A Chicken and Egg Puzzle – Almost!

This month Paramita Banerjee muddles some notions around sex work. Read on!

With the annual festivities of the Durga pujas striking Bengal, I have been thinking about Hindu mythology and the concept of Apsaras – divine courtesans who are gifted with eternal youthful beauty, skilled in dancing and other performing arts, and in the art of seduction. Used often by the gods to distract an ascetic from his sadhana – there is a catch to the apsaras’ gifts, however. They cannot marry and have children. If they do, they would lose their eternally youthful beauty, their skills and be condemned to an ordinary, mortal life on earth. An age-old articulation of the Madonna and the whore binary: those who are wives and mothers are women clearly demarcated from those who are accessible to more than one male against payment in cash and/or kind. The wives and mothers are reproductive machines whose sexuality and/or sex appeal do not count. The apsaras and their likes, on the other hand, are gifted with all the titillating characteristics that the male mind can fantasise about – the ultimate in temptation and seduction.

None of this is true, of course, in real life. Take a casual walk across any of the marked red light areas of West Bengal’s Kolkata like Sonagachhi in the north, or Kalighat near the famous temple of the same name, or Munsiganj near the Khidirpur port and dock area. Or across Kamatipura in Mumbai, or Budhwarpet in Pune, Maharashtra. Or even a little red light pocket in Ongole, the head quarters of Prakasham district, Andhra Pradesh. You would mostly notice women – majority of them between 15 and 35 to the naked eye – clad in very bright clothes and makeup – otherwise just ordinary plain Janes, so to say. Towards the wee hours of the morning, one could even spot older women in their forties out on the street in their printed cotton ‘nighties’, without any attempt at beautification even.

In other words, there is nothing really to demarcate these women from any other woman. Women in sex work are NOT a different species; they do not stand out from the woman next door in any way – other than their tacky makeup and bright dresses when they are out to solicit customers. Take a walk in those same red light areas during the daytime and you’d find these same women cooking a meal or bathing a baby or readying a child for school. Ordinary everyday activities that women across the globe, and certainly in India, are associated with. Many of them, in fact, would have started out as someone’s wife in the first place – in all probability well before 18 – and been driven into the sex trade for some reason or the other.

The reasons are varied, indeed, going by the insights gained through interactions with a wide spectrum of girls and women in the sex trade, in course of various work assignments. A large majority of the brothel-based girls and women are trafficked into the trade – by relatives ranging from boyfriends/husbands to uncles or aunts, mothers-in-law, even fathers; by next door neighbours; by friends; teachers; semi-known or unknown placement agents. By brothel-based sex work, I refer to girls and women who live in a specific area known to be a red light area and carry out their trade in their places of residence. This form of sex trade continues to be much in demand in the country till date. By trafficking, I mean that they had been lured into the sex trade unknowingly – the decoy being anything as simple as the promise of a film show in the nearest city to the promise of employment with income levels far beyond whatever is locally available, or the dream of love and marriage.

I am reminded at this point of an eighteen-year old Nepalese girl who had been trafficked to Kamatipura by her own uncle at the age of eight. Rescued at fifteen, she was already HIV infected and had a one-year old child who was also infected. The horrors of being forced into the sex trade at the tender age of eight are not what I want to even think about. What I want to draw attention to is that, had I met her in an urban slum or a village home rather than in an NGO-run shelter for trafficking survivors, she would appear to me as another unfortunate and poor – both literally and metaphorically – victim of underage marriage to a HIV positive man – struggling to be the best mother she could to her child. Away from the ambience of Kamatipura and the necessary accessories of the trade she was forced into as a child – there was absolutely nothing to differentiate her from any other HIV infected girl from a socio-economically poor setting. There never is.

Almost a decade ago, I had conversations with a group of women in a guest house of south Kolkata, made famous by a recent box office hit from Bollywood. All young mothers, these women in their early to mid-twenties held from the suburbs of Kolkata in the adjacent South 24 Parganas district. Each one had either one child or two – mostly boys – in a rather famous school of the city. With their husbands engaged in irregular income-earning activities like van-rickshaw pulling, or plumbing, or electrical repairs and services – the cost of educating one or more child/ren in a posh city-based school was well beyond their means. The mothers, therefore, needed to earn too, to keep these children in that school – along with the inevitable cost of supplementary private tuitions, since the parents were barely literate at best. So, they were into ‘servicing’ – as they put it. In simpler language, offering sexual services to clients against payments. A rather strong case of the Madonna and the whore binary collapsing, I’d argue.

Siuri, a small town, is the district head quarter of the Birbhum district in West Bengal. Adjacent to the railway station there is a small red light pocket. The forty odd families that inhabit that area permanently have their daughters-in-law in the sex trade, with their husbands as the pimp. A family tradition, I had learnt; their mothers-in-law had done the same. The roles of wife and daughter in law maintained as well; their children registered as the sons/daughters of the mother and the man to whom she’s been married . . . Dichotomy here between the mother and the whore – anyone?

Ongole, Prakasham district, Andhra Pradesh. A young tribal girl hardly in her early-twenties. Her narrative would have been funny, had it not been so tragic in its implications. Married at 14, she was sold into sex trade by her husband, who continued to live in the same area with everyone’s sympathy and support, for it was believed that his newly-married wife had run away from him. That was the accepted version till she managed to escape with the help of a client and returned to her community five years later. Everyone learnt the truth: that her husband had sold her into the sex trade. So, the husband had to be punished. Twenty thousand in cash for a community feast – ruled the elders of the tribe. Off went the husband to work and earn that money and never returned. Two years later, when I met this 21 year old woman, she was back in the sex trade, ‘on her own’. Because, when the husband failed to return in two years, the tribal elders ruled that she had to cough up that money, since she was, after all, the wife of the fugitive man.

As must be clear by now, there are no separate species of women, really, marked only for sex trade. The wives and the mothers, or women who could as easily become wives and mothers had the trafficker not nabbed them before marriage, double up as women in the sex trade owing to a variety of reasons.

Women in the sex trade are human beings first and women second – the sex worker identity being one of the most externally acquired ones – with little scope for self-choice involved. So, sex workers’ rights as different and distinct from human rights and women’s rights? Nah, the qafeteer would scoff.

Paramita Banerjee works as an independent consultant in the sphere of child protection and gender justice. Her expertise lies in research, training, evaluation and community mobilisation. This black-coffee drinking queer activist dreams of wielding the pen to ruffle the feathers of status-quo-ist survival.

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