Intersectional feminism is failing Indian women

Women and girls in India, of all socio-economic strata, are all too familiar with being treated as less-than-human by men, to the extent this piece cannot do full justice. The dehumanization of the female begins before birth here, as sons are preferred over girl children. According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 88 cases of rape were logged every day in 2019. The trafficking of women and minor children into the sex trade is rampant. Married women are routinely subjected to violence — killed or driven to suicide by their husbands or his relatives for dowry. Sexual harassment in the workplace — whether it be at white collar professions or on construction sites — is widespread. In film, women are objectified as food, among other “things.”

The political goal of any feminist movement should be to create a society in which women and girls can self-determine — to write their own script instead of playing the roles set for them by men. But today we are fed the idea that women can “choose” sexist or degrading practices and that this will empower them under patriarchy. I am guilty of having taken this stance in the past. A prominent feminist website in India describes the purpose of feminism as follows:

“Feminism is fundamentally about giving women choices… the choice to act in a traditionally feminine manner is just that — a choice — it is entirely acceptable and even quite common within the feminist movement.”

This “pro-choice” stance might be less harmful when applied to things like makeup or clothing, but it is also applied to the highly dangerous and exploitative prostitution and surrogacy industries. In India, we are told that prostitution is a job like any other, and that therefore we should call it “sex work.” The vision statement of the National Network of Sex Workers of India says:

“NNSW envisions a world wherein sex work is recognized as work; a world that is just and has no laws that criminalize sex work; where adult men, women, and transgender people in sex work have the right to earn and live providing sexual services without fear, abuse, stigma and discrimination.”

The term, “sex work” has replaced what was traditionally called “prostitution” in India. Apart from having been adopted by some women in the sex trade, it is now commonly used in newspapers, websites, and academia, in reference to prostituted Indian women. This rephrasing has been pushed by feminists who believe prostitution should be recognized as “a job like any other.”

In a piece for shethepeople, Tanvi Akhauri writes:

“I find that the pro-prostitution stance is significant, for it believes in taking a bottom-up approach towards women empowerment. Hacking off the decision-making powers of women in order to bring them in line with a common understanding of feminism is contradictory to what feminism is all about. It is not a movement where women must, under no circumstances, subscribe to men’s wishes. Instead, it is a movement that affords women the freedom to let them make their own choices.”

Many have argued prostitution is just “work” — a job like any other — to avoid addressing the issue of whether prostitution is “good” for women, but putting aside whether prostitution is viewed as “work,” why should men have the right to buy access to women for either sex or reproduction? If money is to be treated as a morally good basis for agreeing to get fucked or to produce a child, it means that the bodily integrity of a female is amenable to sale to the highest bidder. Her integrity is not inviolable because it can compromise to exchange of money — she cannot choose if she must bend to the wishes and whims of prospective buyers: men. In other words, at the foundations of both prostitution and surrogacy lies the idea that the female has no integrity of self. She is an object or a thing which the male can derive gratification from.

Some feminists maintain an opposition to the term “sex work,” despite it’s almost whole acceptance in the mainstream. Ruchira Gupta, an Indian journalist and activist fighting sex trafficking and prostitution, refuses, explaining:

“We do not use the term ‘sex worker’ anymore because we believe it’s so inherently exploitative that we do not want to define it as work under any circumstances. So, we use the term ‘prostituted child,’ because there is no such thing as a child prostitute — someone did it to the child. And we use the term ‘prostituted woman.’ We realize the patriarchy of the system that is exploiting the vulnerabilities of these girls and women.”

Those who favor the legalization of prostitution in India argue that criminalization marginalizes women, making them vulnerable to abuse and violence. Third wave-influenced organizations like One Future Collective, a youth-centric not-for-profit organization focused on “gender justice,” argue that Indian prostitution and trafficking legislation — the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 — which partly criminalizes prostitution, hurts women in the sex trade, saying:

“The Act has made sex workers more vulnerable by forcing them to work in the darker, more invisible corners of the cities, silently suffering exploitation. This seclusion of sex workers also implies that they are left in oblivion about access to information about and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, which they are most at risk of contracting…

Mainstreaming sex work, easing access to birth control methods and medical aid together with educational opportunities will not only enable sex workers to live a more normal life but will also work to a great extent to prevent their exploitation because they will no longer be vulnerable to their perpetrators.”

But this view is not corroborated. Julie Bindel, a British journalist and radical feminist, found that in New Zealand (which legalized prostitution in 2003), punters and pimps continue to kill and abuse prostituted women, and that legalization has only made them more entitled. The claim that legalization will protect women from harm is not evidenced, and the question of why men should be legally permitted to buy women as chattel remains.

