Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Yes to Decriminalization, No to Legalization - Sex Trade Demeans Men more than Women.

While dealing with a PIL filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan about large scale child trafficking in the country, a bench of Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice AK Pattnaik are reported to have advised the Solicitor General, “When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and when you are not able to curb it by laws. Why don’t you legalize it.?”

It is noteworthy that the judges were not dealing with those women who take to this profession as a choice but children who are abducted, trapped, bought and sold by criminal mafias to be inducted into the flesh trade.I am left wondering whether the Hon’ble judges of the Supreme Court intend to legalize child trafficking as well—all because our government agencies are unable and unwilling to curb the criminal mafias who are pushing vulnerable children from impoverished families into the flesh trade.

It is extremely misleading to describe prostitution as one of the "oldest professions" in history. Even today there are numerous communities world over, including in India, which have no history of prostitution. Many do not even have a word to describe it. This demeaning form of transaction between men and women is characerstick of those societies which take a very perverse view of male sexuality. The assumption is that men being men, they are unable to control their sexual urges and therefore they need all kinds of avenues for satisfying their insatiable hunger for sex with mutiple partners.It also assumes that men should not be expected to take responsibility for out of wedlock progeny. Women have to bear the brunt of "illegtimate" births. This perverse mindset that takes a very lowly view of male sexuality and moral fibre and expects society at large and women in particular to be indulgent towards their irresponsible behaviour. Using this logic even rape is often justified on grounds that the man concerned was unable to control his sexual urge or that a woam asked for it. I am convinced no self respecting man will use such a cynical view of male sexuality which amount to declaring men unfit for socially responsible behaviour. Most self respecting men view sex trade being more demeaning for men than for women. That is why some of the strongest voices against prostitution in literature, cinema and in social reform movements have come from men.

There are compelling reasons to decriminalize prostitution for the following categories of persons: 
a) Those that enter the sex trade voluntarily—as do many high society call girls—simply because if a person wishes to enter into a demeaning relationship with another for monetary or other favours, there is no way the government can stop the practice because it is enacted in private; 
 b) Those that gravitate towards this profession due to poverty related reasons or abusive family circumstances because such victims of circumstances ought not be treated as criminals.

It is well acknowledged that arrests and rescue operations by the police are mostly a theatrical exercise to keep the terror alive so that the sex workers and pimps dare not resist paying bribes. Therefore, draconian laws put in the hands of the police add to the problem instead of curbing prostitution. 

However, no self respecting society can afford to “legalize” the dehumanization of millions of those who have been coerced into flesh trade through force, fraud, abduction or violence. 

Till the early 1990’s defense of the right of prostitutes came mainly from feminist groups and those gender sensitive men who argued that laws penalizing prostitutes amounted to punishing the victims while letting off their male clients who exploited their poverty and vulnerability.  Many of them demanded laws that punished men who trafficked in women as well as men who live off prostitutes as pimps and those who visit them as clients.

However, in recent years the discourse on the subject have undergone sea-changes due to the scare of AIDs in first world countries. This has led billions of dollars, pounds and Euros as well as other resources being directed towards “safe sex practices”, with special focus on condom use among sex workers.  From Prince Charles to Bill Gates to Hollywood stars as well as some western government and major donor agencies have all joined the campaign to legalize prostitution because they feel that is the only way condom use, regular health checkups including HIV tests can be promoted among sex workers and their customers. 

Earlier sleazy lawyers helped sex workers get bail when arrested. Today, with the availability of massive international grants for this work, some of the best lawyers in India have emerged as defenders of the rights of prostitutes.  While some still stay with the old-fashioned view that sex workers are trapped in the profession due to poverty related circumstances, many argue that renting out one’s body to a customer for a few hours is no different from a doctor, teacher or an architect renting out his intellectual skills to an employer for a 
monthly salary.  Therefore, they demand that sex work should be legalized and treated with the same dignity and respect as any other profession. 

However, those who demand that prostitution should be “legalized” and treated with “respect and dignity” at par with all other professions and occupations need to answer a few basic questions:

 What does the term “legalize” actually imply? Does it mean that a prostitute can open a sexshop anywhere she likes and advertise her services? Does it mean men or women supplying call girls should be able to set up an office in any neighborhood they like, just as doctors set up their clinics, proclaiming that call girls are available between such and such hours? How many of us are willing to let our young children grow up amidst an atmosphere where renting a woman’s body for sex is considered a perfectly legitimate activity?

If people come to know that a mafia don has set up a call-girl racket in their neighbourhood, do they have the right to seek its removal or does it mean other citizens have to suffer the presence of such activities in the name of “respecting” the rights of sex workers to an occupation of their choice and thereby endanger their own lives?

