A Conversation with Author & Harvard Professor Durba Mitra Ph.D.–Encore Presentation of ‘Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought’

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Author & Harvard Professor Durba Mitra Ph.D.--Encore Presentation of 'Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought'
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Transcript:

Soniya: Hello and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale and today, I am so delighted to be joined by author and professor, Dr. Durba Mitra. Dr. Mitra is an assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality in the Harvard faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Carol Kaye first-timer, assistant professor at the Radcliffe Institute. Dr. Mitra works at the intersection of feminist and queer studies. Her scholarship analyzes the history of sexuality in the global South, histories of science and social science, and the politics of gender in the colonial and post-colonial world. Dr. Mitra received her Ph.D. from Emory University. Her research has been supported by a fellowship at Wolf Humanities Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Fulbright Nero Student Research Fellowship to India. She is the author of critically acclaimed Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought.

Soniya: Welcome to the show, Dr. Mitra.

Durba Mitra: Thank you so much for having me.

Soniya: Dr. Mitra, your latest book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought carefully elucidates how British colonial men and Indian male social scientists use their positions to socially ostracize and oppress indigenous Indian women who they felt did not fit into the extremely narrow social mold that they deemed acceptable at the time, namely being an upper-caste married Hindu woman. You utilize a host of archival sources from India and around the world to show that women who fell outside of this narrow definition of acceptability were labeled prostitutes. Just to be clear, this is such a pivotal and significant insight, as your book essentially offers an account of how British officers, medical practitioners, ethnologists Elite Bengali sociologists, and even fiction writers at the time, saw almost all Indian women as prostitutes. Whether they were Hindu widows, married women from lower caste communities, Muslim married women, women running away from their husbands, women deserted by their husbands, no matter, they were all defined as sexually deviant and prostitutes by the colonial powers that be and their Indian cohorts. So, my first question for you is can you elaborate on this rather shocking discovery and your book, and outline for us some of the systemic issues that were at play at the time.

Durba: Absolutely. Thank you, first of all, for this wonderful question and for having me it is such a pleasure to speak to you and to speak to an audience across a range of geographies and spaces about this book, in the kind of work and kind of questions that I am doing in my scholarship, but also in my public advocacy work. You mentioned what is this stunning revelation that became the major foundation of the book. So when I began the project, I thought that I was going to do a history of different communities, of different women, of the many types of women who maybe fell into prostitution because of class problems, because they were excluded by their families, because they fell out of marriages. And so in order to do this research, I knew it was a historical project, I began to go to archives all over. First, in India, in places like Delhi and Kolkata, in London, here in the United States, in Harvard University libraries, University of Pennsylvania libraries, Chicago. And I followed this archival category, The Prostitute, across this wide range of archives. What I found when I started to go through these archives was that the category, this concept Prostitute was everywhere, across a huge range of places: archives of Medicine, archives of Sociology, as you mentioned, but also archives of Law, and then archives of Literature, and Novels, and Autobiographies supposedly written by women. And in those texts this category, this idea of the Prostitute kept appearing, and then disappearing, and then reappearing in text that seemingly had very little to do with prostitution.

Durba: She was kind of all over. She appeared in the analysis of social life writ large. In fact, the Prostitute seem to describe virtually all women outside of monogamous upper-caste marriage, and you mentioned some of them but the categories that one would associate with it now would be something like the Courtesan or the wire, or the David Desi so-called Dancing Girl, a Hindu Widow who is seen as sexually promiscuous or not abiding by the kind of social death that she was supposed to do, and certain polygamist women particularly Muslim women who practice polygamy, and then, of course, working women, women who were in public spaces, working in industries, and then servant women, household women who were working inside the home, all of these women were seen as sexually in-excess, and by ‘seen’ I mean both by colonial officials, a colonial state that was increasingly interested in intervening in Indian social life in the everyday. And also by an increasing number of Indian men who were educated in colonial institutions and colonial universities, who began to write about the reform and revision of Indian society under colonial rule.

