January 11, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

But is Hypocrisy Our Culture?

Here are two statements that I came across in print on the same day last week. One is:

Not only do we [Indians] respect women, we also worship them.

The second is:

[One factor] greatly responsible for the ferocity of India's [AIDS] epidemic is the shamefully oppressed state of Indian women. The conditions of women in India are still amongst the worst of any society in the world, certainly far worse than in most African countries.

It strikes me that both these assertions cannot simultaneously be true. Which do you think is the false one, or at least the one with less truth in it?

While you decide that, I'll tell you where I found these two. The first sentence is from an article in Bombay's Mid-Day newspaper by Pramod Navalkar, once upon a time minister for cultural affairs in the Shiv Sena/ BJP coalition regime that misruled Maharashtra from 1995 to 1999. The article is an explanation and defence of certain measures Navalkar put in place while he was minister. These are what he calls "curbs on obscenity" and "a check on the westernised hungama in theatres", which he claims were a "misuse of the freedom of expression granted by the Constitution."

"Selling the female body", writes once-Minister Navalkar, "is not our culture."

The second statement is from a truly disturbing book: Siddharth Dube's Sex, Lies and AIDS. Five million Indians, says Dube, are already infected with HIV, and two million have already died. By 2005, he estimates there will be 40 million of us infected, with substantial concentrations of those in large cities like Bombay and Pune. What does that number 40 million mean? Think about travelling at peak hour in one of Bombay's suburban trains in 2005: about 15 of the people jammed into the compartment with you will likely be infected.

Dube says the HIV/AIDS epidemic is "India's greatest health problem today, as well as a potent threat to our economic and development prospects." He also thinks it is inevitable that the epidemic will spread to the "highest levels reached today in Africa: one in three adults." That's 200 million Indians. Think of what it means to know that every third man or woman you see around you in India is infected with HIV.

Now there are several reasons Dube lists for this frightening state we are in, for the even more frightening prospect that's ahead. One of those reasons is what he calls "the terribly low status of Indian women."

This is not meant to be a review of Dube's book. But I was just struck that these two Indian men -- Dube and Navalkar -- have such radically different views on the state of Indian women. How is it that while one writes of their "shamefully oppressed state", the other can claim we "respect [and] worship them"? If we do respect and worship them, how are they in this shameful state? What is going on here?

What is going on here, it seems to me, is simple: hypocrisy. To Navalkar and his political friends, posturing endlessly and pathetically about our glorious traditions -- in this case, how we respect and worship women -- is far more politically lucrative than looking reality squarely in the face. And if Dube's book is anything, it is a heartfelt appeal to his country, and especially to its leaders, to do just such looking. To understand just how uniquely terrible the status of Indian women really is, and to work to change that. Judging by Navalkar's thoughts, it's an appeal destined to run into many deaf ears.

After all, take just this precious bit about "selling the female body" that is apparently "not our culture." On any given evening on Kennedy Bridge near Opera House in Bombay, you will find several young women sort of hanging around. Periodically a car or a taxi draws up near them. Sometimes one of the women gets into the car and it drives off.

I assure you this is not a unique tableau that is enacted only in this one spot in India that I just happened to stumble into. I chose this spot to mention here because it is only minutes from Navalkar's own home -- Girgaum, the throbbing heart of south Bombay. But I have personally seen similar tableaus on the crowded street below that bridge, outside Dadar's Plaza cinema, near my Bandra home, in the Colaba area and in innumerable other parts of Bombay.

I also assure you that those ladies are not out on Kennedy Bridge for an evening stroll after a hard day's work, taking in the fresh air until a friendly stranger just happens to offer them a ride home. No, they are prostitutes -- or let's call them sex workers -- and it is their customers who arrive and pick them up. Just as sex workers have done for ages, as they do in every other part of the world. These ladies are indeed and very definitely "selling the female body": their own female bodies.

One more assurance: I find nothing even slightly objectionable in these everyday happenings. It seems to me that as long as we have sexes, we will have trade in sex. Millions of Indian women work in the sex business (Dube refers to it as our "huge sex trade") and millions of Indian men use their services. All that being so, sex work is as intimately a part of our culture as sex is part of the human experience. Pretending it is not is something akin to saying cooking food is "not our culture." Yes, I cannot see anything objectionable in prostitution. Nor in accepting it as part of the living, breathing culture that is ours.

What is objectionable, therefore, is the foolish claim that "selling the female body is not our culture."

But as we all know, this claim sells well because it implies a certain superiority or morality the Navalkars like to ascribe to "our culture." On that score, my feeling is that ours is about as superior as every other culture that's on show, even accounting for the drag factor of rampant Navalkar-style hypocrisy. But it's not so much this futile search for superiority that makes for foolishness. It is the real danger that such hypocrisy brings to millions of Indian lives. And that goes well beyond mere foolishness.

The pretence that sex work is an evil that militates against our culture and must be stamped out has brought us unerringly to where we are today. These women work in dreadful conditions; tragically young girls are driven into the business; their very existence is widely considered contemptible and perhaps even illegal; they are terribly oppressed by madams, police and pimps; they are unable to demand any rights; they are unable even to insist on something so basic as that their clients wear condoms.

And one frightful consequence of treating this entire industry this way is the incidence of HIV among sex workers. In Bombay, three of every four of these women is now infected. 75 per cent. Consider that figure for a minute. What does that do to the many thousands of men who visit sex workers every day? What does that do to the society around them that is swept up in the pretence that "selling the female body is not our culture"?

It lets loose a monstrous and galloping epidemic, that's what it does.

The one corner of India where sex workers have mostly escaped the HIV juggernaut is Calcutta's red light district of Sonagachi. As Dube tells us, this is because:

" workers have been allowed to unionise and so to battle the causes of their vulnerability. Once unionised, they have demanded and secured improvements in health care ... collectively forced customers to use condoms, tackled police harrassment and started education programmes for their children and savings schemes for themselves."

In other words, it is a simple equation. See the sex trade as a legitimate one like any other and you help stop not only the HIV epidemic but also the oppression of these women. In fact, I can't help feeling that will, by extension, lead to an end to the "shamefully oppressed state of Indian women."

In fact too, it seems to me that that is really respect for women.

On the other hand, this pretence of "worship" we have today is mere hypocrisy.

Dilip D'Souza

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