The Hari Putar Dialogues - 62
(BBC ; Chennai ; 13 June : Prostitutes in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have begun taking karate lessons to protect themselves from violent customers and pimps. The women say they were so fed up with abuse that they approached a local community group for help. The organizers hope the course in the ancient self-defence technique sends a message that violence against sex workers must stop. India is thought to have nearly three million sex workers. Most live on the fringes of society and have few legal rights. Correspondents say that means they often have little or no choice but to put up with violence and harassment. Dressed in white and wearing masks, the first 75 women to take the karate course in the coastal city of Madras (Chennai) had to brave intense heat as they practiced their moves.)
Putar: There is a report on the BBC website today that prostitutes in Tamil Nadu have begun to learn karate.
Hari: Why is that?
Putar: They need to be able to protect themselves from violent customers and pimps.
Hari: That makes sense. They need to learn how to keep fighting fit.
Putar: Exactly. The first batch of prostitutes learning karate trained together for nearly five hours a day, mostly learning how to fight.
Hari: And what do are their comments about the training?
Putar: The women say they feel more able to protect themselves. One sex worker, Santhi (not her real name), told the BBC Tamil service: "Even though I may not be able to attack a group of five men when they attack me, I am fully confident now that I can escape."
Hari: Good for her.
Putar: The woman said: "A thug once stripped me of my clothes and told me to run naked. From now on, I think nobody can do that to me. I will kick him."
Hari: The next violent customer may be in for a surprise.
Putar: And yet being beaten up is not the worst of the abuses many sex workers suffer.
Putar: Once the sex workers are alone with their clients some of the clients may force them into having unprotected sex.
Hari: With the consequent risk of HIV/ Aids.
Hari: Fair enough. They can now resist those clients better with karate. What happens if the client takes out a knife or a weapon?
Putar: Karate may help some of these women but they need to get organized in other ways as well. Have a bell put somewhere that the woman can press and call for help. Sex workers need to get organized in all sorts of ways.
Hari: Who has organized this particular training?
Putar: It's a group called the Indian Community Welfare Organization is providing the training free of charge. Its founder secretary, AJ Hariharan, said Tamil Nadu state alone was thought to have about 90,000 commercial sex workers.
Hari: It's a big industry.
Putar: Yes. There are estimated to be three million sex workers in the country. Mr Hariharan said the aim was to build the self-esteem and self-confidence of the women. "We are going to train 300 sex workers in the second phase and 500 sex workers after that.
Hari: It's good for the women to learn karate in terms of building up their self-esteem, but I feel saddened when I hear about such training.
Putar: Why is that?
Hari: It seems too little. At the rate of five hundred prostitutes a batch how long is it going to take for these women to learn karate. Isn't it better for these sex workers to learn some other skill or vocation?
Putar: And what would have them learn? Sewing? Knitting? Making Lijat Papad?
Hari: Nursing for instance.
Putar: But there may be women who don't want to learn nursing. And are nursing jobs guaranteed? In any case learning karate and other kinds of skills are not mutually exclusive.
Hari: That's true.
Putar: Even if the numbers are small there is an important symbolic value here. Sex workers are learning karate. That makes the headlines and the news spreads in the community. The commercial sex workers feel a sense of self worth and self esteem.
Hari: Not sure of all that. But tell me, have they published photographs of these sex workers who are learning karate?
Putar: You cannot see their faces. These prostitutes who are learning karate are dressed in white and are wearing masks. Tell me something, Papaji.
Hari: Bol, Putar?
Putar: Why do you think the prostitutes are dressed in white?
Hari: White is a symbol of purity. They want to show that they are very pure from inside, even if they have sex to make a living.
Putar: Possibly, but also because they have to brave the summer heat, and white is a cool color. White is also the usual color for the uniform in which students learn karate. Anyhow, my second question is: Why do you think these women are wearing masks?
Hari: That's simple. They don't want to be identified. Some of them may be doing this work without their family knowing about it. There may be young girls and women from the villages of Tamil Nadu who have come to Chennai the big city to earn money somehow or the other and who are sending some money home regularly.
Putar: Do you think we should strip the masks off?
Hari: No. I don't think that's a good idea at all.
Putar: Then should we instead strip the mask off our hypocritical society that exploits commercial sex workers but doesn't give them any rights, uses them, but treats them as less than human?
Hari: I don't know, Putar.