Dear students of Jawaharlal Nehru University,
Today is March 3, International Sex Workers Rights Day and I write on behalf of the sex workers’ rights movement to hail your struggle and to further the discourse you have sparked. I would like to discuss why using the term "sex worker" in a pamphlet allegedly distributed in the JNU campus on Mahishasura Martydom Day is a concept fraught with the whore stigma. The use of the politically correct "sex worker" instead of the commonly used “prostitute” does not take away from the fact that it is used to depict an insalubrious deed. The use of this term has only led to further misunderstandings of the term itself.
Sex worker is the term used by the sex workers’ rights movement to claim dignity for the work adults that do consensually by providing sexual services for money. However, the use of the term "sex worker" in the pamphlet was to supposedly strip the “goddess” involved of any dignity. Since then, the term has taken a life of its own. From a politically correct term, it is now being used to describe anti-nationals, anti-goddesses and even those against patriarchy. The thinly veiled contempt for the sex worker has been apparent in every utterance, from the Hindu goddess Durga to the “anti-national” women students in JNU.
How it began
On February 24, Smriti Irani, Minister for Human Resource Development, produced in Parliament a pamphlet that was allegedly distributed in JNU in October 2014.
She said that it contained offensive material about the Durga Puja festival: “where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning, during sleep.”
The pamphlet was issued on Mahishasura Martyrdom Day, which was observed by some Scheduled Tribe, Scheduled Caste, Other Backward Classes and minority students of JNU.
The minister sought her god’s forgiveness for even uttering the words printed in the pamphlet. It appears that the use of the politically correct term "sex worker" and the use of words like "enticed" and "honeymoon" to depict sexual exchange were responsible for Irani’s choked anger. Would not using the term "sex worker" have been the better option? Because I cannot see what else the minister could have to ask forgiveness for, as a fair-skinned woman enticing Mahishasur and killing him is a well-accepted concept among the tribals – whether the woman in question was Durga is unclear.
There were other alarming incidents. Earlier, on February 13, Jawahar Yadav, former Officer on Special Duty to the Chief Minister of Haryana, tweeted the following: “For the girls who are protesting in JNU, I only have one thing to say, that prostitutes who sell their body are better than them because they at least don’t sell their country."
Around two hours later, Yadav deleted his original tweet and issued a clarification: “No girl has been compared to any prostitute in my previous tweet. Instead I meant that the girls who are forced to enter prostitution are rather better than the girls who were protesting in JNU and raising anti-India slogans, Pakistan Zindabad slogans. The daughters and sisters who are forced to sell their body are better than the girls who were demanding the freedom of Kashmir and Kerala and shouting that their fight will continue till India is destroyed.”
The next chapter of this saga involves a February 27 article by Devdutt Pattanaik titled “How patriarchy makes 'sex worker' a term of abuse”. He explains that The Goddess as a free woman discomforts many who cannot bear to see any female – divine or otherwise – in positions of power. His analysis does not faintly resemble the misleading headline. Pattanaik’s simplistic analysis cannot move away from its moral frame of the single woman who has to satisfy the “unsavoury yearnings of men”.
Then, all hell broke loose when the debate shifted from the alleged JNU pamphlet to commemorating Mahishasura Martyrdom Day. The last day of February saw this headline: “Threatened and termed a sex worker after Mahishasura debate: Asianet News editor Sindhu”.
The mobile number of Sindhu Sooryakumar, the Chief Coordinating Editor of Asianet News, was circulated on WhatsApp allegedly by activists of right wing groups offended by a TV programme. On the show, members of the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and Left parties debated whether celebrating Mahishasura, a common custom among certain tribes in India, was enough to accuse students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University of “anti-national” activities.
This constant reference to sex work and women in sex work in particular is made to stigmatise and put down the woman being described. It is used to depict sleaze, disgust, distaste and revulsion. The mere use of the politically correct term has not taken away the whore stigma attached to the term “prostitute”.
The sex workers’ rights movement would like to bring to your notice the fact that is the randi (whore) stigma that pushes sex workers outside the rights framework, effectively cutting them off from privileges and rights supposedly accorded to all citizens irrespective of what they do for a living.
Stigmatisation, which has its roots in the standards set by patriarchal morality, is the major factor that prevents sex workers from accessing their rights. In the real world of sex workers, the lives of the women involved are held hostage. Stigmatisation impacts the lives of these women in more ways than one. Some of the rights denied owing to discrimination are freedom from physical and mental abuse, the right to education and information, healthcare, housing, social security and welfare services to name but a few.
We also demand azadi – azadi from discrimination, azadi from the violence of a judgemental attitude, azadi from the multiplicity of injustice meted out to sex workers, azadi from the loose use of the politically correct but deeply stigmatised use of the term sex worker.
Meena Saraswathi Seshu
Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad
Meena Saraswathi Seshu is the founder of SANGRAM, a voluntary organisation which works with sex workers on HIV/AIDS-related issues.