This paper will employ colonial history to reframe contemporary debates over the relation between gender, policing and public safety in South Asia, where women’s access to political and economic life is still severely affected by the constraints sexual assault places on their ability to act, move, and travel freely in public space. It focuses on the Indian Railways—that putative icon of ‘benevolent’ imperialism—and the elaborate infrastructure that existed to police and secure social boundaries that risked dissolution in the liminal spaces of long-distance rail travel. By the turn of the 20th century, anxieties about sex trafficking, domestic slavery, and prostitution had manifested themselves in the presence of segregated compartments and female waiting rooms at train platforms. I argue, however, that these protectionist architectures and discourses, saturated with racialized hierarchies of respectability and chaperonage, deflected attention from a far more primary problem: a culture of sexual assault that was signature to the predatory enforcement practices of the imperial railways workforce. Drawing from India Office proceedings and vernacular newspaper reports, I lay forth a thirty-year archive of rape cases, spanning 1893 to 1924, that features European railways officers like superintendents and stationmasters, Indian railways constables, guards, signalmen, and even station cooks, which shows that it was the very personnel that held responsibility over these protective spaces who were most likely to deploy them against women. Beginning with the then-infamous Rajputana Railway Case of 1893—in which a European guard took advantage of an accident in the brake-room to detach a van from a train, separate a Rajput woman from her companions, and rape her—I explore the pervasively misogynistic scrutiny to which Indian women were exposed as they traveled. All but one of the perpetrators in my archive were legally absolved: from bad lighting to bad character, a hostile built infrastructure of station sheds, police outposts, and officer bedrooms with which perpetrators were intimately familiar was mobilized to terrorize victims and discredit their testimonies of sexual violence.
About the speaker:
Niyati Shenoy is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and a certificate candidate at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University. A native of Bombay, she holds a BA in History and Politics from Pomona College, California, has studied at SOAS, and has been a Princeton in Asia Fellow and a Young India Fellow. She aims to research the origins and causes of sexual violence in northern India as questions of concept history. Her broader interests include sexuality and masculinity studies, archive theory, affect theory and victimhood, early modern Persianate histories and cultures, life-writing and autobiography, and political thought as it relates to the imagination of caste and gender difference..
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