Durba: So the question for me was why is this category Prostitute, and these ideas about women’s sexuality appearing everywhere and how could I account for that appearance of this idea everywhere. It seemed that something systematic was happening, but I did not know how to fully account for it. And then, I went back to the drawing board and I realized actually the story here is not really about the fact that the Prostitute was everyone and everything but rather that there was a kind of systematic attempt at controlling and erasing women’s desires and women’s sexuality through this concept of the Prostitute, that men in fact began to use this concept as a foundation to imagine theories of a patriarchal society. And to understand this presence, I needed to have a different way of reading that linked all of these different structures and forms that sought to control and erase women’s sexuality.

Durba: And so that different way of thinking becomes the main argument of the book which is that ideas about women’s sexuality, this idea that I call female sexual deviancy, sits at the heart, or the foundation of how we write and think about the progress of Indian society, both by colonial officials and then by Indian men, and this is a legacy that, even after the end of colonialism, is something that we live with because we so often see the control of female sexuality as essential to being good proper citizens. That is some of the ways that I tried to solve this problem, but it is funny, once you start seeing the control of women’s sexuality, it is hard to unsee it, and that is one of the things that is really striking in writing the book, is that you start to, like in contemporary everyday conversations today, you realize how often women are policed for their sexuality, and that has a long legacy and that is really what this book is trying to write about.

Soniya: Well, thank you so much for that response. My next question for you is, Indian Sex Life is very much focused upon the colonial period to its end in the 1940s, but the reach of this project is so much broader and I would argue that it is unquestionably important and it resonates with urgent issues for women in Modern India and the present conditions of sexual control and violence that continue to endure in the country. My next question for you is a complex one. Are we still at a point in society where the erasure of women’s desires and sexuality continues to be seen as a natural and inevitable fact of everyday life in post-colonial India and other societies?

Durba: I mean, I think, in academic terms, I always use a phrase that scholars who think in terms of the political questions that drive their work, that I am writing a history of the present. These are present-day concerns and present-day issues that we live with that I certainly know firsthand as a woman. Of course, American-born but a person who has done extensive research in India, which we can certainly talk about, that has experienced the kind of policing both in the diaspora and among my Indian family, has seen other women experience policing around their sexualities, know it kind of personally and viscerally, you know in your body, you know that kind of policing is happening in everyday experiences when you go in any urban setting in India. And so how can we think about these questions, resonating today? I think absolutely. We can see them in all kinds of endemic issues. Today, for example, there is no question that there is a crisis around sexual violence in contemporary India. And we see this most recently in this extraordinarily violent Hathras rape case that happened in UP, and it was, unfortunately, a deeply sad case of a rape of a young Dalit girl and the extraordinary violence both state and social that was enacted on her and her family both beforehand as a Dalit woman and after she passes away in the aftermath against her family, and the kind of caste enforcement of violence that happens through the control and the erasure, again, of women’s sexuality.

Durba: I think that we see this a lot in terms of caste subordination and atrocities that follow along caste lines, but we also see this in terms of more broadly endemic issues of sexual violence, right? We can think of the Delhi rape case in 2012, and then the aftermath of the Delhi rape case where the discussion in the Delhi rape case leads to these massive protests, but the massive protests really focused on how should we punish the perpetrators of this rape rather than thinking about changing a culture of sexual violence that is so pervasive in contemporary India. And so that is just one example of one way. I mean, I think that we can see this in all kinds of other much more everyday quotidian experiences of a control of female sexuality, whether we are talking about a Bollywood actress and the way in which we please and think about Bollywood actresses today. We see that a lot in our contemporary moment. We see it in everyday experiences in our household. The control of women’s sexuality is so critical to the way we comport ourselves, and I was thinking about that as I spoke to you about this project and we were thinking about this interview, the kinds of ways that my mom, who is an incredibly progressive woman was still policing me in ways that she did not maybe intend to, or other women relative certainly did, where I realize that even today when I expose a certain part of my leg or I wear a sleeveless top. And I am American-born, and even then I can feel the visceral experience of the control of sexuality in my everyday experience.

