Victimized. Marginalized. Stigmatized. Wayward. Downtrodden. Immoral.
Vandana is a poor woman in prostitution. But that is not all that she is defined by, although academic discourse may be rife with theories about how she should conceive of her own identity. Vandana defies definition or categorization, for that matter, as I sit comfortably wedged between her and dozens of other women, en route to the communities SANGRAM has partnered up with for their women-led condom distribution program. We stop at a dhaba (food stall) on the way, and she insists on paying for my meal because I’m her guest. I nod my head in acknowledgment of this profoundly humbling gesture, and in that moment, realize something no theory could ever capture in the form of words – despite our disparate backgrounds, Vandana and I have a commonality that transcends feminist or academic theories on sex work. In that moment, we are just two women laughing over two cups of tea, buttered naan, and a plate of really greasy chicken tikka masala.
As the days pass, I listen to women’s stories of triumph, of struggle, of everyday joy. I listen to a woman who speaks to us candidly about her dilemma – her boyfriend, a riksha wala (taxi driver), has contracted AIDS, and is now pressuring her to elope with him to another state. I listen to another woman, as she tells me how she left an abusive marriage in Nepal, and found a community of women in Sangli, through SANGRAM. I listen to Vandana as she tells me about her day job as a bhaji wali (vegetable seller), and her loving relationship with a man that she cannot call her husband. I see their lives – vibrant, deeply textured, beautifully human – taking form before my eyes. They are mothers. They are daughters. They are sisters. They are lovers. They are friends. They struggle to support their families. They put their children through school. These are women who aren’t defined solely by their work – women with varied identities, stories, and voices that defy dichotomization.
Vandana is not a victim. Neither does she believe that it was completely her choice to become a sex worker. She does not, however, believe that see needs to be “reformed”, or “reintegrated” into society. She doesn’t understand why activists get indignant on her behalf, when what she really wants is to be respected as a human being. She wants justice for her fellow sex workers who are harassed by corrupt policemen. She wants to unveil the truth about men who frequent her brothel, and yet condemn their existence in public. She wants basic, human dignities – and so, she boldly stands up in the face of hypocrisy and corruption and claims her own stake in this process. Because that’s her basic, fundamental right as a human being – not despite, but regardless of her occupation.