Members of an Indian Sect Vow to Save Sex Workers by Marrying Them

Just when you think you’ve seen it all…

Young Hindu, Muslim and Sikh men have been queuing up at the Dera Sacha Sauda (Abode of the Real Deal) in the town of Sirsa as “wedding volunteers”. They say they are doing so to stop the women from being exploited in brothels. They also claim that their move is part of a campaign to stop the spread of the HIV/Aids virus.

That’s right. According to BBC, 1,000 men have already volunteered to marry sex workers who want to escape exploitative conditions. Nearly 100 young sex workers from Calcutta’s Shonagachi red light district to brothels in Delhi and Mumbai have contacted the Abode of the Real Deal (I’m sorry, but that name just really sounds like an R. Kelly track to me).
The guys quoted in the BBC piece seem sincerely interested in doing something useful with their privilege (of course, they don’t talk about it this way) and they also seem committed to marrying women who request that kind of help (i.e. respecting the women’s agency). The leader has been quoted widely as saying, “All women forced to live as prostitutes are my daughters.” I like the intention…i.e. to boldly claim that the exploitation of women is not just women’s problems, but of course it stinks of paternalism.
Why can’t the DSS pool their resources to help women who want to get out of their current situation, get the health care they need (HIV is rampant and untreated), and then make their own choices about what they’d like to do next with their lives?
Whether the sect actually will follow through with their promises is another story entirely. Buried within the BBC piece is this little tidbit of relevant information: “The sectarian violence that ensued across Punjab – as well as subsequent rape and murder charges brought against Ram Rahim Singh – have cast a shadow on the affairs and functioning of the DSS.” Not exactly a crew I’d want to trust to operate a women’s liberation movement.
For information on women liberating themselves, always a much sweeter prospect, I remind you of Lori’s great post last week.
Thanks to espergel for the heads up.

Join the Conversation

  • jane brazen

    There are better ways to help women than this, I’m sure. The charges of violence are troubling, especially. Timing on this piece is interesting. Today is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

  • jane brazen

    There are better ways to help women than this, I’m sure. The charges of violence are troubling, especially. Timing on this piece is interesting. Today is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

  • Erin

    While to us in the developed world this might seem like an inherently awful idea, I think we need to understand that there is some good that can come of this particular movement when considered in the context of India’s culture. Read the book “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu-Dunn for more of an explanation, but giving these women the status in their culture of married is actually a huge step up, and will allow them to use that status as a married woman to speak out against the horrors of the sex worker industry in India. It’s not a perfect solution, not by a long shot, but (and this becomes especially apparent after you read the book – it opened my eyes) often times, when you’re attempting to tackle such huge problems in the developing world, it’s the small, imperfect solutions that end up doing more good in the long run than the large-scale, head-on assaults that we in the developed world like to mount. Trust me, an approach like this will probably liberate more sex workers than the International Justice Mission and all their brothel-raids ever could.

  • arimel

    I get what you’re trying to say, but this reeks of a western view. These women ARE liberating themselves. Did you miss the bit about how the women contact the group, and not the other way around? And the fact that the group is emphasizing that there shouldn’t be a stigma on sex workers and former sex workers — this is huge. In an Indian context, it’s pretty radical, to say the least, for a group to be putting its metaphoric money where its mouth is concerning marriage. It’s a group that’s saying–if you want to leave sex work, we’ll support you, and if you want to get married, we’ll try to find you a husband.
    It’s just pretty euro/american-centric to say that marriage is paternalistic. In a lot of societies, being married or being able to get married is just so important for a woman’s rights and her way of life. If you’re a marriageable woman, it means an awful lot. Marriage isn’t about love for every woman. For a lot of us, it’s still about stability and being able to make a family, and all of that.

  • Monica Shores

    Oh my. Well, first of all, I don’t know why anyone would assume all of these women want to “speak out against the horrors” of their work. Some of them may be fine with it and even those who aren’t don’t necessarily want to air the details of their work life.
    But furthermore, look how many male volunteers there are as compared to how many women have so far indicated this option appeals to them. It’s too preliminary to draw any conclusions, but the 10 to 1 ratio is pretty dramatic. Doesn’t it seem weird to anyone else that some vague gray figure of “exploiter” is going to be replaced by “husband”? Especially when this is basically all motivated by disease control, which in turn is motivated by social and political influence? And in many parts of the world, prostitutes have more independence (in terms of mobility, finances, personal interactions, etc.) than married women. So there should be some serious, non-moralistic attention put on what is lost and what is gained by this arrangement for the women.
    Clearly, it’s wonderful if it improves the lives of those who are going to make good on the marriage offers. But embracing it wholeheartedly just doesn’t seem very thoughtful. India actually has a vibrant sex worker activist community and many (most?) of these women might benefit, as Courtney points out, from approaches other than rescue through marriage. (http://www.iwhc.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2252&Itemid=37)
    And Arimel, if marriage is necessary to increase a woman’s respect, personal options, and movement in the public space, then, yeah, that’s problematic. The patriarchal aspects of marriage are definitely not the sole domain of the Western world. Not saying women across the world shouldn’t do what they need to do within the system to survive and be happy, but I don’t think you proved your point about our Western understandings of how marriage operates as being irrelevant here—seems like it’s still pretty applicable. And the sex workers might just as easily be “liberating” themselves through their work as prostitutes, unpopular and repugnant as that thought is to some.