Durba: We can go from systemic issues of sexual violence and also homophobia, and the way the idea of marriage and heterosexual reproduction organizes Indian society, all the way down to the experiences that you have and I have that I know we have of the way we think about our bodies in particular ways, and the way we try to comport ourselves, and the way we think what it means to be proper and what it means to be appropriate. I think about those things all of the time, they are kind of in my mind. And so we can think from systemic to the personal, and I think that is the legacy that I am really writing about.

Soniya: Well, thank you so much for that detailed response. And my next question for you pertains to the very unique challenges that you faced in researching this book and the scattered fragmented archival stories that you pursued globally. I was very struck by the particular obstacles that you faced as a female researcher of this period in India, since most of the archives that you sought had been moved out of Indian libraries or archives due to the nature of colonialism. You were often refused access to libraries and archives, and we are constantly asked why you were conducting research on such quote-unquote distasteful topics. You faced harassment and had to be mindful of your physical safety and to add to all of this, you were also acutely aware of the ethical issues entailed with your research. What does it mean? Define an account of an Indian woman’s autopsy in a Medical Library in London or New York, totally moved from its place of production. So I wanted to ask you if you could share your thoughts on the experience of research as a female researcher and researching subjects and women throughout colonial India whose only voice is what you found in documentation.

Durba: Absolutely. It is funny because there is so many to [inaudible]. I mean, the first I would say, we could think of it in two ways. One, I would say, is dismemberment and there are two kinds of dismemberment that really organized this book. The first is the dismemberment of archives that is what you mentioned right away at the beginning of your amazing question, which was about the movement of materials from the place of their origin. So, an archival material or a book that I would find in New York City at the public library or here at Harvard’s library, but I could not find in Calcutta even though that is actually where the book was produced. And that kind of dismemberment is a defining feature of colonialism. What we know and what are scholars of gender and sexuality argue vehemently is that colonialism was always a knowledge project. That is to say, colonialism was not simply about extracting resources or ruling over people. It was also about creating knowledge about those people, and this is a kind of really important classical argument that a scholar, Edward Saed, makes in a very important book that he publishes in 1979, Orientalism. And what he argues, and then the scholarship that follows really demonstrates is that there is a kind of dismemberment of knowledge forms and knowledge structures of libraries that happens, and that is critical to the colonial project.

Durba: So, for example, when the British began to take over territory in the 18th century, especially. We hear about, for example, the [inaudible] Library being moved all the way out from India, and we hear this a lot especially related to early Indian materials, Sanskrit materials, Persian materials, which are systematically taken from local libraries all over India and then moved to Germany, moved to London, moved to Oxford, moved to, eventually, New York City or to Yale University. And the justification was that they were objects to be studied. They were forms of scholarship, but, of course, what we know is when you move that object, especially before the digital era that we live in now and I can talk a little bit more about the digital era, what we know is that even even though there is a presence of that object, that object is no longer present for the people for whom the object was produced. You know, the oral traditions, the traditions of passing down text and manuscripts, that dismemberment kind of ruins a tradition. And the movement of those materials creates a barrier for people within the sub-continent to write their own histories. And one of the things that is really striking then is that to write the book, I had to go all over in order to just assemble basic archives to try to answer or to create fragments across different spaces. And so the most common archive that one would go to is the British Library, what used to be the British Museum, where the colonial office not only collected all of the documents related to the governance of colonial India, but also collected what they call vernacular language materials that is every published book that they surveilled and collected copies of. And so the best-preserved books in Bengali and Hindi and Urdu actually often appear in London, but are not available in good condition in India.

Durba: And so that dissonance or that dismemberment became part of how I began to think about the book, that movement of objects and materials and, that speaks to my privilege, I have an American passport and obviously, up until COVID, I could move across spaces. I had some financial resources because of being in research institutions that I could move and see these materials, but one of the things you see is that when you go to India, scholars who are in India cannot move the same way that I can. And Scholars who are in India, but, for example, want to study, let us say, medieval areas of the subcontinent that now fall in Pakistan or areas that fall in Bangladesh, they may not get the visa to do so. But as an American, I was able to go to Bangladesh; I was able to go to Pakistan; I was able to go to India, and those privileges allowed me to write the book.