Those who demand that sex work be given the same “respect” as any other profession, need to explain whose duty it is to give or ensure “respect” for prostitutes and pimps? Is the government expected to enact a law requiring people not to shun prostitutes, as for instance it did to ban the practice of untouchability?  One can prove that one does not practice untouchability by freely intermixing and inter-dining with castes condemned as untouchables.  How does one prove one’s “respect” for a prostitute? Do we have to send our children to brothels to intermix with the children of sex workers or do we hold special functions to socially honour the most successful among them?  If prostitutes cannot win the respect of the clients they service, how can the rest of society be made to respect them?

We are told that at least feminists have a duty to respect women for making this choice. If feminism is about respecting each and every choice women make, then why are we not willing to respect women who choose to worship at sati shrines or those who abort female fetuses because they prefer being mothers of sons rather than daughters?

Countries where sex work is legal are not free from dehumanizing forms of sex slavery and prostitutes do not command social respect. Therefore, copycat solutions will not work. While there is need to decriminalize this activity and free sex workers from the terror and extortionist grip of the police, to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanizing circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies.

The author is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and founder editor Manushi. She 
can be reached at

First Published in The Indian Express December 15, 2009

Some Predictions about Modi's Media Management

Given the way leading media houses and persons used the 2002 riots to hound Modi in the last 12 years, there is understandable anxiety among journalists about their own predicament with Modi at the helm of affairs in Delhi. From whatever little I have understood of Narendra Modi’s style of governance, here are some predictions regarding how NaMo is likely to define his relationship to the media and his style of governance. If I am proven wrong, I would have to admit, like most others, that I have failed to understand Narendra Modi.

Firstly, all those aspiring to get a placement in the PMO are likely to be in for a major heartbreak because Modi will never have a Vajpayee style PMO which allowed political minions of dubious credentials to run amok. Modi’s PMO is likely to be like his CMO in Gujarat – manned by hardworking bureaucrats along a compact team of IT savvy idealistic youngsters of the kind that form the highly professional CAG core team—capable of warding off media attention. None of these are likely to have the inclination to become high profile fixers like Pramod Mahajan. In fact, the days of fixers and touts in PMO are over. Such people will be in high demand in what will be left of the Congress Party post elections. It will be desperately scouting for more Vaghelas and Tarun Tejpals to cook up trouble and false cases against Modi.

Likewise, Modi is unlikely to oblige all those drooling over the possibility of becoming his media advisors. Modi is not likely to depend on any Harish Khare or Pankaj Pachauri to “manage” the media. The job is likely to be handled by the Department of Information, as was being done in Gujarat. He will establish clear rules about media access and is not likely to allow an elite journalistic coterie to emerge around him, leave alone have favourites who can presume to broker deals with the Radias of corporate houses.

While Modi is likely to give higher priority to Hindi and regional media channels and newspapers, those who expect him to be vindictive towards media persons who hounded him all these years are also likely to be disappointed. It will be enough punishment for bloated egos that they can’t claim privileged access and will have to stand in the same queue as anyone else. But the days of journos being wined and dined are likely to be over.

As in Gujarat, overtime, Modi will want to discipline his Cabinet as well as BJP MPs that they don’t pamper and use select journalists by “leaking” information against each other. There is likely to be a set system for ministerial interaction with the press. Since decisions in Modi’s government are going to be policy driven and not sultani farmans or hush-hush deals, most of the information will be available in the public domain. Journalists will have to get into the habit of reading ministerial websites rather than be content with mere “sound bytes.”
There is another surprise in store for media persons. No matter how negatively they write about Narendra Modi, their proprietors are not likely to get phone calls from the PMO asking that the paper change its tune to suit the regime. Siddharth Vardarajans will have to cook up more credible tales than alleging that their chowkidars are beaten up in order to terrorize them into giving up their undying hostility to Modi. Modi is unlikely to oblige them with the halo of martyrdom.

Modi is likely to give the media its first its first taste of freedom in many decades. But many won’t like it because it will also mean end to bribes, freebies and special favours.

I would be both surprised and disappointed if Modi does not start his act of “fixing” the media by institutionalizing and assuring through personal conduct, genuine freedom and autonomy to Doordarshan and All India Radio while simultaneously bringing in high quality professional management to run these two mammoth institutions whose potential has been severely damaged due to slavery inflicted on them. I expect Modi to push Doordarshan and AIR into becoming premier institutions of free, fair and responsible journalism of such high credibility and professional standards that private media houses are forced to mend their ways.

If all these expectations are belied by Narendra Modi after becoming PM, I would have no hesitation in admitting that I went horribly wrong in understanding him.

Clothed in Hypocrisy - Selective Targeting of Dress Codes

In recent years, rural community panchayats have come under repeated attacks at their mostly unsuccessful attempts at restraining young women from excessive use of mobile phones and from wearing “provocative” western outfits. We have witnessed outraged TV anchors and their handpicked panelists emote passionately for endless hours against such “Talibani diktats”. We are told the very idea of dress codes is oppressive, is anti-freedom. On the surface it sounds reasonable that each person should have the freedom to wear clothes of their choice. I for one would never justify use of violence or coercive means to “discipline” individuals.

