Hierarchies and Regulation: Maintaining Colonial Order

Harem Scene

This painting, done in the Mughal style, depicts a harem in India. The figures are arranged hierarchically, with the nobleman's wives and family on either side of the bed and his concubines on the floor. Harem Scene. Unkown Artist. 19th century, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin.

In addition to the public health regulations mentioned in the previous section, a series of other regulations and the cementing of hierarchies were key to maintaining colonial order in India and Algeria. There were complex hierarchies in both places based on class, race, religion, and in India's case, caste. The image to the left, painted in a Mughal style, depicts a harem of what was likely an upper class Muslim man's concubines. Religion played a key role in hierarchies of prostitution in India, and there was a de facto law prohibiting Hindu women from sleeping with Muslim men and vice versa even before the British Raj. [1] When the British came, though, an even stricter hierarchy was enforced, as British men wanted to ensure that prostitutes designated to sleep wtih European men were forbidden from sleeping with either Hindu or Muslim Indian men, as this was seen to contaminate them. While the British did not want their own women to be degraded by coming to India as prostitutes, they did create a market for non-British European prostitutes who were seen as above the indigenous Indian women. [2] Following white women, the hierarchy was structured as follows: baijis / nautch girls / tawai'fs (Muslim courtesans who catered to the nobility), devadasis (Hindu women trained in the arts who were dedicated to the temple and served high-caste men), high-caste Hindu widows who were forbidden from remarrying by the Hindu tradition and believed to place a burden on their families, and Hindu and Muslim lower caste and class girls from rural areas, such as khemtawalis. [3] 

Mauresque et Négresse

Mauresque et Négresse d'Alger. Félix Jacques Antoine Moulin. 1856, Gallica. 

This photograph from Algeria highlights a hierarchy in which white women (including Jews) were at the top, followed by "moors" (mauresques) and black women (négresses). In his previously cited text, for example, Dr. Alphonse Bertherand comments on differences between Jewish women, who he characterizes as "more hardworking and well-off" than Moorish and Black women. [4] As mentioned previously, women lower down in this hierarchy were more likely to be associated with disease, and, as a result, more heavily regulated. 

While it is clear from the above information that in both India and Algeria, there were many different types of prostitutes from many different backgrounds, part of both Britain and France's colonial projects was to erase cultural specificity and create an overarching category of "prostitute" that encompassed any woman involved in sexual transactions, and many who were simply assumed to be by nature of being indigenous. As the next section will demonstrate, this process had harmful consequences, particularly for those women meticulously trained in the arts.  




[1] Banerjee, Sumanta. (1998). Dangerous Outcast: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 9-10.

[2] Tambe, Ashwini. (2005). THE ELUSIVE INGÉNUE: A Transnational Feminist Analysis of     European Prostitution in Colonial Bombay. Gender & Society 19(2), 160-179.

[3] Banerjee.

[4] Bertherand, Alphonse. (1836). "De la prostitution en Algérie." in On Prostitution in the City of Paris, Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, 546.