Durba: But that framework, that thinking of dismemberment, also kind of organized how I thought about the content of the book. And you mentioned that in the book I talk about autopsies of women. There is a chapter in the book called Circularity, which looks at medical evidence of women who are accused of committing abortions, and that chapter is really interested in how we narrate women into an archive. How do we ethically imagine women’s lives when they appear to us only in terms of their bodies. And I tell the story of, in particular one case, a woman named Kali, or named by the archive as Kali, whose life only comes to us, and I call her a woman but she is not really a woman, she is a girl. She is a girl who appears in the archive and the only reason she appears is because there is a coroner writing a report, doing an autopsy of her body, and writing a report about it. So, really, her entire life is distilled through the evidence of her body, and what we find is that she died of an alleged abortion; she died at a very young age; she died after being widowed at the age of 11 and then became pregnant after being widowed. And we do not know the circumstances of her pregnancy. She may have experienced sexual violence, for example. In fact, she may have experienced intimate partner or familial violence and from the circumstance, it certainly sounds like there was some kind of coercion because she was just a child and she becomes pregnant and then, somewhere along the way, she procures an abortion, and then she dies of that abortion because no one is taking care of her.

Durba: She becomes visibly pregnant and her family kicks her out, her in-laws; she goes to her own family and they refused to take her in, and then she dies alone. And the coroner describes her as the kind of pitiable condition of Indian womanhood, that this is what happens to widows because no one cares about widows and this is why we, as colonial officials, should be here to kind of civilize these people from the way they treat their widows. But we get this kind of fragments of a life: she had a sister; she had aspirations; she imagined possibilities for herself. She tried to get an abortion so that she did not have a child out of wedlock. And yet all of those are foreclosed because she eventually dies, and so that story I think poses a lot of ethical problems for a scholar. It is, first of all, deeply affecting. It is hard to read. You sit in an archive, and it is dusty, and you are alone and you are sitting there, and you are reading these cases, and the cases are coming to you in a medical textbook or an autopsy report. They are not supposed to affect you emotionally but ultimately, what happens is that you do get affected emotionally because you are bearing witness to a young girl who died, and no one helped her.

Durba: And what I try to do in the book is try to think affectively, with emotion about those circumstances. And such that the dismemberment that is part of her autopsy, the dismemberment that is part of her archiving, the movement of those materials from India to other places in the world, that for a moment we can take a breath to imagine the circumstance of her life, but also think about how limited it is and how sad it is that her life entered an archive, and it was only told to us because she died. Why was not it that we learned about this girl’s life in life? Why is it that we only learn about her in death? So that’s the dismemberment side of it.

Durba: And then I think there is the side which is the last part of the question which is about what does it mean to be a female researcher? This is a hard question. I am an American and so when I would do research in India, of course, no matter how many braids I would wear, and of course, I was always in salwar kameez or a sari, especially in Calcutta, and no matter how much I tried to pass, there is something about my accent and my Bengali and my way of being that people always knew I was not from there. So I stood out and, for example, when I would go to libraries, certainly, the library where I found the case of Kali, I was always asked, “Why would a nice girl like you want to study a subject as abhorrent, as kind of dirty as this subject? Why are you interested in this? Such a strange thing.” And that came up again and again. In one of the archives, I remember, it was monsoon season in Calcutta where it gets incredibly wet. There are inches of rain that sit on the ground, especially in the old part of Calcutta, and I wore capri pants to the archive, in part to make sure that the bottom of my pants did not get wet, and the archivist kicked me out because she could see my ankles. I was not even wearing a sleeveless shirt, which is another thing. And that so that is one.

