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Issue No.: 570 | December 2014

The Legality of ‘Tolerated Prostitution’ - Remembering Meliscent Shephard as we Debate

Jyoti Marwah
The debate today for legalizing sex work centres around the argument that it can help regulate the ‘industry’ and reduce trafficking in women and children, improve the working conditions for such women.

Stephen Legg has condescendingly lamented that Meliscent Shephard, in spite of having been an embodiment of ‘the feminist urge to challenge patriarchal gender relations’ and believing strongly that the blame for the exploitation of prostitutes lay with the colonial State and economy, failed to cultivate intimate relations with Indian colleagues at all levels of national and racial politics. Legg makes his point based on the documents acquired from the Women’s Library London, London Metropolitan University, a part of the UK Archives, maintaining the records of The Association for Moral and Social Hygiene. His exemplary work on ‘An Intimate and Imperial feminist: Meliscent Shephard and the Regulation of Prostitution in Colonial India’ fails to look beyond 1947 after Meliscent Shephard returned to England.

Legg narrowly misses the fine discerning line to view the challenge that lay in this sphere of reform. The area of work that Shephard took to was extremely precarious and any reform movement related to it would have been opposed tooth and nail. It needed refined and fine sensibilities which the native Indians had still to acquire and for whom prostitution under various customary practices was rooted in traditions and religious beliefs. Hence it was but natural that she would have faced challenges from anti-colonial nationalism. Though she was well trained to fight commercialised prostitution, the essence of her work can be understood better by reviewing its impact on Independent India and the efforts by ‘natives’ to carry forward her work.

The degraded condition of Indian women was taken as the reason for India’s inferior status in the hierarchy of civilizations and colonial discourses had focussed on issues of reforming the status of women. The rise of 20th century welfare bio-politics had forced the colonial State into the realm of social hygiene. Hence in the nineteenth century there was a movement for female education to create the ‘New Women’ and this rested with three agencies as classified by Geraldine Forbes – ‘the British rulers, the Indian male reformers and the educated Indian Women.’ The ‘imperialist feminists’ like Josephine Butler attacked the ‘State and not imperialism, viewing regulated prostitution as a threat to the validity of the Empire and arguing in favour of a more ethical imperialism’. Thus it can be said that imperial feminist literature examined women not as objects of orientalist representation but in ‘their imperial settings they shared common attitudes of racism, paternalism, ethnocentrism and national chauvinism.’ However these campaigns by Butler against prostitution through the Butler Ladies National Association which merged with the British, Continental and General Federation for the Abolition of Government Regulation of Prostitution to form the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene [AMSH] in 1915 laid the foundation for a larger framework of programme for tackling the issues related to prostitution. The Association was a gender equality pressure group independent of any political party, philosophical school or religious creed. The International Abolitionist Federation was already in place in 1875.

Shephard had come to India in 1928 at the request of CF Andrews, a historian and a reformer closely aligned with Mahatma Gandhi, to represent the AMSH formed in India. Gandhiji also wanted abolition of ‘tolerated brothels’. Earlier during the non-cooperation movement Gandhiji had appealed to include women participation, which percolated down to the marginalised sections such as the prostitutes and the Devadasis, though at this point of time he was not too keen to involve them in the original core group of volunteers. It was not without reason that for 20 years Shephard had contributed progressively till her return in 1947, campaigning against regulated and tolerated brothels. Gandhiji had met Shephard on 4th march 1933 and explained "You have no need to apologize for being a foreigner doing this service. When people realize that you have no other motive, but simple motive of serving these fallen sisters of India and through their service also serve the fallen men of India, they will forget that you are a foreigner. Those who have other ends to serve under the guise of humanitarian service will always be treated as foreigners whether they wear the white skin or the brown skin.” She was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind in 1938. 

She wrote extensively preparing social scientific reports on the need for ‘economic and material improvement in the lives of indigenous women’. Her earlier reports focussed on the effects of colonial economics and society rather than blaming indigenous traditions and customs entirely. She left behind branches of the Association in 128 districts of 18 states in India which was by no means a small contribution.

The educated women had enough to learn from Shephard’s work to carry forward the task of reshaping society by giving dignity to women in the India of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. She had deeply stirred the Indian mindset and the feminist urge in educated Indian women. Mrs. Shakuntala Lal, Malti Chatpal, Veena Duggal and Urmila Devi Masooda were the pioneering feminists of these times to work for improving the moral and social hygiene among these women. As a consequence in Independent India the primary law dealing with sex workers was first passed in 1956 and was known as the ‘Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act’ (SITA) which made buying and selling of girls for prostitution a crime under Section 372 and 373 of IPC, a culmination of the work started by Shephard. This was then changed to Immoral Trafficking Act (ITPA) in 1986.

The debate today for legalizing sex work centres around the argument that it can help regulate the ‘industry’ and reduce trafficking in women and children, improve the working conditions for such women and lower the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. Also it is argued that the majority of the women in this trade are compelled to do so out of necessity to run their families and provide for their children. Brothels and pimps are the cause for their exploitation. Monitoring these operations becomes the need and concern for prostitution to be legalized. The National Commission for Women is fighting for the rights of these women before a panel of the Supreme Court.

It is further reported that trafficking of women and pimping has not ended in the 50 countries where sex work has been legalized. It is reported that before and after independence, the AMSH in India, struggling to work for moral hygiene and sexual responsibility for men and women in India, found it hard to achieve their goals in bringing dignity, social justice and equality before the law for these women. Their work was projected at the conference of the International Abolitionist Federation in 1962.

Could we be treading on dangerous grounds by restarting what had been fought against by many like Meliscent Shephard or can we hopefully experiment with changing times and maturing sensibilities?

DR. JYOTI MARWAH, I/C Principal & Head, Department of History & Faculty of Arts,
ICLES’ Motilal Jhunjhunwala College of Arts, Science & Commerce, Vashi, Navi Mumbai; 
Member,University of Mumbai Board of Studies (History).





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Jyoti Marwah

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