In Kolkata’s Red-Light Area, Women Talk About Abuse Versus Agency, Sex Work as a Choice

Durbar, a project started to protect sex workers in 1992, by being physically and spatially rooted in the Sonagachi brothel space, is a movement where the gaze is that of an insider, and a testament to lived realities.

Listen to this article:

“In 1973, COYOTE – ‘Cast out your tired old ethics’ – emerged in San Francisco from WHO – ‘whores, housewives and others’. In the 1980s, the AIDS virus killed the connection between the prostitute rights groups and women’s organisations. Mainstream feminists now castigated prostitution as a form of patriarchal abuse against women. The image of the liberated whore was replaced by that of the oppressed prostitute who would be rescued by feminists.”

– Excerpted from Geetanjali Gangoli’s Immorality, Hurt or Choice: How Indian Feminists Engage With Prostitution

In a significant order, the Supreme Court has recognised sex work as a “profession”, whose practitioners are entitled to dignity and equal protection under the law.

However, not all has been hunky-dory ever since the judgment in the nuanced dynamics of sex work.

“While the Supreme Court directions are pro-sex work, there are several gaps. One of the major contradiction arises when on one hand, the court upheld the rights of adult and consenting sex workers, but on the other hand, the order makes the brothel illegal, rendering the conditions required to perform sex work ‘unconducive’. Do you expect sex workers to provide their services on the streets?” said Bishakha Laskar, president of the Kolkata-based Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a collective of 65,000 sex workers (males, females and transgenders).

Even within the spectrum of female sex workers, there are diverse groups with varying experiences of “money, risk, and public visibility”, as Julia Webster wrote in her 2016 study, titled An Analysis of Opposing Feminist Views of Sex Work: Is it the woman’s choice? In Kolkata, West Bengal, India, published in SIT Digital Collections.

“Call girls and escorts work mainly in private premises and hotels where they charge high prices for their services. Then there are brothel-based workers who charge moderate prices and have moderate risk. This is the largest employer among women in the red-light districts… Lastly, there are street walkers, or “flying sex workers”, who are a high-risk community. They are seen as brothel-based workers because they are the most centralised group.”

As published in LiveLaw, “The court issued these directions in exercise of power under Article 142 of the Constitution of India accepting some recommendations made by a court-appointed panel on the rights of sex workers:

“…basic protection of human decency and dignity extends to sex workers and their children, who, bearing the brunt of social stigma attached to their work, are removed to the fringes of the society, deprived of their right to live with dignity and opportunities to provide the same to their children”, the court said.

One of the apex court directives mentions: “Whenever there is a raid on any brothel, since voluntary sex work is not illegal and only running the brothel is unlawful, the sex workers concerned should not be arrested or penalised or harassed or victimised.”

Laskar explained how the order leaves sex workers with no safe space or site to perform and practise sex work, even though the profession itself has been decriminalised. In an orthodox design of spatial structures, the site of sex work, an act which has been socially and systemically stigmatised, is itself a radical space. It challenges elite and casteist constructs of hygiene, purity and morality. It can potentially subvert boundaries between gentrified neighbourhoods and ghettos in urban areas.

“It takes some amount of time and persuasion to convince a client to wear a condom, which is not possible while hiding in some street in the dark of night or at some client’s home. A sex worker would be in a state of perpetual fear of locals finding them out and subjecting them to violence. In the midst of all the rush and panic, where’s the time to insist upon wearing condoms? This will only increase the risk of HIV and further push the profession into an underground activity,” she explained.

In her study, Webster wrote: “In the early 1990s, the worldwide AIDS/HIV awareness campaigns led many people to recognise the lack of safety for sex workers due to their marginalisation and exploitation within Indian society… One such programme was the Sonagachi Project in South Asia’s largest red-light district situated within the city of Kolkata. Started in 1992 to address the high rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections (STIs) in Sonagachi, the project soon became a sex worker’s movement.”

As stated in its website, DMSC, or Durbar, realised that sex workers can serve as the best agents of change to fight AIDS and they cannot play this role unless society recognises their professional rights and regards them as human beings. That is how Durbar became the first of its kind in Asia.

A lot has changed owing to Durbar’s sex work activism.

There are now 54 target intervention (TI) centres in West Bengal. Thirty-one-year-old Ratan Dolui, who works as a Durbar on-field counsellor to drive awareness about STDs and HIV, especially among girls and young women, in Sonagachi, says, “Through our TI outreach programme, we conduct regular blood tests and HIV screenings.”

