Nalini Jameela, author of The Autobiography of a Sex Worker (2007; extracts below) and the forthcoming The Company of Men: The romantic encounters of a sex worker is a former sex worker in Kerala who has for years worked to organise other sex workers and ensure that they are treated with respect. She recently spoke with Jayasree A K about her efforts to mitigate the stigma attached to sex work and the individuals involved in it. Translated from the Malayalam by the interviewer.
Why do you identify yourself as a sex worker even though you are also a writer, a human-rights activist and documentary filmmaker?
First, all my achievements came through sex work. It was my sole means of livelihood for many years. I cannot negate it. Second, I consider sex work a dignified job like any other. If I want to speak for other sex workers, I have to identify with them. Another reason is that my viewpoint can be authentic only when I talk about sex-work issues as a sex worker myself. But I have also had to cope with stereotyped images of a sex worker. A woman programme officer with Doordarshan once told me, ‘I had a very different picture of Nalini Jameela. You look like my mother.’ That lady expected a middle-class ‘mistress’ like ‘Susanna’ [an upper-middle-class vampish character in the eponymous Malayalam film], because of my popularity as a sex worker-cum-writer.
How did you go forward with organising collectives of sex workers?
The collectivisation of sex workers was inevitable with the beginning of the spread of HIV/AIDS. Earlier, we were hidden from sight, which led to our exploitation. With the HIV epidemic, it became imperative that we organise, and this also provided an opportunity to bring our issues into the open. I started my organisational activities with Jwalamukhi, a collective of sex workers in Thrissur, Kerala, in 1999. Though this was an HIV-prevention project we took it beyond that, emphasising the sex worker’s identity and penetrating into mainstream society. When invited to speak about our issues at public meetings, we responded by organising open debates in which people from different walks of life could participate. For example, we invited the director and lead actress of the film Susanna for a discussion, when we realised that the film was supportive of our movement. This has helped to mainstream sex workers’ issues.
Interactions with the mainstream were particularly significant in Calcutta and Sangli [in Maharashtra]. The movement received support from various interest groups because many brothels exist there and are, to a certain extent, accepted as part of the socio-cultural milieu. In the case of South India, where brothels are scattered, women are strong but do not get space for articulation. But support groups and individual human-right defenders have played a positive role in mainstreaming sex workers. Collectives of sex workers had also been formed in other parts of India, and networking with them gave us more strength. For the last few years, I have also worked in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and there is now a trade union for sex workers in Karnataka with which I am associated.
What were the significant issues that came up during the organising process?
Sometimes there were conflicts between me and leaders from other parts of India, but we could still work together because we had similar problems in our personal lives and workplaces. I realised that it did not matter whether we allied or were in opposition – what mattered was how genuine and open we were about our issues. But we had to proceed strategically. We were trying to organise sex workers who were open [about their profession], as well as those who were not. There were women working without the knowledge of their close relatives, including their husbands. To gain their trust, we developed friendships through discussions about the general problems in their lives. Gradually they opened up about other issues.
I travelled around South India to evaluate the activities of CBOs, or community-based organisations. During this process, we used a technique of counting sex workers without forcing them to reveal their identities. In closed discussions and interviews, they revealed that through sex work they earned additional income to support their families. We maintained confidentiality if they did not want to come out in the open. Initially, many did not identify with the collectives, as they feared humiliation. But after some time they realised that resistance is required if they want to lead a dignified life. Usually, sex workers work far from their native towns and villages, to avoid being recognised by their relatives and neighbours. Due to stigma, many sex workers cannot open up in their native places, but they can do so in other areas for organisational work, and extend support to others who cannot be open about their status. Another strategy is to enable those who work anonymously to open up when they visit other areas, which has been tried out by transgender and gay communities.
Do you think that Kerala’s sex-worker movement has suffered a setback?
Yes. There was a lack of continuity in the programmes. It happened at a personal level too, as I was occasionally excluded by some CBOs. The main problem was that collectives were formed at a superficial level. HIV projects were concentrating more on health issues; awareness programmes were often guided by NGOs that had other priorities, and which sidelined identity issues. A collective in this context was similar to a tree with twigs, leaves and flowers but without a trunk for sustained nourishment. Naturally, such a tree will droop and wither after some time. I am now planning to go back to Kerala to revitalise the sex-worker movement there.
What is the role of CBOs in mainstreaming sex workers?
