Published:Sunday, 18 Oct 2020 06:10
In 1868, police in the British-ruled Indian city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) sent a woman called Sukhimonee Raur to prison for evading a genital examination which had been made compulsory for “registered” sex workers.
Under the colonial Contagious Diseases Act, designed to contain the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, sex workers had to “register themselves at police stations, get medically examined and surveilled”.
Raur fought back – she petitioned the court, demanding her release.
“I did not attend for examination twice a month as I have not been a prostitute,” she said. She said the police had mistakenly registered her and that she had never been a sex worker.
In March 1869, the high court in Calcutta ruled in her favour.
The judges said that Raur was not a “registered public prostitute” and, moreover, such registration of women would have to be voluntary. In other words, women could not be forced to register.
Trawling the colonial archives, Durba Mitra, a professor of women, gender and sexuality at Harvard University, found that thousands of women were arrested by the colonial police for failing to abide by the rules of registration for genital examination mandated under the law.
Prof Mitra’s new work Indian Sex Life, published by Princeton University Press, is a remarkable study of how British authorities and Indian intellectuals “developed ideas about deviant female sexuality to control and organise modern society in India”. One way to regulate sexuality was by classifying, registering and medically examining women seen as prostitutes, she told me.