Dolui, whose mother is a sex worker by profession, says that children of sex workers are important stakeholders in the activism of sex workers for their rights and recognition. Hence, communication between sex workers and their children and acceptance of the latter is crucial.

He has done research-based work for the UNCRC (the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) on the lives of sex workers in the Bardhaman district.

Rooftop view of Sonagachhi, South Asia’s largest brothel situated in Kolkata. Around 17,000 sex workers live here. Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri

Sex workers still face harassment, even after the SC order

Whether it is the government or the judiciary, which takes a stand on sex work, any such decision-making process should represent the voices of the community members, Laskar added.

In May, the Supreme Court directed that the police should treat sex workers with dignity and should not abuse them.

“However, police harassment has, in fact, doubled after the Supreme Court judgment,” he alleged.

“Instead of us, the officials now target our clients. Such an agenda only hurts our interest. At the same time, police personnel now increasingly threaten us with the prospect of slapping Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) cases,” said Putul Singh, Durbar’s secretary.

“We work for ourselves; to secure our future. Why would we make any such move which would jeopardise our lives and livelihoods, and for which we have to face legal consequences? Even if we tell the police repeatedly that there’s nothing, they still break into our rooms and forcefully break open the locks on our almirahs as the real motive is to take our money and whatever possessions that we might have. Uninformed district-wise raids have increased leading to greater harassment,” she said.

Durbar’s self regulatory board (SRB) is a community-led structure which deals with anti-trafficking activities in 30 sex work sites throughout West Bengal. It works towards removing criminal activities surrounding sex trade and stopping the entry of minor and unwilling trafficked girls into sex trade.

Webster also wrote in her 2016 study that “Durbar has deeply influenced the history of sex work and the sex work debate within Kolkata.”

Liberation versus oppression, victimhood versus choice, abuse versus agency – these binaries further limit women’s economic agency, control over sexual interactions as well as ideas of freedom and fun within contradictory forces. Whereas in reality, experiences of female sex workers are much more diverse, nuanced and intersectional.

Webster explained this her study, saying: “Historically, the oppression paradigm has dominated thought on sex work. It says that sex work is a result of patriarchal gender relations, which results in exploitation, subjugation and violence. By using this language, victimisation becomes intrinsic to the sex worker and their agency is disregarded. It recognises violence against women as inherent to sex work. It is also strongly based in moralism and affirms the social stigmatisation of sexuality.”

This also largely informs the anti-sex trafficking movement and literature.

“The empowerment paradigm qualifies sex work as work that involves human agency. Sex work, therefore, is not inherently negative as it can benefit women in improving socio-economic status and providing for more control over the conditions of their jobs. There is agreement that oppression happens when sex work manifests in a way that is criminalised. Feminist scholar Meena Seshu calls for the “third paradigm”, which “is sensitive to complexities and to structural conditions shaping the uneven distribution of agency, subordination, and job satisfaction,” she explained in the 2016 study.

“Our fight is not only for ourselves; we believe in the self-determination rights of all marginalised communities,” Laskar added.

Also read: Sex Workers Need to Be Seen as Labour, Not Victims

More independent than a housewife, entertainers by choice

Originally from the Sunderbans, Laskar, 46, has been working for the rights of sex workers for the past 30 years. She said that she is a sex worker by “consent”.

Back in the 1990s, when she was a teenager, she had come to Kolkata to work for an ‘upper caste’ lawyer as a domestic help, a move that made her a part of the informal labour economy. However, as the lawyer sexually harassed her, she soon realised that being a poor woman with not much education would make the fight for justice difficult. She would be easily shamed and thrown out of the powerful ‘upper caste’ premises.

“Why should I not charge and allow my body to be exploited? This is a service, which provides me with an income, has empowered me, and enabled me to provide for my parents, which might be difficult for a lot of married women, given patriarchal power structures,” she said.

Laskar and others told this author that they view sex work as an honest means of earning income and caring for their children. Rehabilitation should be offered to those women who are in their advanced years and might attract a lesser number of clients and if they so wish. “Durbar will never say no to that. But why impose rehabilitation as a morally better standard and especially to younger women who want to earn through sex work as a choice? Is this not against our will?”

The assumption that all sex workers need to be rescued runs the risk of axing female autonomy and agency through the patriarchal axiom that women cannot decide for themselves. Shaping the lexicon of sex work as corrupting and inherently violent runs the risk of subscribing to the notion that sex, when manifesting as paid work, destabilises notions of desire, body and sexuality embedded in popular romantic culture.

Sex workers stand on a roadside pavement in a red-light area. Photo: Reuters/Punit Paranjpe/File

Will society accept sex workers back into its hegemonic folds, to the workplace and traditional family set-ups?

