Guest post by SAMHITA BAROOAH
During a visit to the Kishori Mandal at Apne Aap Women Worldwide’s Uttari Rampur Centre in Forbesganj I met some lovely girls. They stayed in the community near the red light area. They were eager to learn new things. They asked me my story of life, “Didi aapki kahani sunao? Aapne kaise yaha tak sangharsh kiya?” I was again very surprised to encounter the subversion of queries. I should have been the one to ask those questions to the girls, but they wanted to know more about me. Perceptual understanding is a perspective rooted in feminist standpoint theory which could apply to any context from the onlooker’s context. For the young girls from the Red Light Area in Forbesganj, I was trapped in some realities which connected me to them. That was why she asked me to share my story of struggle. When I said education enabled me to survive the world around me, they laughed and said that was not their story. They said, “For us we have to get married as soon as we are 18 years old but sometimes even earlier. We just want to enjoy our freedom now in this centre till we get married. After that we do not know what holds true for us.” As women whether we are in the Nat community of Bihar or we are in the liberated spaces of North East India, our identities get defined by our marriage, cultural practices and socialisation. Unbound freedom for women seems to be a misnomer which should be forbidden for women as the evolved souls say.
It was an enduring experience of going to a forbidden path along the red light area inside a border town of Forbesganj in North Bihar for me. Anybody who heard about my new assignment in Bihar suddenly got very worried if I would be safe. My only way to ensure safety was an Assamese connect within the organisation of Apne Aap Women Worldwide called Juanita Kakoty former Table Tennis Champion of Assam and now a promising writer, documentarian, sociologist and old school contemporary. Her name was enough to convince family to finally provide me with the nod of assurance for the new venture. But my motivation was to be associated with the efforts of a woman’s organisation in the heart of Bihar which is predominantly patriarchal. The moment I stepped into the organisation it was a glass door office relatively flat. Kalam ji greeted me as I entered the office premises and showed me around where the accommodation was arranged for me. It was a historical space with memories of movements and solidarity embedded into the silent walls. The train station was at a stone’s throw distance from the organisation, so every morning and night I could hear the train announcements of Seemanchal express and Jogbani Express. Every morning the birds in the backyard chirped away to glory as if trying to share their part of the world view. Trees, flowers, herbs and thick green cover inside the compound of the former Jagdish mill was an amazing retreat for reflection, regeneration and rejuvenation.
My wonders about Apne Aap Women Worldwide kept increasing when I saw huge pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. inside a thatched roof open house. It was almost like imagining Gandhiji’s words, ‘let my doors and windows remain open to the cultures of the world’. It was indeed such an experience when I realised that Forbesganj office of Apne Aap Women Worldwide hosted Gloria Steinam, Usha Uthup, Alice Walker, to name a few and a host of friends, well-wishers, donors and like-minded activists from across the world. It was almost an unbelievable experience of convergence of communities from all the De-Notified Tribal Communities in different parts of India which happens to be a core area of work for Apne Aap Women Worldwide. But the journey of resistance for change within the Nat community in Bihar was not easy for Apne Aap Women Worldwide. A gender inclusive approach was extremely pivotal in engaging the community to resist the age-old tradition of inter-generational prostitution. Men like Mohammad Kalam were the pioneers who stood up resisting their own community traditions. He joined Apne Aap Women Worldwide in 2009 and engaged in the process of legal advocacy, rescue and constant community mobilisation to make sure that none of the women from his community was forced into prostitution. When I raised my doubts about abolitionist view and right to livelihood choices for the women in prostitution, Kalam ji asked me a critical question, “Samhita ji find me one woman from the most marginalised community who is a PhD or with any other professional degree and wishes to be a prostitute. I will stand in solidarity with them but till then please do not say that women would like to get into prostitution.” I was partially convinced with his argument on the contextual reality of intergenerational prostitution. Kalam ji wanted to make sure that every woman within his community was free and educated with the adequate skills to define their own destinies. He owed his education which is a Master Degree in History and a Bachelor of Law to his own elder sister who sold herself to