We begin this discussion – as it is an ongoing process of understanding on our part – by reiterating that it is only struggle against structures of oppression that will bring recognition and change in the realities of our material lives. With respect to sexuality, as feminists we have challenged sexual violence on our bodies, while also challenging heteronormativity by living our lives in an affirming manner with some form of sexual autonomy. This is evident in the legal campaigns against rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, that continue to be a feminist struggle. Queer feminists have complicated the understanding of sexuality beyond its existence as violence in our lives, by affirming expressions of desire and pleasure. Feminists have also contributed to the recognition of the unequal sexual division of labour in society, and challenged the devaluation of our varied labours in the social reproduction of society with the recognition of reproductive labour, care labour, and affective labours. These understandings of gendered and sexual labours have consistently been complicated by further struggles from the margins. For example, in recent years sex workers and bar dancers have extended, expanded and shifted the boundaries of conventional feminism.
For instance, the struggles of the bar dancers of Mumbai and Maharashtra who were joined by some feminist activists in 2005-6, in legally challenging the state and opposing a ban on their self-sought livelihoods by dancing in bars, was one step in this direction (FAOW 2010). The struggle of the bar dancers continues, as legal protection of their right to work granted by the courts is tenuously linked to the further policing and control of their sexual labour by the state, with the possibility of public morality still trouncing the constitutional rights of the dancers (Bhatia 2019). We add to this reflection our learning from the sex workers’ movement in Western India in the times of the Covid pandemic in 2020, where the Maharashtra state had to heed the advisory of the National Human Rights Commission with regard to sex workers whose livelihoods were hit hard, in being considered for relief as especially vulnerable workers in the informal economy (NHRC 2020). This is the culmination of a long history of organizing by sex workers in different parts of the country following the onset of the HIV and AIDS pandemic that led sex workers to collectivise and seek public health interventions to protect themselves from the disease as well as participate in preventive programmes. Organizations of sex workers have over the last three decades offered lessons to feminists, highlighting the diversity of women in sex work, their conditions of work, their resistance to those who seek to control their lives, as well as their own vigilance against sex trafficking especially that of minors. The multiple voices of sex workers in their self-representation has also to be seen as reflecting their local realities. The present criminalization under the legal regime, with the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956, and its amendments, precludes easy recognition of sex workers as workers (Pai, Seshu, Murthy 2018). Studies on the lives of migrants who move into different occupations and livelihoods show how these anti-trafficking laws show no inkling of how men and women move to secure livelihoods for survival (Mazumdar and Neetha 2020). Debates are ongoing among sex workers on how to secure their interests, either as unions of workers (jouna karmis) or as collectives of self-employed workers offering sexual services. Here again, as evident during the pandemic, it is their conditions of work and existence that push them to claim relief as informal workers.
However, the complex interrogation of such learnings by other marginal voices and experiences, bringing primarily caste, but also class, region, ethnicity and other social locations and histories make our feminist learnings pause for further reflection. A majority of women in sex work and bar dancing are from marginal castes and communities. This realization had further created divisions within feminism (Gopal 2012). The voices of Dalit and Bahujan feminists ask why there has been hardly any reflection on the social backgrounds of these performers of sexual labour, the majority of who are from Dalit and Bahujan communities. They emphatically argue that these sexual labours in the modern market are a reinforcement of socially ordained caste-based occupations, reflecting the violent humiliation and loss of dignity within a caste society. They are vociferous in claiming that feminists who support bar dancers or sex workers are, in fact, keeping women from marginal communities entrenched in these caste-based occupations through their unequivocal yet unreflective support. At a fundamental level, as feminists, when we have challenged the private-public binary of a liberal society, we have failed to view the public as a caste-imbued public with caste-entrenched inequality. The stigma of caste attaches itself to women of disadvantaged castes making their labours, such as domestic work, cleaning work, construction work, midwifery work, sanitary work, exist in exploitative conditions but be absolutely necessary and in demand by a caste society. When complicated by sexuality, this curtails their freedoms unlike those of the upper castes. Hence the easy criminalization of sex workers and banning of dancers in bars simultaneously appropriating their sexuality, while middle class, upper caste women are able to pursue careers in film and modelling, where the middle-class model or dancer is able to distance herself from this sexual stigma due to her privilege of caste and class. This offers us pause for reflection on how a rights-based approach to livelihood is insufficient if the structures of exploitation and appropriation continue unchecked and women from marginal situations have to fend for themselves. On the other hand, a knee-jerk abolitionist or moralistic approach to women’s participation in sexual labours is also not conducive to attaining sexual freedoms and dignity of labour for all women.
Conversations and dialogue with women from the bar dancer and sex worker communities in fact present a more complex picture. Women who migrate to cities from spaces where these caste-based occupations persist, say that dancing in bars is, not just for themselves but the families dependent on them, in fact, a step to move away from these caste-based occupations into the world of performance and the industry of entertainment. Their earnings support the education and health care of their dependents. A bar dancer, for instance, displays skills that help her make her way out of the caste-based occupation, where there is a market for performance and entertainment. This ability or inability on the part of the bar dancer to create value for her performance is of course mediated by her caste and class position. This is not dissimilar to the lure and appeal that a leading hero or heroine creates on the film screen, where the heroine’s appeal for the hero extends to all male viewers – focusing the male gaze. What the bar dancer does is to invert this gaze to her advantage (FAOW 2010). Similarly sex workers also challenge their location within the binaries of choice and coercion, and highlight the complex nature of situations that determine their entry into sex work, through escaping violent homes and marriages, migrating in order to escape deprivation, and seeking the opportunity to lead independent lives even in dire circumstances. For us this poses an impasse of sorts for feminist solidarity, with contending histories and contemporary realities that stare at us in a caste-based patriarchal society.
The learning from this impasse is that efforts must be on for conversations and dialogue across borders and boundaries to learn from histories of hurt and from contemporary struggles of women. As feminists we only stand to gain from consciousness of social hierarchies that persist along with the insidious development model that neglects rural areas and marginal locations. Simultaneously global and local changes in the economy engender precarious and exploitative labour relations that push migrants in search of livelihoods. This in the present times is exacerbated by the collusion of extractive capitalism and a masculinist politics all of which can only be resisted by feminist solidarity.
Bhatia, Gautam (2019) ‘Why the Supreme Court ruling on bar dancers is unsatisfactory,’ Hindustan Times, 3 Feb, New Delhi edition, accessed at https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/why-the-supreme-court-ruling-on-bar-dancers-is-unsatisfactory/story-hY3BvL8tHRu7vXFIppT1DO.html
FAOW [Forum Against Oppression of Women] (2010) ‘Feminist contribution from the margins: Shifting conceptions of work and performance of the bar dancers of Mumbai,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol 45, no 44-45, October 2010.
Gopal, Meena (2012) ‘Caste, sexuality and labour: the troubled connection,’ Current Sociology, vol 60, issue 2.
Mazumdar, I and Neetha N (2020) ‘Crossroads and Boundaries: Labour Migration, Trafficking and Gender,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol.55, no. 20, 16 May 2020.
NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] (2020): “Human Rights Advisory on Rights of Women in the Context of COVID-19,” 7 October, accessed at https://nhrc.nic.in/sites/default/files/Advisory%20on%20Informal%20Workers.pdf
Pai, Aarthi, Meena Seshu and Lakshmi Murthy (2018) ‘In its haste to rescue sex workers, “Anti-Trafficking” is increasing their vulnerability,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 53, no 28, 14 July 2018.
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