Prostitution and Culture: The Case of the Dancing Girl

In both Algeria and India, women for whom sexual intercourse was only one part of a larger cultural role were reduced to the label of "prostitute." "Dancing girls" in both of these countries went through extensive training in the arts, music, and dancing, but in the colonial period, their sexuality was highlighted above all. This section focuses on women who, before the colonial period, were respected for their mastery of different art forms and extensive training but were reduced by the French and British to their sexual transactions, erasing the larger context. 


Nautch Girls, Hyderabad

This photograph of nautch dancers at Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh is one of a series of photographs commissioned by the Government of India in the 19th century, in order to gather information about the dress, customs, trade and religions of the different racial groups on the sub-continent. Nautch Girls, Hyderabad. Hooper and Western. 1860s, Archaeological Survey of India Collections.

In India, despite the presence of women from a variety of different backgrounds who engaged in sexual transactions for a wide variety of reasons, the British fabricated and conceptualized a "prostitute caste," erasing cultural contexts and misunderstanding the varna/jati ("caste" and "sub-caste") system. [1] As Levine argues, the creation of the prostitute caste was largely a result of the dual framing of venereal disease as Indian and female, but this process also involved an erasure of the variety of cultural contexts in which Indian women may have engaged in nonconjugal sexual activity in order to put them all into this category. [2]

Perhaps the clearest example of this erasure is the 'dancing girl.' This category includes women from a variety of castes, classes, and religions. For example, the so-called "nautch girls" pictured to the left are Muslim courtesans known as baijis or tawaifs who were singers and dancers in the North Indian feudal courts. They were upper-class women who were professionally trained in the arts and sang sophisticated songs written by male poets in Urdu and Bengali. [3] Similarly, devadasis were Hindu women dedicated to the temple who were trained from a young age in the sixty-four arts including art, arithmetic, carpentry, logic, magic, mimicry, music, poetry, and swordplay. [4] Because one of their duties was sexual relationships with kings and priests, the British focused solely on this, characterizing them as prostitutes. The training, artistry, and religious significance of these groups was erased during the colonial period in favor of an overarching "prostitute" categorization. 


Mauresues dansant; Algérie

Dancing Moorish girls in Algeria.Félix Jacques Antoine Moulin. 1856, Gallica.

Similarly, in Algeria, the French viewed all dancers and entertainers (like the ones in the photograph on the left) as prostitutes. This was particularly common with Ouled-Naïl women, who went through intensive training. As Dunne argues, "the Western perception of the Ouled Nail dancers and entertainers as prostitutes proceeded largely from a Western tendency to associate women performers with prostitution, thereby disassociating them from broader cultural contexts." [5] Like the devadasis mentioned above, many of these women had religious significance in their cultures, which was also erased in French perception. For example, azriyas, who were divorced or repudiated wives, enjoyed a large degree of sexual freedom prior to remarriage. While the French viewed this as part of Islam's general lack of morals, the azriya was actually granted this liberty as part of the various religious powers attributed to her. [6]  





[1] Wald, Erica. (2009). From begums and bibis to abandoned females and idle women: Sexual      relationships, venereal disease and the redefinition of prostitution in early nineteenth-         century India. The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 46(1), 5-25.

[2] Levine, Philippa. (1994). Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: The Case of British India. Journal of the History of Sexuality4(4), 579–602.

[3] Banerjee, Sumanta. (1998). Dangerous Outcast: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

[4] Narayanan, Vasudha. (1996) “Women’s Rituals” in The Hindu Tradition from World Religions, ed. Willard Oxtoby. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 106-107. 

[5] Dunne, Bruce. (1994). French Regulation of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Algeria. The Arab Studies Journal, 2(1), 26. 

[6] Ibid.