Newsletter July 2000 

In different places and in different ways, in groups and as individuals, women and women’s groups are addressing a spectrum of issues. At Saheli, we believe that there is much to be learnt from the diversity of these experiences. At the same time, because we locate our own struggles within wider struggles for social change, we also believe it is important to draw connections between one struggle and another, and collectively debate strategies.

In an effort to initiate discussions, and equally, to create a forum for like-minded groups and individuals to address issues of common concern, over the last few years we have tried to organise open meetings on one Saturday of the month. Our idea has been to get activists and academics to share their experiences and insights by making presentations on an issue, and following that up with an open discussion. The meetings have covered a range of subjects not strictly pertaining to or affecting women. The issues with their larger implications on society, polity and economy have been picked either for their contemporary relevance, or with the understanding that our liberation as women, is linked with the liberation of other poor, marginalised and oppressed groups of society. These ‘monthly meetings’, as they have grown to be called, are open to anyone interested in discussing and debating issues of social and political importance, and our effort has been to reach as many people as we think would be interested, either telephonically or through handwritten post-cards. A number of students, teachers, activists and professionals have been regulars at these meetings. While the frequency of the meetings has been somewhat irregular, the spectrum of people attending them, the range of topics covered, the depth of presentations and the vibrancy of discussions have been inspiring.

Following a meeting in January 1999 on ‘Fire, Lesbianism and Related Issues’ (reported in the Saheli Newsletter of February 1999) we felt the need to widen the discussion to other aspects of women’s sexuality in the current social and political context. Hence, we re-started our monthly meetings in March 1999 with a discussion on Marriage, Family And The Right Wing Backlash (Speaker: Dr. Tanika Sarkar, Professor, Delhi University). Subsequently, we organised a meeting on the Dalit Women’s Movement (Speaker: Rajni Tilak, Centre for Alternative Dalit Media) to try and understand the specific issues facing dalit women in India, and the various dimensions of their struggle. In the immediate aftermath of the Kargil war, we held an impassioned session on Kargil: The Issues Ahead where we looked at the history and implications of continued Indo-Pak hostilities, and the role of the media in fanning such nationalism. (Speakers: Gautam Navlakha, Citizens Against War and Poornima Joshi, Hindustan Times). Our next meeting, titled Politics Of Education: Universalisation Of Literacy (Speaker: Dr. Sadhna Saxena, National Institute of Adult Education) unveiled the many ways in which the state manipulates education to fulfil its own agenda. In the face of overwhelming media hype about the ‘global crisis imminent from ever-increasing world population’, we organised a meeting titled Looking Beyond Six Billion: Politics Of Population Control (Speaker: Dr. Imrana Qadir, Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU). A few months after the remarkable resistance to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) guidelines, we held a meeting on The Battle Of Seattle: The Struggle Against WTO (Speakers: Leonie, David, and Harley, Alliance for Global Justice) which recounted the coming together of workers, farmers, students, environmentalists and other activists, and the preparations, the build up and the actual chain of events of the historic resistance in Seattle. For a long time, we have felt that the issue of prostitution, and the struggle of sex workers pose new challenges for the women’s movement. Hence our most recent meeting was on Prostitution: A Critique Of Law And Policy, with Meena Seshu, Sangram/Vaishya Aids Muqabla Parishad (VAMP), a collective of sex workers in Sangli, Maharashtra, as the Speaker. But since Meena was unable to be in Delhi at that point, we ourselves attempted to map out some of the key issues and debates related to sex work as work, legalisation of prostitution and the rights of women in prostitution.

While it would be worthwhile to share accounts of all our monthly meetings, we thought the issue of women in prostitution needs further debate. Hence, we are sharing the discussion with readers in the hope that together, we will be able to carry it further.

The meeting on women in prostitution. Outlining new challenges.

The women’s movement has traditionally raised issues of sexuality in the context of family and marriage, and prostitution has been perceived in a monolithic way, i.e. as exploitation and commodification of women’s bodies, with women in prostitution being seen as victims of ‘female sexual slavery.’ Whether women are kidnapped, purchased, fraudulently contracted through organised crime syndicates or procured through love and befriending tactics, the practice of prostitution has been understood to be inherently violent and exploitative. This perspective, echoed by those working against trafficking of women and children assumes that all prostitutes are forced into the institution, and that selling of sex is synonymous not only with sexual exploitation, but with the selling of women’s very personhood. Consequently, complete abolition of prostitution has been the only logical solution to end such exploitation. And the ways out of the profession being ‘measures’ like rescuing, rehabilitating, improving, disciplining and/or policing those involved in prostitution.