  • Marc

    Damn right. There is a diffrence between enriching and enhancing women’s lives in a global sense, and forcing our Western feminist viewpoints on them. Just like it was inappropriate for white Christians to force their beliefs one Global South people “for their own good,” we’ve got no place to force our own Western feminist paradigms on these women.
    What we can do, however, is provide them culture-appropriate opportunities. This is such opportunities. Rather looking at it as yet another form of oppression, we ought to look at it as a last opened door for some of these people – and giving them an opportunity to leverage for women’s rights in a society that, too often, has cast aside women’s issues based on their marital status or perceived lack of purity.
    The book “Half the Sky” taught me a lot, too – particularly about the global challenges of feminism, and how, even we as feminists, are ill-prepared to help women of the Global South.
    Thanks for your very enlightening comment!
    Marc

  • Hypatia

    This reminds me of the Nepali government’s recent initiative to “help” widows by paying men to marry them.
    Once again, they are attributing the well-being of women to the degree to which they are associated with men. I can see how their intentions are well-meaning, but how do they know that these women won’t be just as/more oppressed in marriage?

  • TigerLily

    Knowing the tiny amount I know about Mumbai’s Red Light District- one of the biggest and most vicious red light districts in the world- I can’t imagine any of the women (and children) living there find their work “liberating.”

  • TigerLily

    This post actually inspired me to do a little research on prostitution in India. From Wikipedia, “Over 40% of 484 prostituted girls rescued during major raids of brothels in Mumbai in 1996 were from Nepal. In India as many as 200,000 Nepalese girls, many under the age of 14, have been sold into sexual slavery.”
    This actually sounds very similar to the situation in Amsterdam, where the vast majority of prostitutes are from Moldova and other former Soviet Bloc countries.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_India#Causes

  • Monica Shores

    There are many jobs I cannot imagine being liberating, either—in fact, I would say the majority of jobs are not. But the pay that comes with the job might provide opportunities one otherwise wouldn’t have. Trust me, I know women across the world work in dismal and abusive conditions, but that goes far beyond just sex work. My point was that if one is going to argue that liberation for a woman comes in the form of marrying a stranger who is offering his hand at the behest of a religious leader, liberation for a woman might also come in the form of declining that offer to continue her work, in spite of its danger and stigma. Again, many Indian sex workers are organized, motivated, and outspoken, not passive victims. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/sex-workers-bank-in-mumbai-makes-their-dreams-real/53773-3.html

  • Marc

    Self-absorbed and lacking cultural perspectives much?
    You can’t help women of developing countries by coming in there, Western feminist guns ablazing.
    This is why certain brands of feminism, in this case, radical feminism that wishes to uproot the cultural relationships between the genders, often fail.
    We’re at the dawn of a new decade – and it requires us to look at things differently. The old, tired and often trite arguments of the Mary Daleys of the world no longer apply. In fact, they’re useless and insignificant.
    Marc

  • alice-paul

    Not to mention the inherent heterosexism of this solution. What are the options for queer sex workers who want out?

  • Heina

    In most subcultures in India, being married is how one becomes an adult. People live with their parents and are treated as children until they marry, and then they set up their own household (or a wing of their parents’ house) as adults after marriage. This permeates even the attitudes of many in the diaspora. Marriage is a way to gain voice and agency as a respected adult and part of a couple leading a household, not just a way in which to be associated with a man. In fact, what would be more accurate would be to say that Indian marriage is a way to become associated and connected with a particular family.

  • GrowingViolet

    I wouldn’t be surprised if many queer female sex workers would prefer to (volunteer to) marry one man than continue working in brutal circumstances where they have no choice but to sleep with multiple different men every day.

  • GrowingViolet

    One article on the happy endings that are available for a tiny minority of one city’s sex workers doesn’t really change much. Pretty much every single report (news article, commission report, study) from every reasonably credible outlet, including outlets that are sympathetic toward sex work, indicates that the overwhelming majority of sex work in India is physically and economically coerced, includes a significant portion of underage girls and trafficked women, involves frequent or daily violence, and prevents women from ever leaving. An occasional exception doesn’t disprove what’s been widely apparent to everyone for decades.

  • vaibhav

    I think the steps taken by DSS chief in removing prostitution in india are commendable and unprecedented.Considering the facts that majority of sex workers in india are forced into prostitution rather than a matter of personal choice, due to poverty and ignorance. Given a choice, 9 out of 10 prostitutes in india will choose not to remain in this profession because indian culture and religion don’t permit sex trade. As a result, these sex workers don’t get any recognition n respect in society. Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh ji Insan’s efforts in this regard are apt and timely. It seems a misunderstanding that the girls who will be rescued will be forced to marry. No, it is not true , in stead they will be given a choice of leading their rehabilitated life in whichever manner they want. They will be educated and made financially independent. The option of marriage is for those who want to get married. And i tell you being an indian, it is hardest for a sexworker to get married in indian culture. Nobody is ready to accept her in family. So taking all these view in mind, acceptance of 1000+ volunteer on a single call of Saint to marry these girls is really praiseworthy. This step becomes even more significant in the light of facts that recently Govt of India admitted to supreme court of india that she had failed to prevent prostitution completely.

  • Hypatia

    If it makes any difference, I am from India. I’m not thinking from a “western radical feminist” POV. I know that the institution marriage certainly raises a woman’s status in society in India. But is also an institution that places the well-being of a wife within the hands of her husband. He could abuse, disrespect, or exploit her. Or he could make her life better. It depends on HIM.
    I do think it is a good effort. I just hope that these women have more of a choice in their marriage/marriage partner, and that the DSS chief isn’t assuming marriage automatically = salvation.