Moreover, Bindel’s research shows that legalization removes the need for exiting services, as prostitution becomes “a job like any other.” She explains:

“When prostituted women become ‘employees,’ and part of the ‘labour market,’ pimps become ‘managers’ and ‘business entrepreneurs,’ and the punters are merely clients. Services helping people to exit are irrelevant because who needs support to get out of a regular job? Effectively, governments wash their hands of women under legalization because, according to the mantra, ‘It is better than working at McDonald’s.’ As one sex-trade survivor told me, ‘At least when you work at McDonald’s you’re not the meat.’”

Decriminalization lobbyists argue that the stigma or shame attached to prostituted women can be resolved through legalization — if only we could all re-wire our brains to accept prostitution as “work,” these women would be safe and empowered. But turning women into chattel can never be a safe, non-violent enterprise involving mutual respect and care. All that legalization destigmatizes is the entitlement of men to have access to women, despite the fact that prostitution-related stigma belongs squarely at the feet of punters, pimps, and traffickers. While activists should work to provide prostituted women with respect, support, aid, and civil rights, so long as women are in the cage called prostitution, these efforts will fail to provide women with the respect and autonomy they deserve, though the cage may look shinier.

There is, of course, an alternative to either legalization or full criminalization. The “Nordic model” decriminalizes and supports women to leave prostitution, while criminalizing men who pay for sex. Apne Aap (which translates to “on one’s own”), an organization founded by Ruchira Gupta that works to eliminate prostitution and trafficking of women and girls for sex, offers a genuinely feminist approach, explaning:

“Apne Aap stands for a Third Way of dealing with sex trafficking and prostitution. We believe women should not be punished by the law for being in prostitution or having to conduct associated ancillary activities like soliciting. So we work to decriminalize girls and women trapped in prostitution.

We want those who abuse a woman for profit or take advantage of her vulnerabilities — a consequence of factors ranging from poverty to gender — to be held accountable and punished severely. Such people include recruiters, transporters, agents, middlemen, pimps, brothel owners, brothel managers, financiers, moneylenders and landlords. Apne Aap also advocates punishmen

t for those who buy sex.”

Today, many Indian feminists like to call themselves “intersectional.” They claim it is necessary to include other axes of oppression like caste, class, ethnicity in the analysis of “gendered” oppression, lest feminist analysis becomes limited to upper-caste or white women. While intersectionality theory aims to represent the most oppressed — women living in remote villages in India, for example — those who identify as “intersectional feminists” view prostitution and surrogacy as a choice, and therefore don’t view these industries as inherently exploitative.

But the truth is that most women in these industries don’t have choice: many prostituted women in India are trapped in generational prostitution wherein one generation after the next is forced to engage in the sex trade due to abject poverty. There are brokers in India who look for destitute women in rural and urban areas to become surrogates. Prostitution and surrogacy specifically prey and thrive on women with the least options. These are exactly the women who find themselves on multiple intersections of oppression like race, class, and caste, in addition to sex. An intersectional analysis should reveal the exploitative nature of prostitution and surrogacy, yet intersectional feminists support surrogacy for poor women as a means of earning livelihood and believe criticizing the sex trade is “exclusionary.”

In an interview, Indian model Taksh Sharma complains about “sex worker exclusionary feminism,” implying that criticizing the sex trade is not  “intersectional.”

“If your feminism is not intersectional, it’s not feminism. It’s that simple. You have to stand up for women that you don’t like. Another thing that I would like to see change in the feminist movement is sex worker exclusionary feminism! In India, you come into this peculiar morality and it’s very woven into our culture and there is this respectability politics game that happens a lot in any space that you go to. I’ve seen so many women who are ready to drop all their feminist ideals just because the person that they’re sticking up for happens to be someone in they don’t like or they don’t agree with the way that XYZ person has lived their life. I think your feminism has to stick up for all women.” [emphases not mine]

Third wave feminists in India promote both surrogacy and prostitution as a means to improve women’s conditions, ignoring the broader context for these industries. In a piece for Feminism in India, Chandrika Manjunath quotes a fertility expert and a surrogate, to demonstrate that surrogacy improves the lives of women:

“Fertility expert Dr. Nayana Patel stated, ‘In my experience, the livelihoods of at least 80-95 per cent of surrogate mothers have vastly improved because of this option.’ Vandana, a 32-year-old woman from Gujarat said that it provides her an annual income many times that of her income as a domestic worker. She says, ‘My husband and family are happy as it brings [in] substantial money. I’ve even recommended my other family members to take up this option. Plus, I’m quite happy that I [can] lend a hand to someone to complete their own family.’”