But the last few years have seen the emergence of many organisations of female (and male) prostitutes which have emphasised the need for going beyond the solutions of rehabilitation or abolition of prostitution. They have raised many fundamental questions about the social construction of sexuality and sexual practices, and the inter-linkages between class, gender and sexuality. They have shifted the focus to the problems of sex workers in terms of material deprivation and social stigmatisation, and the need to think about these issues afresh. The sex workers movement, as it has come to be called, has challenged the moral and ethical overtones that have surrounded the entire debate and determined ‘the rights and wrongs’ of their profession. They have raised demands for the recognition of ‘sex work as work’, and to be treated as an occupational group. They state that sex-workers should be entitled to labour rights, occupational health and safety regulation like all other workers. They have also stressed that the daily oppression faced by women ‘in the business’ has to be seen in conjunction with the dominant patriarchal ideologies and societal norms, which accentuate their oppression. Thus, along with the need to improve the material conditions and quality of their work, an equally important need is to confront and resist these ideologies and norms. Proponents of this approach argue that even a voluntary decision to sell sex is akin to selling other forms of labour. They aim at complete de-criminalisation of voluntary sex-work and all related activities. They argue that only when society and the legal system stop looking at sex-workers negatively, i.e., within the powerful dominant ideologies that shape moral ethical values, can these women be treated as complete human-beings deserving equal and just rights and freedoms, social and emotional fulfilment and expression of their needs and desires. And only then can they hope to minimise the harassment, abuse and oppression they face at the hands of police, pimps and others.

At the same time, some groups of sex-workers are also demanding legalisation of prostitution that not only involves taking the subject outside the realm of criminal law, but advocates regulation of sex-work through zoning and licensing laws. This demand had been raised at the historic First National Conference of Sex-Workers by Durbar Mahila Samanvaya Committee, held in Calcutta in November 1997. The conference focussed on the fact that the marginal and stigmatised position of sex-workers in society, increases their vulnerability to human and labour rights violations and demanded that existing labour, occupational and other safety laws be extended to sex-workers as well.

The presentation went on to discuss how in recent years, the discourse around prostitution has become couched in the language of human rights, while at the same time feminists, theorists and prostitutes’ rights activists are involved in unravelling the complex and complicated world of sexual autonomy, free choice, sexual exploitation and agency versus victim debates.

This was followed by intense debate on various aspects of the issue. Can prostitution be seen as anything other than sexual exploitation of women in a male dominated world. If we as feminists are willing to reconsider that, then what implications does it have for our positions on commodification of women by the media, the beauty business and the marketplace?

Then, there was the crucial question of whether women’s reproductive and sexual capacities can be considered labour power, and whether such a ‘service’ can be alienated from the ‘self’. A statement from VAMP was recalled which says, “We believe that a woman’s sexuality is an integral part of her as a woman, as varied as her mothering, domestic and such other skills. We do not believe that sex has a sacred space and women who have sex for reasons other than its reproductive importance are violating this space. Or if they chose to make money from the transaction they are immoral or debauched.’ Not surprisingly, this sparked off an impassioned discussion.

The problems of defining prostitution were also raised, as was the issue of whether the objective of law and policy, has been and should be to stop prostitution on moral grounds or is it to stop exploitation of women? Can laws help women to get out of it or will they increase their exploitation? Should the law be reformed and be accompanied by other economic, development and welfare policies? What is the distinction between legalisation and decriminalisation of prostitutes? Should sex work be treated as work and laws should be made in accordance with that? One view was that there is no need for a law to deal with prostitution because the sex industry is restricted under criminal law and treating prostitution as unlawful activity leads to the criminalisation of prostitutes.

It was also pointed out by various participants that irrespective of our positions on the matter, we must all concede the need to take cognisance of the point of view of the sex workers being discussed. For instance, several sex workers have repeatedly said that as people who experience violence as a part of their daily lives, they are being further penalised by increasing violence in a society that is trying to order and control their lifestyles. This led us into the question of whether those arguing against de-criminalisation and/or legalisation are in fact, being coloured by moral biases.

It was also apparent that a lot of ambiguity in positions of various progressive groups in the country arises from the blurring of lines between prostitution and trafficking. It was pointed out that trafficking includes the procurement, sale, and transport of a woman using deception and coercion against her will for the purpose of prostitution which is being confused with prostitution per se. Making money from sex needs be differentiated from being forced to do so under any circumstances. Besides, a clear differentiation between trafficking of women and trafficking of children also must be made. Merging the two not only treats women as children, it is also unfair on the child who is being sexually abused and exploited. In this context, some friends from Nepal present at the meeting cautioned against focussing too much on legalisation. They spoke of how new laws to control trafficking of women in Nepal, has not only affected women’s voluntary migration for all kinds of work, it has restricted their mobility across the border.

Although no consensus emerged on a single course of action, many felt the need for more clarification on various issues involved and more such discussions. But it was clear that the question of prostitution challenges us on many counts. Even while we continue to debate the issue, the discussion in Saheli on that hot summer afternoon made it abundantly apparent how essential it is for all of us to try and understand the lives, needs and struggles of sex-workers. We must acknowledge that demands for decriminalisation and/or legalisation are coming from the sex-workers’ movement and give them due weightage. We must collectively assert our solidarity with the struggles of women in prostitution to the same rights as any other citizen. From the right to safety and security to the right to work; from the right to health to the right to education; from the right to freedom of movement to the right to privacy.