educate him and his other siblings. Kalam ji resolved to free his sister from the profession of prostitution and also got engaged in rescue and repatriation of many more women from the Nat community individually as well as through the association of Apne Aap Women Worldwide. He shared his dream to do a PhD now based on the community based work which he has done so far on legal advocacy and community mobilisation of the de-notified tribes across the field areas of Apne Aap Women Worldwide. Kalam ji had to fight his community traditions and clerics from the community when he stood up against the trade of prostitution. He was jailed in false cases and also constantly under threat from the pimps, brothel owners and agents who are taken into custody by the state authorities and easily released. One day he was going for a case hearing in the court in Araria district of Bihar where he happened to be a key witness driving a half broken motorbike fighting the winter chill of Bihar, he came down with heavy cough congestion and fever after that. Somehow the motivation towards his community’s emancipation is tremendous which enabled Kalam ji to resist inhuman exploitation of young women in the field of prostitution. I was amazed with the way he interacted with the young girls who came for stitching and computer training discussing about gender discrimination and women’s legal entitlements. He shared how his duty at home was baby-sitting in the morning and cooking during holidays so that he could give enough time to his family of 6 people. Kalam ji could counsel women in distress, who came to seek help from Apne Aap Women Worldwide, negotiate with Army personnel on human rights trainings and guide young professionals and volunteers from across the world on community based interventions with equal dexterity and diligence. His field understanding, people skills with his team-mates from diverse class, caste, gender and religious backgrounds holds good ground for him to be a third wave feminist on the ground.
My wanderings in Forbesganj field locations of Apne Aap Women Worldwide were possible with the help of the team members of Apne Aap Women Worldwide for 2 days out of 31 days which I spent in this place. During one such visit, one of the adolescent girls from the Red Light Area said, “Didi I want to play the harmonium and I want to really roam around freely, but I know my time is very less. I have two elder sisters who are going to be married very soon in two years time so after that my turn to marry will come. So before that I wish to live my life.” Such sharing made me reflect on the acute stress which young girls face within a red light area where they are struggling to protect their sanctity through education, recreation, nutrition and skill enhancement provided by state and voluntary organisations like Apne Aap Women Worldwide. But at the same time their vulnerabilities are so high that their social security is ensured only through the forced marriages which they have to witness to be dragged into servitude of domestic drudgery, reproductive labour and in many cases forced prostitution within the known community members as an age-old tradition. Prostitution of girls enslaves them for their entire life and when they mature in age leaves them with poverty, disease and destitution. Most women in prostitution, who have reached their middle age years, do not find clients who could pay well for their sexual services. They are vulnerable within their own communities and families and they cannot negotiate for a life with dignity. Some commit suicide; others get abusive while a few chose to remain silent forever without a word about their condition and work. Anonymity strengthens women who wish to move within the mainstream society and thus life awaits newer possibilities. Sometimes when organisations work only with the women in prostitution dilemmas strike very hard. At one level one is trying to abolish prostitution with the strategic advocacy, association and collaboration from the grassroots to the global agencies but at another level the pronounced identities of women in prostitution or survivors becomes so important for the organisations to address the contextual realities of the survivors. For the persons working with, for or through the survivors it is in fact an ethical dilemma battling the forces within and outside the agency. But the struggle for the women who have survived prostitution and resolved to rescue others and restore their non-stigmatised identities becomes a constant one. Even though friction and conflict of opinion about whether to choose the survivor identity or the anonymous common person identity is indeed a personal choice which every individual within a community or within an agency is entitled to. The layered intersections of identities, aspirations, expectations, desperation for freedom and resilience become very prominent in the statement shared by the young girl, “Didi I want to learn to play the harmonium and …”
Samhita Barooah is a social worker and researcher based in Guwahati