“A sex worker doesn’t murder or hurt anyone. What exactly is the problem? We are entertainers like cinema artists; we provide entertainment as a service. It’s more than sex, it’s play-acting with songs, dances and costumes, like drama aimed at providing pleasure and mental satisfaction. Recognition of our work will embolden our right to say no to societal oppression,” Laskar said.

Older women in the profession are often said to be constrained by a limited shelf life? “But that is true for several other professions as well. However, it is true that our profession places a premium on youth and beauty. Hence, there’s a need for savings for every woman. If we spend all our earnings on our lovers/babus, we end up with nothing at the time of retirement,” she added.

In 2014, USHA Cooperative won an award for the best-run cooperative in West Bengal. It provides banking facilities to nearly 23,000 sex workers.

“We have more agency than a housewife/homemaker, who continues to provide unpaid domestic labour throughout her life. We don’t need to ask our husband before purchasing saris or gifts,” she said.

“We also have the right to dream, the right to own shops, land, a home, and educate our children. And sex workers are more independent in that sphere,” she added.

Also read: Ground Report: How Kolkata’s Public Spaces Respond to Sex Workers

Citizenship, community and Durga Puja

Commenting on parties exploiting sex workers as “vote-bank”, Durbar’s secretary Putul Singh said, “We have always had the right to vote; however, we never got our recognition. Every election, candidates from all parties come to our doors seeking votes. But we should only vote for those who are committed to lending solidarity to our fight for equal labour rights and dignity. But why are our demands not represented in election manifestos?”

It is through their own grassroots activism that some of Kolkata’s sex workers have been able to arrange documents for proof of citizenship, right from voter and Aadhaar to ration cards.

The women-centric schemes that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government runs do not exclude sex workers. “So, those among us who have the requisite documents can avail the benefits [of the schemes],” Singh added.

During the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, Durbar along with others and local sympathisers arranged ration for the sex worker community with or without the documents.

However, Singh was outraged at the fact that several NGOs and activists from the “outside”, distributing cooked food among 300 odd members or so for a few days, demanded photo-ops for publicity. Sex workers would have to dress up and dab some dark shade of lipstick: “Are we exotic zoo creatures?”

There was a time when Durga Puja pandals would not allow entry to sex workers even though, according to traditional beliefs, the soil would be begged and received from a sex worker’s hand as a gift and blessing, and hence, referred to as punya mati or the sacred soil, as explained in a 2019 News18 article, Why Soil from Brothels is Used to Make Goddess Durga’s Idols.

This also ensued a battlefield wherein brothel residents had to fight for their rightful representation against the exclusionary practice meted out to sex workers in the “best instance of the public performance of religion and art”, which made it to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Intangible Cultural Heritage list this year.

“We stood firm on our ground that we wouldn’t give mati from jouno polli (also referred to as nishiddho polli or forbidden lanes in Bangla) until and unless we and our children were given our rights to enter the pandals and be part of the celebrations. We stood up against this hypocrisy and stigma until in 2013, when the Calcutta high court delivered a verdict in our favour, giving us the permission to hold our first ever community Durga Puja, the Sonagachi Durga Puja,” Singh said.

After performing the Puja for the next couple of years inside the office premises, they were barred from coming out in the open and celebrating outside the premises.

Ironically, right outside the premises, the so-called civil society members would host a Ganesh Puja, while sex workers residing inside the brothels weren’t allowed to claim their space and exercise social visibility.

Since 2017, the Sonagachi Puja has been taking place in the open with brothel-based workers making ceremonial offerings or proshad. “This is a platform for all; everyone is invited. We don’t discriminate; it gives us joy when everyone comes to take part in the feast,” Singh said.

Now, in a nod to increase social representation of marginalised communities, Sonagachi sex workers are invited to pandals across the city for inauguration as well as the finale act of shindur khela (vermillion game), which has historically been a bastion of married and ‘upper caste’ Hindu women.

Have you seen the Alia Bhatt-starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi? “Yes, Durbar identifies a lot with the politics shown in the film. There is pain and oppression in our stories, but whenever someone writes about sex workers, why does it have to be through the lens of victimhood laced with emotions? This isn’t emotional. This is about our rights and resistance,” she said.

This is not to deny the nexus of violence a sex worker is subjugated to. As written on the Durbar website: “Often perpetrators of violence are the local hooligans in and around the red-light district who extort money and threaten sex workers with consequences. Even the malkins (landladies) and house owners often indulge in violence against sex workers. Babus (lovers) of sex workers are equally responsible for a heightened number of incidences of violence against them and their children.”

