Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Pakistan’s prolific playwright and chronicler of the partition of British India, refers to sex work as?i?mat-far?sh?, which roughly translates to virtue selling. The use of ‘virtue’ is intentional because he mocks the concept it— saying, prostitute or not, even without their virtue women are likely to have more radiant hearts than those of dissolute men and with her virtue preserved, prostitute and woman, still takes the back seat because men control the system and are free to think of her as they will.
More than 70 years after Manto’s harrowing accounts of the realities of sex workers across the Indo-Pak subcontinent, not a lot has changed. The condition of sex workers in India is extremely poor with the industry facing several social and structural barriers. The national rehabilitation projects overstep the bodily autonomy of the workers— the state assumes the role of a moral discipliner, rendering the industry and its workers powerless and exposed to extreme forms of violence. The normative status of sex work remains deeply contested between abolitionists and sex work advocates, often drowning the agency of the sex workers.
Many women are coerced into the work, with human trafficking forming the crux of the ‘business,’ disproportionately affecting women and children. However, assuming all sex workers have joined the profession against their volition disenfranchises those who voluntarily become part of the industry or are unable to tap into other job markets.
India is signatory to most major human rights treaties and conventions, yet the country fails to recognize the marginalization, vulnerabilities, and human rights of sex workers. India’s anti-trafficking policies, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956, conflates trafficking and sex work making it insufficient in its capacity to protect trafficked people and causing a spike in violence against sex workers.
India identifies eight hundred thousand female sex workers (FSW) who predominantly come from five southern states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Telangana. The capital, Delhi, houses fifty thousand FSWs.
While private prostitution is legal in India, the stigma and oppression socio-historically associated with the profession have remained intact and primarily stem from women expressing their sexuality and corrupting ‘innocent’ segments of society to it. Public prostitution and owning a brothel remain illegal. Yet, massive brothels operate out of places like GB Road in the heart of the national capital Delhi, where the workers are not safeguarded by labor laws or trade unions.
?At the crossroads of these multifaceted discourses, the portraits explore the story of sex work in old Delhi, centering on the life of sex workers.