence, there has been a surfeit of social-welfare legislation tackling issues ranging from land reform to child marriage, dowry, cruelty and domestic violence. The formulation that ‘laws engendered their own evasion by their own stringency and hence invited further legislation’ seems squarely applicable to independent India, where there is a widespread prevalence of the social ills supposedly tackled by laws. Tambe’s brilliant analysis about laws being formulated without consideration for the practicalities of enforcement, as well as the divergence between law and its enforcement as a necessary feature of the colonial state’s actions, has large-scale application in the context of innumerable enactments in post-Independence India.
Rakesh Shukla practices law at the Supreme Court of India, New Delhi.