Durbar, in essence, by being physically and spatially rooted in the Sonagachi brothel space, is a movement where the gaze is that of an insider, and a testament to lived realities.

Sex workers stand on a roadside pavement in a red light area in Mumbai Credit: Reuters/Punit Paranjpe/Files

Also read: In Photos | God’s Wife, Every Man’s Woman: The Lives of ‘Joginis’ in South India

Abeda Bibi’s stance on identity and solidarity

Abeda Bibi, Durbar’s treasurer, who is originally from Nadia district, discovered Sonagachi at the age of 19. “I was married and five months pregnant when I was abandoned by my husband. I come from a low-income group and once I started working as a domestic help, I soon realised how I was vulnerable to being preyed upon by men,” Bibi said.

“The biggest challenge for me was to explain to my mother and father that I worked in ‘Line bari’, a term used to refer to the brothel residences. The second turning point came when I took the decision to explain it to my child. For me, it was paramount to tell him it that is through sex work that I have provided for your food, clothes and education, saved money for your wedding. Are you ashamed of me?” she said.

She said that the biggest gift of Dr. Smarajit Jana – the founder-mentor of Durbar – was to introduce them to the word songothon (organisation), the collective power of resistance and shared solidarity. He urged sex workers to get together and stand up for each other when the goons inflicted violence or the landlord/landlady resorted to exploitation.

They formed a collective of sorts with Rs 5 membership cards, culminating with the registration of Durbar in 1995. Bit by bit, members amassed the strength to hurl bottles, bricks and stones back at those who assaulted them.

“There was a time when policemen would not even allow us to sit on the floor. Today, at least, they address us with dignity and entertain our complaints,” she added.

She recalled how the members would initially keep their children with mashis/madams during work. Later, makeshift creche facilities were developed in the field clinics. “Earlier, a slur (beshya) would be used to describe children born to sex workers. Earlier, it was mandatory to provide the identity of the father of the child, and we would make our babus (clients) pose as temporary fathers. Now the mother’s name is enough for documentation and admission to schools. This validation of our identity is part of a fierce struggle to make our identity mainstream,” she said.

Children of sex workers have been taking forward the mantle and legacy of their mothers’ arts through Durbar’s cultural wing, Komal Gandhar. “Just like a patient visits a doctor for a physical or mental need, a client comes to us to satisfy his sexual need. We specialise in the art of entertainment, she said.

However, the living conditions for sex workers continue to be stark and congested. Often, 10 rooms are shared by 50 women. The residential space in Baruipur, Rahul Vidya Niketan, was founded to provide formal and non-formal education to children of sex workers. Bibi stresses on the need to further bring their rights to education, healthcare and social dignity to mainstream attention.

“Sex work has enabled women like us to break out of systemic structures of gendered and caste oppression within the informal labour economy and exercise autonomy outside of the moral conventions of the heteronormative marriage and family system,” she said.

As she says this, one is reminded that marital rape is still not a crime in India. The courts would still like to hold on to “archaic notions” of the sanctity of marriage. A Scroll article, titled Explainer: Why is marital rape not a crime in India – and can the courts make it one?, explained how “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife” wouldn’t constitute rape.

Also read: Six Themes That Supreme Court Touched Upon in Verdict on Right to Legal Abortion

“Why can’t our narrative be that of the working women, why insist on ‘othering’ the sex worker?” Singh added.

Durbar’s on-field counsellor Dolui added, “The identity of the mother as a sex worker isn’t about shame and stigma. All the shame is in the mind. These are social constructs. For me, my mother is a real human being with her own struggles and wishes. There is nothing to hide.”

At the end of her study, Webster found some directions to some of her questions like whether sex work is a respectable profession or forced labour?

“Abolitionists perpetuate stigma. Stigma perpetuates violence. Pro-sex work works within the patriarchal structure. The patriarchal structure promotes inherent violence against women…”

Whatever stand intersectional feminism takes on the potential of empowerment in decriminalising sex work, the day at Durbar was a reminder of how deconstructing women’s bodies through the narratives of capitalist-consumerist versus the chaste domestic goddess is rooted in prejudice and privilege. While the strand of subversion cannot be used to erase the trauma of trafficking, the latter cannot be posited as an overarching value, dehumanising the diversity of voices.

At Durbar, I met members who were bold, articulate, assertive and sensitised, not deserving of pity but demanding of respect. It is perhaps time to liberate marginalised bodies and entities from the trap of “tired old ethics”.

 This story is part of the UNFPA Laadli Media Fellowship 2022.