TAPSA: In Search of Anti-Discipline: Rethinking Law and Prostitution in Colonial India

January 28, 2021 - 11am

Virtual Event

Zoya Sameen, PhD Candidate in History, The University of Chicago

Historians of modern South Asia have substantively engaged with colonial regulatory approaches to governing prostitution. Many insightful studies have understood laws that criminalized a wide array of Indian women as a means to greater authority and surveillance over local populations—a form of colonial discipline. Yet, a predominant focus on discipline has meant that scholars have largely overlooked the inconsistent and ineffective workings of regulatory laws on prostitution as they travelled down the institutional ladder into local policing—the happenings of anti­-discipline.Offering a revisionist history of the statewide regulation of prostitution in colonial India under the Contagious Diseases Acts (1860s-1880s), this talk puts evasion and dissent in the lead of understanding legal interventions into sexual commerce. I examine the considered and purposeful uses of transport technologies, environments, and legal exemptions by different groups of Indian women, including prostitutes, laboring women, and brothel workers to evade detection, registration, and medical examination by colonial authorities. Challenging definitive characterizations of regulatory frameworks as coercive and punitive, this talk argues that Indian women demonstrated popular understandings of law and participated in everyday networks of resistance to contest colonial order from below.

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