Sex and Stereotype on the Sub-Continent

It’s Altaf your tailor, come to take your measurements

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“White men love you. They spend so much time worrying about your penis they forget their own. The only thing they want to do is cut off a nigger’s privates. And if that ain’t love and respect I don’t know what is.”

—Toni Morrison, Sula

I approach Scott Poulson-Bryant’s Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America (Doubleday, 2005) with some trepidation, as if rifling through a friend’s underwear drawer. I’ve known Scott for a few years in a hip-hop/fashion/worlds-collide capacity. In all this time, we’ve never felt compelled to whip out our tools and do a comparison. This seems an odd omission because, based on the evidence in his book, this is a topic that comes up ad nauseum at bars, at home, in restaurants, and, of course, in the gym.

The Mandingo myth is everywhere in modern America, especially as regards polyglot lives. Take Hollywood, for instance. No one wants to see Denzel Washington locking tongues with America’s sweetheart, hence the removal of the original sexual chemistry subplot in The Pelican Brief. The only time Denzel does “the white thing” is in He Got Game, where Milla Jovovich is a hooker and therefore two subversions cancel each other out. Miscegenation is simultaneously nightmare (Sammy Davis Jr) and marketable commodity (Kimora Lee Simmons). Michel Houellebecq transmits sexual envy into the smoothly articulated complaint that French girls “only want to sleep with African and Arab men.” These compulsions are also explored in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, where a convergence of race, sex, and crime provides the substance of a hard-boiled French noir.

Free-associating backwards through the decades, we find stories about Muslim rapists in pre-Partition India that scratch the same fascination/repulsion itch. As we learn in the narratives of the time, Muslims were kidnapping Hindu women because of the “low standard of morality among the mass of Muhammadans, the prevalence of polygamy, and the numerical inferiority of females among them.” For Hindu activists pushing a muscular, post-independence identity, this was an invitation to figuratively build fortresses around “their” women. Muslims might be rumored to have “superior physique,” but Hindu males were exhorted to remember their past: “You were kings once/You carrot-eating wenches.”

During the buildup of cultural tension between the two partitions — the 1905 Partition of Bengal and the final, apocalyptic rupture of 1947 — stereotypes played a crucial role. The idea of the omnivorous, having-many-wives-and-still-not-satisfied, hyper-sexed Muslim was a powerful trope. Double perception: the crude, uneducated, and also horny Muslim male — an interweaving with the colonial obsession with the Muslim harem as the bastion of frigidity.

The census in the late 1800s produced a “shock,” as it was discovered that the Muslim population everywhere in India was a quantum leap above what was expected. Since then, there’s been an obsession with the idea of the “dying Hindu.” Binary stereotypes were at play: Muslims ate meat and took four wives — they were designed to breed; Hindus were gentle vegetarians and had a structural edict against remarrying widows — their populations were doomed to die. Especially in rural hinterlands like East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh), always in the shadow of booming Calcutta, the existence of a vast, uncounted Muslim numeric majority came as a total surprise. In 1891, census commissioner O’Donnell looked at the slower growth rates for Hindu populations, and performed mental gymnastics to calculate an actual year when Hindus would “disappear altogether.” This data led HH Risley, then home secretary of India, to ask, “Can the figures of the last census be regarded in any sense the forerunner of an Islamic or Christian revival, which will threaten the citadel of Hinduism?” Extinction of Hindus, in the face of baby-boom Muslims, had gone from statistical possibility to near probability, as codified in alarmist titles like UN Mukherjee’s pamphlet A Dying Race and Indra Prakash’s book They Count Their Gains — We Calculate Our Losses.

Demographic time bomb fears dovetailed with a focus on the Hindu widows who were forbidden by religious tradition to remarry. Moralists were obsessed with the “wild” sexual appetites of widows. In the first instance, the idea was that this would lead to infanticide because they would have children out of wedlock. Later, as the Muslim rapist entered the picture, the issue became even more fearful. Better infanticide than a Muslim-Hindu union!

Campaigns against the abduction of women first started from an anti-colonial position, but were soon rewired into a communal platform. Early protests in the 1880s were directed towards British tea planters who were molesting women workers. Even up to 1923, protests against rapes by policemen were on behalf of both Muslim and Hindu women. But the 1924 formation of the Women’s Protection League shifted the focus towards the idea of Muslim goondas with a singular interest in Hindu women. The best carriers of these stories were the vernacular newspapers and cheap flyers and pamphlets (a gift of the proliferation British of press machines, especially in Bengal –– always ahead of other South Asian regions in colonial apparatus, this time to deadly effect).

A pivotal case was the Suhasini rape case in Rangpur. The key players here were the legal and journalistic professions, both of which were invested in communal separation as a buildup to “Quit India.” The courtroom became the stage for the magnification of fears around the two communities’ mutual antagonism. Atul Sur wrote, with a quiet pride, about scanning the newspapers every day for stories about Hindu girls being kidnapped by Muslim men. This porno-voyeurism was rewarded on most days. Amrita Bazar Patrika was the leader of the pack, printing fanciful and real stories of abduction. Headlines would reinforce the message and point up connections between various cases. When a 1929 case resulted in acquittal, Amrita Bazar still spun the headline in screaming font: WOEFUL STORY OF A GIRL. As court cases continued, rural litigants would pick up fragments and innuendo from the proceedings and relay them back to their villages. The tight networks in each village then took over, and rumor ran wild.

By 1938, statistics showed that the majority of Muslim and Hindu kidnappers preferred women from their own religious communities. The ratios in the 1935-37 report on abduction-rapes of women by men (sweetly called “outrages”) were:

Hindu on Hindu: 1,260 / Hindu on Muslim: 30
Muslim on Hindu: 686 / Muslim on Muslim: 3,299

A proportion of rape cases involved known assailants — neighbors, colleagues, and relatives. Intra-community sexual violence was to be expected, given the segregation that existed in daily life. But rape that didn’t follow communal patterns was not to be allowed. Riot-minded politicians needed cross-pollinated sex panic. Stories of kidnapping and rape were a huge driver behind the Hindu exodus from East Bengal between 1947 and 1950. In the literature of the period, the Hindu refugee always lands in Calcutta, homeless and begging for food with the cry, “Please help us, we have nothing. We left everything behind. What else could we have done? They would have taken our women.” In Ritwik Ghatak’s film Subarna Rekha, as the refugee camp festers and discontent sets in, a character voices reassurance: “Why did we leave everything to rot here? Because they would have done it to our mothers, sisters, daughters if we had stayed.”

In actual migration patterns, women were often sent over first while men stayed and tried to sell off property. Those left behind are considered in Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani, where the women are rumored to have chosen a watery grave over rape. The protagonist is someone who converts to Islam, another kind of tragic martyr in the eyes of her fellow Hindus. The conventional idea was that in Muslim-Hindu unions, it would be the Hindu side that would “lose religion.” Even peaceful cohabitations could be seen as abductions in this light.

The legacy of sexual fright, along with other mutually reinforcing stereotypes, planted the seeds for continued mutual antagonism across the borders and on internal minorities in post-Partition India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Each side channels the energies of Panchanan Barma’s wishful verse:

Shame, shame, the dead men, shame.
The hooligans are taking away your mothers and sisters, still you remain cool?
Look at our women, they are great.
Let the lumpen neres (Muslims) come, we will teach them a lesson.

It seems we are still teaching each other lessons.

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Naeem Mohaiemen, Memsaheb, It’s Altaf your old tailor, Memsaheb, I’ve come to take your measurements, 2006, digital composite from rape sequence in Hey Ram, courtesy of the artist