Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Indian prostitute mum sparks storm

By Alpana Sarma
December 15, 2005

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Her long, wavy, black hair tied loosely in a knot, 50-year-old Nalini Jameela looks like any other Indian housewife. But this attractive, largely uneducated mother of two is a best-selling author and prostitute whose outspoken views of sex work as a career choice have stirred controversy in conservative India.

Her "Oru Lyngikathozhilaliyude Athmakatha", or The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, dictated to a social activist because she can't write, has angered both feminists, who say it glorifies sex work, and conservatives, who think prostitutes should keep quiet.

"I have written this book for other sex workers. I wanted to talk about it to remove the stigma," Jameela told Reuters through a translator over the phone from her home state of Kerala.

"People think we are bad because we have sex for money. Nobody understands our grief."

Jameela was forced into prostitution 25 years ago when her first husband died, leaving her with a child to support. Sex work paid more than she was earning as a factory worker. She charges her clients between 500-1,000 rupees ($11-$22) per visit.

Her first customer was a policeman. When she came out of the room the next morning, she was beaten up by police on orders of another policeman she had turned down.

"I felt humiliated, but I had no option but to continue."

Jameela estimates she has had sex with more than 1,000 men since then -- she took some time off after her later marriages -- and feels her work is an important social service.

"If there is no sex work, it would lead to a situation comparable to a pressure cooker with its safety valve locked on. The truth is that sex workers are doing a great service," she says in her book in the southern language of Malayalam.

It's a view that angers some feminists.

SEX TALK TABOO

"Prostitution is considered as work" in the book, said K. Ajitha, president of Anweshi, a Kerala women's group. "I don't accept that. Women in prostitution have only the right to sell their bodies, they don't have the right to choose."

Written with I. Gopinath, an activist who works with sex workers, the book has sold more than 10,000 copies in less than six months in a market where 5,000 in a year is a best seller.

Jameela has so far earned 84,000 rupees ($1,830) from book sales.

But in India, public displays of affection are frowned upon and talking about sex publicly is still taboo.

One popular south Indian actress has been pelted with sandals, tomatoes and rotten eggs and hauled before a court for suggesting women might have sex before marriage and telling men not to expect their brides to be virgins anymore.

Protests over her comments lasted more than a month.

Prostitution is outlawed, but India has more than two million sex workers living on the fringes of society. They have few rights and abuse by both customers and the police is common.

Commercial sex is one of the main drivers of the spread of HIV/AIDS and India has more than 5 million reported cases of people living with the virus, rivalling South Africa as the worst hit nation.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates more than 20 million people could be infected with HIV in India by 2010 and economists warn it could undermine India's rise to economic superpower status.

Alarmed by the rising numbers, the government's Planning Commission has recommended prostitution be legalised to help fight AIDS.

Many prostitutes are pushed into the trade by traffickers and by poverty and some, including thousands of girls smuggled in from Nepal each year, are held as sex slaves for a decade or more.

Against this backdrop, some women activists accuse Gopinath of interpreting Jameela's words in a way that glorifies prostitution.

"They cannot imagine that a woman on the street can say such things. I cannot imagine all this. These are Jameela's ideas, not mine," Gopinath says.

Says V.C. Harris, a professor at Kerala's MG University: "This is not a victim's book. One of the most striking things about the book is the confidence and inner strength that exudes from it."

Like many women in India, Jameela's education is minimal. She finished school after third grade, which is roughly about 7 years old. Over the years, she married three times and has two grown daughters, now both housewives.

Autobiography of a Sex Worker has brought a degree of fame, money and respect. Jameela's 24-year-old daughter Seena, married and pregnant with her first child, is happy with her mother's fame.

"Earlier, people used to say that because my mother is a prostitute, I must also be one. But now when they call me Nalini Jameela's daughter I feel very good," Seena says.

Neither Seena, nor her sister Latha, have followed their mother's footsteps, although Jameela says that she would not have stopped them from becoming prostitutes if they had wanted to.

"It is not just my daughters. I will tell other women also about the hardships of sex work and then if they want to get into it, I won't stop them," Jameela says.
For her part, Jameela intends to continue with sex work as long as she stays healthy, saying she has had more freedom as a sex worker than she has ever had as a wife.

"Looking back, I find life as a sex worker more enjoyable. As a wife one has to listen, to always be dominated by someone," Jameela said.

"I like being a sex worker. Some become lawyers, doctors. It was my choice to become to a sex worker."

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