Durba: And then, of course, you have the other, which is the more dangerous kind. I can name doing research in the city of Delhi. I was a poor Ph.D. student. I mostly took public transportation when I was doing these two years of research. And in Delhi, when you take an auto rickshaw, you say you want to go from point A to point B, and you are kind of at the will of the Rickshaw driver. And I remember once, I was going to an archive, it had gotten dark, I was coming back, and the rickshaw driver pulled over in a place that I did not know, and I ran. I can name other circumstances, the kind of circumstances that every woman I know who has conducted research in many parts of the world, not only in India, certainly even here in the United States, where someone grabs your breasts, where someone makes a remark, where people are staring at you in a way that you know, you are in danger. That is an everyday experience of doing research, and I think about that every time I think about I pick up a book written by a woman the immense amount of personal endurance that it requires to do the research. Let alone the kind of scholarly work, and the intellectual work, and the research. You have to comport yourself. You have to think about how to protect yourself. I wore a backpack all through my research for the years that I did research in India, in part because in certain spaces I could turn the backpack on the front of my body so that no one would grab my breasts, and that that should not be the circumstance in which you research but that is the reality of what it is.

Soniya: And that is incredible. I have traveled through India and I concur with you. Unfortunately, that is indeed the state of affairs. I was getting chills when you were talking about the autopsy and the woman in your book because I just interviewed Priyanka Dubey, a BBC reporter based in Delhi, and her book details modern day India autopsies of rape and murder victims throughout India. So it absolutely has a relevance to modern-day India and it is just so shocking and sad that exactly what you have described is something that a researcher is currently doing an India today.

Durba: Dubey’s book is extraordinary. I teach it in my classes. I think it is the best reporting that we have of these prevalent crimes of sexual violence, of femicide, of the killing of women that are very difficult to document. I mean, the extraordinary risk that she had to take in order to do that research. I have such immense respect for that work, in part because the risks are also these communities. People do not want this spoken about. There is so much danger in speaking the truth of these circumstances. The other major research project that I have done with a dear colleague of mine, a legal scholar. His name is Mrinal Sadeesh[?]. He studies rape law in India. We did an extensive research project on the use of medical evidence in rape cases in India from the 1950s until today, basically. And one of the things we found over and over again was the way in which ideas about women’s sexuality, particularly woman’s chastity, their virginity, came to bear on the on the outcome of these rape cases, often in very negative ways that men would be acquitted from accusations of rape because, supposedly, the medical evidence demonstrated that a woman was habituated, so-called habituated to sexual intercourse. And Dubey does a great job of also documenting that work. So you can see there is lots of continuity in this, in a kind of deeply sad way.

Soniya: It is incredible. It really is. My next question for you is, in researching the show, I reviewed your past interviews both at Harvard and in a global context and you are quite candid in offering that many of the intellectual questions that you asked, whether it be through your published work or archival and academic research, or a direct result of the conversations you have had with women on their experiences of social judgment, subordination, and their efforts to challenge strict social norms. And on a somewhat related note, you also revealed that no one has influenced you more than your own mother who arrived in the United States in the 1980s as an immigrant from India to earn a Ph.D. in Statistics while working a full-time job and raising two children on her own. Can you share more about these powerful influences in your life and a connection to your groundbreaking work?

Durba: I can think of nothing more than these interactions that I have with women, everyday interactions that I have with women, whether it was in a kitchen in Calcutta or on the street where women would protect me on a bus or people like my mother or watching my mother and my grandmother. Those are the everyday quotidian experiences that helped me shape my research questions. First, I will talk about my mom. My mother came to the United States in 1982, and she came in great secrecy because she was leaving an abusive marriage, and it is really striking. I have started to write more about this, actually, recently because of the COVID pandemic, about domesticity and domestic violence. She was an upper caste woman, at least educated enough to get a Visa eventually to come to the US. And she came here and, eventually, raised, as you mentioned, two kids, me and my brother, by herself, basically, while working a full-time job, sometimes two, and she did it in defiance of a social circumstance that would have had her stay in her abusive marriage.