But those who pontificate total individual freedom for others feel rattled when you extend the same logic to their own lives. 

For example, is it a coincidence that all male T.V anchors-whether of Hindi, English, Tamil or Marathi news channel, are dressed alike in black, navy or dark brown western outfits -- a full sleeved high collared shirt underneath a full sleeved coat and a tie to complete the brown sahib stylistic statement?  Even as a viewer, I break into a sweat seeing our anchors suffer this stuffed up western attire borrowed from cold-weather Europe. Since they are not subservient to any "Talibani diktat", I would like to know which master computer has programmed this dress code for all of India's male anchors? Why is it that none of them dares to come in a dhoti, or kurta pajama, a half sleeve bandi or even T-shirts, at least in summer months?

Female news anchors may have moved on from the days when a saree was considered mandatory outfit for news readers. But most have adopted corporate suits, never topless gowns, halter neck blouses, dresses with plunging necklines or mini-skirts. Those dresses are reserved for women anchoring light entertainment shows. Even a classical music show would not be anchored by a woman in a mini skirt.  A woman news anchor may go wearing a backless choli-ghaghra to a late night party, but she wouldn't be allowed to host a serious talk show in such an outfit. Similarly, one wouldn’t walk to mourn a relative’s death wearing a bright red saree.  In India, it is an unwritten code to wear white on such occasions while in the west, people wear black.

Clearly, every profession, every institution, every occasion has a written or unwritten dress code, not just in India but all over the world. But our self-styled reformers protest selectively against some. And the choice is revealing. For example, in post-independence India, we continued with the dress code imposed on young girls by elite English medium & convents schools with such pride and commitment that skirts and tunics were adopted even by ordinary private and many government schools as a mandatory dress code.

Having studied in one such convent school where no other dress was permitted, I can say with conviction that a skirt is the most inhibiting dress for a growing girl, especially if you are studying in a co-ed school. You have to be forever watchful about positioning your legs in a “lady like” manner so that you don’t reveal your panties or your thighs. When you are in the playground, you dread a fall not only for the bodily hurt it may cause but more for the embarrassment of your skirt flying high and revealing your guarded secrets. During the days of menstruation, one is even more self-conscious in a skirt. I still have unpleasant memories of my school days when a favourite tease of boys used to be to lift a girl’s skirt from behind with a foot ruler or come and stand underneath a hanging jhoola to peek underneath girls’ skirts. They would then compose limericks on the colour and shape of our under garments.

Moreover, in the freezing winter months, wearing a skirt is a real torture. But, schools even in snow covered hill stations insist on girls wearing the same old knee length skirts during the icy winter months. A few elite schools have adopted pants, but if you ask for the freedom to wear salwar-kameez in a school that prescribes pants for girls as the compulsory dress code, you will be told that such “behenji” outfits are not tolerated. Why do we ignore that this too amounts to cultural enslavement and denial of free choice for women?

It puzzles me that over six decades after independence, nobody feels offended at the dress code introduced for judges and lawyers by our colonial rulers being dutifully followed by our legal fraternity. The heavy black gown with a necktie to boot not only constitutes an aesthetic assault but is a plain nuisance in summer months. Would a lawyer become less competent if he wore a white kurta pajama? Similarly women police are expected to wear tight belted khaki pants which are highly inconvenient during pregnancy. Is salwar kameez not a more suitable outfit?

As for restrictions on the use of mobile phones even the “ultra- modern” families in Metros all over the world are worried about the adverse effects of addiction on children and youth to mobile phones and related gadgetry. Even in classroom, they are busy texting messages, downloading pornography, exchanging smut or simply twittering late into the night. Young men use the cell phones to video record and broadcast intimate scenes with girlfriends as a blackmail technique. Many educated urban families have begun to strictly restrict mobile and internet access. In cities they are called “enlightened”. But rural families become Talibani for wanting similar controls.
The message is clear, 

a)   If you are coerced to ape western style clothing, no matter how inconvenient, we should embrace it as a step towards “liberation”. But even a mild advisory that we should stick to more convenient traditional outfits is dubbed as a sign of backward obscurantist thinking and Talibani temperament.

b)   Parents, teachers, community elders are not allowed any say in matters of dress code and larger matters of social morality. This privilege is exclusively reserved for Metro based self-appointed social reformers and zealous TV anchors who have taken on the mantle of "civilizing" Indians since our colonial rulers were made to leave India without completing their historic mission.

And we call these imperious attacks lessons in liberalism and modernization!

An edited version of this article was published in Hindustan Times on January 24, 2013 (See link: )

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar
इक उम्र असर होने तक… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …اک عمر اثر ہونے تک

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