There are many CBOs [of sex workers] that have been formed with NGO support. Many of these work in rural areas, enabling access to some benefits such as health and credit services. But that alone will not improve our lives and status in society. A new trend is that some sex workers are now working as peer educators, CBO leaders and others. But some of them then become distanced from sex workers and their issues, as some CBOs are driven by the ideas of donor agencies without a clear vision of the sex workers’ movement. We must remember, though, that many sex workers are still beyond reach, exploited, neglected, abused and ostracised. I think there is a need for a critical opposition groups within the movement itself. The ‘official’ group can work with the establishment, but it should be supplemented by a group that is critical. Then discussions and debates will be generated, and everyone’s concerns will be given due attention.
How have your literary forays contributed to the sex-worker movement?
I went to Tirupur, in Tamil Nadu, and Jaipur to attend meetings of literary forums. In Jaipur, Sachidanandan, an eminent poet, and Paul Zacharia, a well-known writer, translated for me. I read my writings on Thrissur, a town known as the cultural capital of Kerala. Initially, there was not much of an audience but as I continued, people, including college students, gathered. Everybody appreciated the reading. The college students told me that they thought I was a dangerous person, that a sex worker was monstrous – they had never imagined that a sex worker could write about ordinary events in life. Hundreds of copies of the book were sold immediately. I think such interactions help to change the image of sex workers and add strength to the movement.
When the Tamil version of my autobiography was released in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, I was felicitated at a gathering. In Tirupur, I was invited for the 8 March [International Women’s Day] celebrations. To my surprise, I saw huge posters with my picture, just like a film star! There were about 30 writers and the group was named Thozhar, meaning ‘friends’. I became friends with great writers such as Charu Nivedita and Amaranda.
I don’t think I have received this kind of acceptance in Kerala. Yes, many people do accept me, but there are opponents too. Some people think that my translators guide me in my writing. There are cultural barriers that prevent people accepting a sex worker as a writer, and there have been some painful, embarrassing incidents because of this. But I also remember joyful moments. When the well-known director Sanjeev Sivan made a film about me, I was surprised to see that the girl who portrayed me as a child did so happily, even though she was acting as a person who would become a sex worker. She was the daughter of a couple with a high status in society, and yet she interacted with me freely and her family accepted me. I consider such things part of a de-stigmatising process for sex workers.
Do you feel that you have more responsibility in strengthening the sex-worker movement?
After becoming a writer, the authorities listen to me and take me more seriously; and compared to my peers, my ideas are more valued. But for this very reason, I do have greater responsibilities, and now I have to take on a leadership role and reorganise the scattered movement in Kerala. Rights issues such as freedom from violence need to be highlighted. Recently, I went to New Delhi as part of a team to meet the director of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO). Kerala didn’t get any funding for new HIV programmes, but other South Indian states did; there was also little funding for sex workers’ organisations. We argued that they need to fund such organisations, as we understand the issues better due to our first-hand experience. We still have a long way to go: the cleansing process has to be completed; we have to remove the entirety of the stigma attached to sex workers.
Today, how do you view the sex-worker movement and its relevance?
Sex workers’ collectives should uphold sex workers’ self-respect and dignity. Only when they are recognised as workers can we talk of individual rights and workers’ rights. Sex workers’ unions should also be strengthened and demand benefits to which other workers are entitled. So far, we have been apologetic. Now, we should recognise our real needs and claim our rights. We are not lesser human beings. As to our organising experience, we cannot say that we have yet achieved our rights. But now many more people realise that sex workers need not be hated and stigmatised. They are just like other women, like other human beings.
~ Jayasree A K is an associate professor at the Department of Community Medicine, Pariyaram Medical College, Kannur, Kerala.
Such cruelty and tenderness
Extracts from Nalini Jameela’s The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree A K
On how she became involved in sex work
Rosechi asked me to go to a place where some police officers were having a party. I was picked up by the police jeep and dropped in Ramanilayam. The police officer, my first client, looked very regal and handsome, not like a policeman at all. He was very gentle with me during the night. I still have warm memories of that night: he was like the ideal lover of my dreams. That very hero ditched me the next day, and I learned that a charming man can also be cruel. Early in the morning, the police jeep picked me up and dropped me in the middle of the road. After I had taken a few steps, another police jeep arrived and stopped in front of me. Two policemen jumped out and yelled, ‘Get into the jeep!’ They took me to the police station and beat me severely. I asked them, ‘The police wants to sleep with me during the night and beat me during the day?’ They shouted back, ‘What did you think? That if you sleep with Sir, he won’t tell us?’ I wondered how a man could be so cruel. I have never seen such cruelty and tenderness together after that.
On the hardships of a street sex worker
On dangerous situations as a sex worker
I was keen to hit back at them, and made a complaint to the police the next day. The police arrested seven of them, including Chandran. Even though the police kept me in the police station for a day, I felt a sense of achievement that I could get him arrested.