Gloria Steinem's talk was organised by the Women's Studies Programme, JNU, in collaboration with Apne Aap, and we had hoped that it would be an occasion for discussing the complexities of the issues involved. However, there were clearly differences in perspective—while there can be no disagreement that involuntary trafficking is a serious issue, the fact that women (and men) may have few choices in several situations, and may then ‘choose' options that may not be in tune with the ideals of middle-class/upper caste women (and men) needed to be explored rather than dismissed.
In the open discussion that followed Ms Steinem's presentation, there were several participants who agreed with her positions. However, others pointed out that there were certain simplistic assumptions involved. For instance, Ms Steinem and Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap refuse to recognize that unionized sex workers are voicing their own opinions—these women are dismissed as puppets of pimps and brothel owners—a gross simplification in view of the sheer numbers of women across the country who have unionised in a bid to claim human rights and dignity.
Other voices of dissent pointed out to the need to look at issues of poverty and labour in general, and locate sex work within that context, and/ or within a larger context of violence rather than homogenise all prostitutes/ sex workers. While side-stepping rather than engaging with these questions, one of Ms Steinem's responses was that she would not mind if prostitutes, as she chooses to designate all sex workers, paid income tax—at the same time she advocated a strategy of penalizing but not criminalizing the client—how these were to be achieved remained unclear.
We, in the Women's Studies Programme, feel the need for a far more nuanced discussion and debate on these issues—one in which women who express a different point of view are not dismissed as being in a denial mode. Given that some of these issues were raised in the open discussion and in the concluding remarks, it would have only been fair that some of these found reflection in the reporting on the event.
Dr Kumkum Roy is Director of the Women's Studies Programme at the JNU