#AsiaNow Speaks with Durba Mitra

Durba Mitra is Associate Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and author of Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, published by Princeton University Press and winner of the 2022 AAS Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Indian Sex Life analyzes how ideas of deviant female sexuality, often named as the “prostitute,” became foundational to modern social thought and theory in colonial India. European, American, and Indian social analysts made scientific claims about deviant female sexuality in the constitution of new fields of knowledge about society. In the new sciences of society, including Indology, legal sociology, evolutionary theory, and even popular literature, the assessment of feminized sexuality became essential to the study of social life. Ideas of female sexual deviancy were foundational for debates about social progress and exclusion, Hindu supremacy, caste domination, sexuality and work, women’s industrial and domestic labor, transnational indentured servitude, customary marriage, widowhood and inheritance, the trafficking of girls, abortion and infanticide, and anti-Muslim ideologies about the dangers of Muslim women’s sexuality. Colonial authorities and Indian intellectuals used the mutable concept of the prostitute to argue for the dramatic reorganization of modern Indian society around Hindu supremacist visions of upper-caste monogamy. Indian Sex Life reveals how modern social science and theory is made possible through ideas of deviant female sexuality. I demonstrate how modern social theory is based on a dangerous civilizational logic built on the control and erasure of feminized sexuality. This logic continues to hold sway in present-day South Asia and many parts of the postcolonial world.

What inspired you to research this topic?

The inspiration for this research is both personal and methodological—personal in terms of my own history and that of my family, and methodological in the challenges of writing history in and through archives that purposefully objectify, limit, and erase the lives of women. The research is framed by intellectual questions that I have asked in response to seeing and knowing the cruel dictates of social and sexual control that shape the everyday lives of girls and women and watching women in their efforts to challenge, subvert, and survive despite dangerously strict sexual norms. Indian Sex Life is shaped by these unique challenges and asks how research on women and issues of sexuality gets to the very heart of the ethical and political questions that shape how we write about social life, from the vocabulary we use to  describe women to the normative visions of conjugality and hierarchy that shape our own understandings of the past and future of modern society.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I think researchers face many obstacles in conducting research on women and sexuality, from the dearth of sources that give contour to the nature of women’s lives rather than the circumstances of their criminalization or deaths, to the problem of archives that are crumbling as a result of poor infrastructure to sustain materials in South Asia. These challenges are even more acute in India today with increasingly authoritarian structures that limit access to archives and disappear archives in new infrastructure projects that are reshaping cities through a chauvinistic vision of Hindu nationalism.

In my research, I faced many challenges, including the problem of sexual control and harassment in and out of archives and the regular experience of not gaining access to materials due to bureaucratic procedures, including regular disagreements with different directors of archives about using computers or cameras in the reading room (the answer was always no). I also faced the obstacle of being a woman asking for materials labeled as “sensitive.” I remember making a request for a medical chapbook that was labeled “confidential” when it was catalogued by colonial librarians in 1922 in The Imperial Library in Calcutta. Despite being a medical textbook, it was considered lewd and obscene by colonial authorities. It remained under the label as “confidential” almost a century later, inaccessible throughout the postcolonial period. Library staff would not let me see the materials no matter how many times I requested the book. Keep in mind, this text was a medical textbook about women’s diseases, and the content considered lewd described and diagramed women’s bodies and diseases for the purpose of science, without anything we might consider explicit in today’s standards. One day, on a Saturday, when the regular librarians were off, an unknowing staff person finally gave me the book. The text eventually formed a key part of chapter four, “Evolution,” on evolutionary theories of female sexuality and society.

As for what turned out easier, not much is easy about research, although finally gaining access to sources or finding rare materials is so exciting. When I finally read the censored book, I felt like I had discovered a secret shared only by me and the library walls. What is best about research are the amazing and long-lasting friendships formed in the spaces of consuming tea and snacks just outside the archives. These relationships are life-sustaining in what can be rather isolating work.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Much of the research for the book came from leads offered informally over tea or snacks or from dear colleagues who saw something once in a small library or archive. There was so much oral historical knowledge about archives, from where to find what sources to how to travel to the small libraries in the winding city streets of Calcutta and its outer areas. Little of this knowledge is written down in any kind of how-to guide. The bibliophiles and archive lovers were so essential for helping me understand the topography of sources and knowledge that made this project possible. I think in particular of a dear colleague and committed historian, the late Shrimoy Roy Chaudhury, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. In his research, Shrimoy found a so-called “autobiography” of a woman who fell into prostitution after becoming a professional worker, published in the 1920s. I tried again and again to go to the local archive that held the book in question, but it was always closed—for a strike, for the holidays, for lack of staff, sometimes because of the monsoon rains. Shrimoy, because he was a lover of archival discoveries and the most unfailingly generous person, had taken some photos of the text and shared them with me. The text itself was fascinating and curious, written in the first person from an unknown author. Was it a pseudonym? Could a man have written the book and claimed to write from the perspective of a “fallen woman”? Who was the audience? I explore it and other similar texts in chapter five of Indian Sex Life, “Veracity.”

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

The book builds on a long genealogy of feminist critical thinking in anti-colonial feminist traditions that recognizes the foundational place of racialized womanhood and the “lag” of feminized sexuality for the modern study of society. There are so many powerful thinkers who shaped this work from intersecting feminist traditions, including feminist philosophers, South Asian feminist historians, scholars of Black feminisms, and theorists of queer theory and queer of color critique. The amazing work of South Asian feminist scholarship animates my notes throughout the book, and there the reader will find a wide range of key thinkers who have transformed the study of gender and sexuality in South Asia. Indian Sex Life might be read alongside the many texts that shaped it, including Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards (University of California Press, 2005) and Anjali Arondekar’s For the Record (Duke University Press, 2009). New books on gender and sexuality in South Asia that I think address related questions include Charu Gupta’s The Gender of Caste (University of Washington Press, 2018) and Ishita Pande’s Sex, Law, and the Politics of Age (Cambridge University Press, 2020). But these excellent titles are just a few of the many works that shaped this study.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

In this terrible time of the ongoing pandemic, I have turned to the history of Third World and postcolonial women’s intellectual work in the decolonizing world in the 1970s and 1980s in order to imagine the possibilities of feminist research in times of crisis. I was led to my current book project on South-South feminist social theory and social science from Indian Sex Life, which ends at the moment of decolonization in South Asia. In Indian Sex Life, I demonstrate how, over the course of the colonial period in British India, British colonial administrators, European, American, and Indian social scientists, doctors, lawyers, and public intellectuals—all men —created modern social science and theory based on the patriarchal control and erasure of feminized sexuality. Despite their profound biases about non-conjugal sexuality and contemptuous understandings of women’s lives and desires, these theories and concepts continue to be foundational for the modern social sciences today. In my ongoing research, I analyze how women across geographies of the Third World incorporated and challenged these institutionalized forms of patriarchal social science with the rise of women’s movements in the second half of the twentieth century. What theories and methods in the study of women did feminist scholars and activists in postcolonial spaces create? What were the limits and erasures of their approaches to the study of women?