Durba: Stay in abusive marriages, as a whole, because it was seen as socially proper. And one of the things that I realized as I started to do this research on the idea of domestic violence, and I started to do this research during this COVID pandemic because we see in this moment the extraordinary rise of domestic violence incidents all over the world. In fact, the World Health Organization identified it very early in the pandemic as a problem. In a place like India, it is a pandemic itself, domestic violence, and domestic violence incidents increased tenfold. My mom was also leaving an extraordinarily violent circumstance and at the time there were no laws in 1982 against domestic violence in India. So one of the things that has been interesting for me is to look back what existed in 1982, what kind of work did feminists start to do in the late 70s that eventually culminates in domestic violence laws first in the mid-1980s, a few years after my mom left, and then again in the early 2000s with revised domestic violence laws, what kinds of work do feminists and women have to do to organize for their own rights and for their own dignity in the face of the state and in the face of families, including women within families that increasingly felt that women should stay within violent situations and within domestic kinship structures.

Durba: And that, to me, has been really striking that if COVID happened in 1982 when my mom was still in the early 80s, when my mom was still in this kind of forced marriage, and where she had nowhere to go, she would be literally incarcerated, locked down into a circumstance that constantly threatened her life. And so that gives you a sense that there was a kind of ability for her to leave one circumstance, and the kind of social structures and social disciplining that was part of that circumstance to come here to get a Ph.D. by herself. She worked so hard and that circumstance of thinking about that migration and what she had to leave behind, her family, her friends, including, actually, she was already doing a Ph.D. She had to leave all of that behind in order to escape that circumstance. And how do we think about these questions of domestic violence here in the US? This is an ongoing problem within South Asian diasporic communities. How do we help think about protecting women? How many of us know of women who, that family that you know when you were growing up? I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and there was one family we knew that there was domestic violence happening in the household, but no one said anything. And my mother was this exceptional person who would let those women come and stay in our house. She often had women coming and staying when they had difficult circumstances at home. She was the person who gave them money or gave them a different place to go and gave them safety or took their children when they needed to go elsewhere. And that is the uniqueness of my mother. She had an immense strength. She has an immense strength.

Durba: So, now, I am writing on domesticity and domestic violence. But for this book, I remember the judgment because my mother was a divorced woman. I remember the feeling within diasporic communities that she, as a divorced woman, was more sexually promiscuous, and this is a middle-aged woman with two children, who would cook a meal and people would act weirdly around her if she were near their husbands. And that is just a personal experience, but those questions and seeing her kind of socially ostracized by her family in India, by communities here in the United States, that experience made me have a really detailed understanding of the way social exclusion and social control works. It happens in glances, and it happens in whispers. It happens in networks of gossip. It happens in silence and shame, and those are the categories that I began to research as a scholar. Silence, shame. How do we write a history for these ideas?

Soniya: Well, I cannot believe that our time is already at an end, and I do want to ask you this. Do you have a book in the works or any other new research that you have on the horizon for any of your fans?

Durba: I do. I mentioned a little bit of it. Now, the first book got a lot of sad topics and it has got a lot of sad themes. And so now I am kind of writing a book about the 1970s and 80s and thinking about feminist dreams. I am thinking about how did feminist try to remake the world when they started to have massive political movements to revise rape law, to create new laws around domestic violence, to create a new vision of society where women could work, where women could have access to education, where women had a choice in marriage, where women had an imagination of freedom. And so, I have started to do a kind of experimental work around the dreams and imaginations of women. And that is the kind of ongoing work that I have been writing about now.

Soniya: That sounds absolutely amazing. I cannot wait to hear more about that. And I again want to ask every listener to please pick up Dr. Mitra’s book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought. And, especially for myself, I can only say it has just been a profound experience and even more so when I think about the fact that you are one of the only people in the entire world doing this kind of research because of the dismemberment as you have indicated of archives, and just the fact that very few people can do this. So, thank you again so much for joining me tonight.

Durba: Thank you so much. It is such a pleasure, and I should just say, I build on a long tradition of feminists being strong-minded women that are scholarly, that are activists, and I am just really glad to be part of that tradition, including someone like you, Soniya. So it is really a pleasure.

Soniya: Thank you so much. Such an honor, really, to have you here.

Durba: Thank you.

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