Prostitution in Nineteenth Century Bengal:
Construction of Class and Gender
In a critique made of Michelle Barret's Women's Oppression Today (London 1980) Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas pointed out that Barret's analysis fails to decipher how the capitalist drive to accumulate and use labour power left women out of capitalist production and forced them to stay at home.1 Taking my cue from these critics I would like to argue that though Barret has stated that the family household system is not inherent to capitalism but has come to form a historically constituted element of class relations, she has left out of her formulations (which have since formed the core of Marxist feminist debates in the West) the pre-capitalist and colonial experiences of non-European people in general.
In this paper I have tried to explore how in the specific context of colonial rule, patriarchal norms in Bengal were shaped by both caste and class considerations. The dominant ideology expressed itself through certain indigenous categories like kula and vamsa, which directly aimed at controlling womens* reproductive powers. I will also discuss how an ideology of domesticity evolved in this period restricting women's labour and creative powers within the household. Any movement outside this social space—through performance, religious preaching even joining the labour force marked her out to be a deviant and prostitute.
Beriye elem, beshya halem kula karlem khaya
Tabuo kina bhatar shala dhamke katha kay.'
(I came out became a whore blackened my kula [family] yet even
now this bastard of a husband yells at me).2
This lone voice calling out from the dark brings to the fore those categories which demarcated a woman's social space in nineteenth century Bengal. The word kula derived from Sanskrit meant a generic collectivity. Two other terms, gotra and vamsa were considered synonymous with kula indicating shared blood and bodily substance.3 These terms
Dept. of Islamic I listory and Culture, University of Calcutta, Calcutta. ^
Social Scientist, Vol. 21, Nos. 9-11, September-November 1993