But when the poorest of women engage in selling sex or renting wombs, to view this as a free, independent choice is too simple. In her book, Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, Professor Catharine Mackinnon challenges the notion that “consent” negates harm in prostitution, writing:

“The standards for the meaning of women’s ‘yes’ in the sexual context range from approximating a dead body’s enthusiasm to fighting back and screaming ‘no’ to pleading with an armed rapist to use a condom. If this is free choice, what does coercion look like? Sex in general, particularly sex for survival, is so pervasively merged with the meaning of being a woman that whenever sex occurs, under whatever conditions, the woman tends to be defined as freely acting.”

It is not necessary to defend and celebrate the exploitative practices that impoverished women have to resort to for survival in order to empathize with and help these women. It is quite possible to both empathize and fight against sexual exploitation, and to support women in escaping these circumstances. As Rachel Moran, an Irish author and survivor of prostitution, says, “When a woman is poor and hungry, the humane thing to do is put food in her mouth, not your dick.”

Feminist activism in India should not dress sexual exploitation up as poverty-alleviation scheme for destitute women, yet intersectional feminists do just this.

While prostitution legislation in India criminalizes aspects of the trade — keeping a brothel, living on the earnings of prostitution, and soliciting in public — it allows punters to operate with impunity. The law penalizes prostituted women for soliciting in public, but does not criminalize the men who buy them. The latest Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021, not yet passed, also fails to take steps towards ending sexual exploitation in by not explicitly and unconditionally criminalizing the purchase of sex.

Criminalization of the purchase of sex in India needs to be accompanied with provisions for exit and rehabilitation of prostituted women — trafficked or not. But the existing provisions for raid, rescue, and rehabilitation under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 mean women often have to stay in protective homes for long periods during the legal process, and women have reported violence in such homes or shelters. A 2018 study on the rescue and rehabilitation of women in India found that “the police often use the law to justify violence, incarceration, fines and extortion” and finds that “procedural aspects of the courts are stacked against sex workers, who are forced to borrow large sums of money to extricate themselves, at high interest rates.”

A paper submitted as part of the United Nations-Universal Periodic Review in 2016 on Indian prostituted women says:

“Women who had been picked up and incarcerated in the so-called ‘rehabilitation home’ (Sudhar Griha) described inhuman conditions, sub-standard food and an extreme state of confinement, prohibited from meeting their families, and not even being allowed to stand near the window and being beaten up for doing so.

Female sex workers are humiliated and criticized, made to wait for inordinately long periods of time, not examined properly, forced to undergo HIV tests, overcharged for services at private hospitals, denied medical services delivery care; and their confidentiality violated. Sex workers also reported being discriminated and subjected to sexual demands by doctors before they were provided with medical treatment.”

The problems with the current mechanism of rescue and rehabilitation in India show there is an urgent need for the state to provide women with better exit and rehabilitation facilities. It is the punters, pimps, and traffickers the law enforcement should go after; and not the women exploited. But so long as we maintain the false dichotomy of choice versus force, some women and girls will remain trapped in sexual exploitation.

It is the duty of the state to provide prostituted and trafficked females with a safe environment in which they can get justice and rehabilitate themselves. But it is also the duty of the state to protect women from sexual exploitation, and to punish those who exploit them. It is imperative we address why women find themselves at the mercy of the state’s rescue in the first place and work towards eliminating the root of the problem.

Similarly, India’s surrogacy legislation fails to understand the industry as inherently exploitative. The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019 seeks to regulate surrogacy by providing for measures like a national registry of clinics which provide such services, and while it prohibits commercial surrogacy, it allows altruistic surrogacy, upholding the desire for offspring over integrity of the female body.

Feminism is a political challenge to institutionalized male supremacy, also known as “patriarchy,” meaning that even when women do “choose” things like prostitution and surrogacy, feminists should understand this happens within a context and history that has objectified women and positioned them as things to be owned by men. Approaching women as bodies that exist for male use, rather than full human beings, enables exploitation and abuse.

Indian feminists must acknowledge that so long as women and girls remain socially inferior to men, they cannot be said to have freedom of choice. There are 776,000 women and girls in the sex trade in India — some as young as five years old. No woman or girl in this country of more than a billion should have to exist as sexual chattel in order to survive; yet this is what the Indian intelligentsia defends. Indian law and policy allows male entitlement to flourish in India, but so does thiid wave, “intersectional” feminist analysis, thereby failing to address the realities of Indian women.

Madhulika is a feminist from India.

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