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The Silence Around Sex Work
by Dr. Syeda Hameed Bookmark and Share

As a small girl I had read a book called 'The Scarlet Letter' by American writer Nathanial Hawthorne. It was the story of the proverbial 'fallen woman', one Hester Prynne who society dubbed as adulteress and forced to display on her person a scarlet 'A' for her sin. At about that time, I also read short stories by the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, whose matter-of-fact treatment of 'fallen women' such as Sultana in Kaali Shalwar raised hackles of polite society.

Those days there was something shameful in reading these stories, because such subjects were taboo. Their authors were often embroiled in lawsuits slapped on them by indignant keepers of society's morals. Another such writer was Ismat Chughtai. As a child I knew her as a close friend of my family but did not dare to read her stories, which were kept under lock and key. It was not until much later that I realized that she had touched the subject of homosexuality in the fifties, an audacity that was intolerable for the social milieu of her times. In 1985, I translated her story 'Razai' (Quilt) and she burst on the non-Urdu literary scene, becoming an icon for aspiring writers and students of feminist writings.

What do my reading habits of the fifties and sixties have to do with the reason for writing this article, namely the issue of legalization of sex work?

Let me begin with mindsets.

Like most children of my generation, I grew up with a mindset dinned into me by the patriarchal world into which I was born. My life, as also the lives of my contemporaries, initially ran along the same moral track, but then went on to become anything but linear. As we hurtled through the years, we changed our stances on many issues. One such issue was prostitution. By going through the grinder of life, we understood what Manto and Ismat and even Hawthorne were trying to tell us through literature. Our society had told us to look at sex workers through a certain lens. Words like 'randi' whore, harlot, veshya, tawaif were choice abuses used to hurt and maim women. The ever-changing canvas of our experience, however, taught us to see shades and shadings, not stark colors.
As Member of National Commission for Women, I recall holding many meetings with sex workers. We invited them to our office for consultations along with women activists from both ends of the spectrum; ultra conservative to ultra liberal. We visited their addas in places like Sonagachhi, Kolkata; Falkland Avenue, Mumbai; Baina, Goa; and Chaturbhhujsthan in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar.

I recall that it was 20 years ago in 1985 that I went with a friend to a meeting in Delhi, which turned out to be about gay rights. Understandings began to deepen. The fact that people had different sexual orientations began to make sense. One became less judgmental. It was around that time that sex workers in various parts of the country started forming collectives. Women's groups and others from civil society started offering them support in their fight against exploitation, violence and brutalization.

This support manifested itself in art and literature produced on the eighties and nineties. Mainstream cinema had always made highly sentimental films about prostitutes as victims of a cruel heartless 'samaj' (society). Poets and writers had written in the same tenor. The younger generation of artists took on a different lens. Filmmakers took an objective look and made films such as 'Tales of the Midnight Fairies' based on the real life experiences of sex workers in Kolkata, who had collectivized and by taking control of their lives had become free of exploitation.

In September, my colleagues and I at the Planning Commission made a presentation before the Prime Minister on HIV/AIDS. The raison d'�tre of this presentation was an alarm bell that had been sounded off by some media-persons in the US about the HIV pandemic in India. We were trying to present the real picture. In preparation for this I had held consultations with a large section of civil society, people who had cutting edge experience, as also people who were afflicted with the virus and people who were in the highly vulnerable group.
Our presentation was a compendium of our findings - what we had gleaned from the people we had heard. I had checked our findings against my notes and recollections of the public hearings I attended of people living with HIV/AIDS. The point we made was that in order to bring health interventions to cover the most vulnerable groups, including sex workers and homosexuals, one would have to stop regarding them as criminals and accord them the rights and dignity they deserve. We said that fear of legal action pushes them underground; how can they register complaints about clients who refuse to wear condoms when their very appearance before the police means arrest, victimization and various other forms of brutalization? The shame that surrounds their existence and the label of illegality with which they are branded does not allow them to seek any kind of redress or give them courage to insist on prevention.

I said that the exploitation scenario changed when sex workers came out of hiding. I had seen the difference. The women from Sangram - an organization working since 1990 with sex workers in Sangli, the district with highest HIV incidence in Maharashtra - are a case in point. Some 120 Sangram peer educators distribute 350,000 condoms to 5,000 women every month. Women in prostitution are thus mobilized for HIV-related peer education in six districts in Maharashtra and Northern Karnataka. In 1996, this work broadened into a Collective called VAMP (Vaishya AIDS Muqabla Parishad). At a public hearing held two years ago, I was witness to depositions by these women and many others who spoke of how they prevent sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection.

Durga Pujari, a VAMP activist, summarized the public image of sex work in these words: "Over the years, we have become 'commercial sex workers' from 'common prostitutes'. Debates are held about us and we are discussed in documents, covenants and declarations. The problem, however, is that when we try to inform the arguments, our stories are disbelieved and we are treated as if we cannot comprehend our own lives. Thus we are romanticized, victimized, or worse. And our reality gets buried and distorted."

As I write this article, I have before me a pile of papers generated by my stand on decriminalizing sex work and homosexuality. Articles playing on words like 'green light' and 'red light' lie before me, filled with arguments and counter-arguments. Instead of this proliferation of words, can we not accord dignity to these human beings and get on with the business of preventing the poor and vulnerable among them from falling victim to a disease which to date has not found a cure? 

The writer is member, Planning Commission; founder of the Muslim Women's Forum; and former member of the National Commission for Women.  

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