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.
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.
Full report here Himal