This was watched and reviewed at the Bengaluru/Bangalore Meeting of Freethinkers and it got me thinking and one of it’s members asked me if I could have look at it. It’s about the Devdasi or the sacred prostitutes of India. I am not against it, it’s not incorrect but it has a few misconceptions that we can clear up.
I do have some issues with it.
- The narrator mentioned that the banana leaf is a symbol of “poor India” which is a puzzle to me since many restaurants that are considered “expensive” such Anjappar use the Banana Leaf still. The Banana Leaf is a symbol of traditional India and is in effect a disposable plate. It’s actually used in mass catering more than by poor people who prefer steel “thali” plates which are large, multipurpose and don’t break. It’s just a puzzling thing to say.
- The problem with the simplistic depiction of the Devdasi system is precisely that there are more nuances to it than depicted by the movie. The problem here rises from the depiction of prostitution as a social evil without realising there are underlying causes. The Devdasi system was a method of “getting rid” of unmarried girls AND parents who only had female children who wished for the property to remain in the family. Devdasi in Hinduism can own property. It’s complex but the issue is economics rather than religious.
- The issue is “Pre-pubescent and Teenage girls” are dedicated. Now there are two reasons for this. Firstly? Many Devdasi sent their own kids to become one since it was traditionally a “role of power for women” more so than other women in the village. And Secondly? Indians never considered until recently to be “kids”. We were throwing our children down the mines in the early 1900s ourselves. India never had the luxury of not doing so and people are still fighting to get child labour halted. Child labour is harder to halt in a society which doesn’t consider them “children”. They have always gotten married aged 14! What’s this malarky about not being an adult? Remember our classification of adult is extremely arbitrary ourselves and we just set it at 18-21. Now this is a social change because honestly the people don’t see why we should stop treating 14 year olds as adults. Remember, Many Roman Legionnaires turned out to be very very young (11′s the lowest we have heard about) and it wasn’t regarded as outliers. If you showed up to the Romans and told them that 14 year olds have no place in war they would call you an idiot because they clearly beat all comers using these soldiers. To them these were not children but “less hairy men”. We think kids should grow old slowly and get their responsibility over time. Not just be thrust into adult life this way.
- There is nothing wrong with being a “Street Hooker” in a world where women are not forced into prostitution. Yes the Devdasi were once “powerful” and yes today their power is a far cry from it’s hey day, but you have to realise that the reality of opinions on them have been poisoned by the work of missionaries and indeed the interviewer’s attitude to wards sex work is negative. One must remember that sex work need not be due to trafficking. It’s kind of weird that the interviewer is not as sex positive as Anita. Sangram are a NGO with major successes in improving the lives of sex workers through the use of sex positive messages.
- Get a better translator. It’s pointless grabbing a translator who is shocked by the subject material and who cannot speak English. It’s bad for your documentary when you have to second guess the message. I understand that translators who are willing to meet sex workers are rare but they do exist.
- £4 for sex work = Rs. 300. It’s a surprisingly hefty amount of money for a few hour’s work. By contrast? If one remembers “V” he was living on Rs. 500 a month. This is where the issue comes in. Many Indians are heavily against the sex trade and wish to ban it totally in the whole “Puritan Rescuing Women” sense but the reason these women do not want rescuing is that they earn money in a job where they are independant IF they find areas protected by Sangram. Even in areas where they are not protected the cut their pimps take still leaves women with more money than most other people would get in a month.
- Power in Numbers and Sangram turn traditionally weak women into a force. Sangram help fight HIV and AIDS and they do so through sex workers. Where many Indian NGOs feel “shy” to appear in a truck stop and give a lecture about safe sex, the lovely lovely men and women from the sex trade give no fucks about showing up and demonstrating condom usage and passing around photos of STDs. This has a knock on effect as truck drivers from all parts of India slowly learn and spread condom usage through word of mouth.
- The interviewer doesn’t “grasp” poverty. It’s not an excuse to pimp out your daughters but a horrid calculus of money. Do you starve or do you turn a social liability into a strength? The Devdasi system is almost entirely reliant on a social stigma towards female children since they are economic liabilities compared to male children due to the above social stigma. Devdasi will die out if women are shown to be as capable as the boys at earning a wage but honestly the issue is that there are no jobs and there is no future for these girls (and some boys) apart from this. In addition if Hinduism undergoes a “change” and declares that women can do the final rites for their parents and have it carry the same “spiritual weight” as the boys. Yellama isn’t a strict goddess but is a symptom of the real issue.
- It sounds daft to a lot of people but it’s advocacy and ideas like the “Sangli Condom Trick” that make condom usage fun and interesting and above all GETS PEOPLE TO WEAR THEM. A large part of HIV advocacy has been down to the usage of condoms and a lot of it involves thinking laterally about getting a society that doesn’t use them to use them.
- The few that I have met don’t consider the smashing of bangles to be that of widowhood but of freedom. Remember that in a heavily patriarchal society, Devdasi have a type of power and their “fuck everything” attitude has resulted in a kind of freedom for them. As Sangram says. “Save us from Saviours”. Those without any inkling of what these people feel have often resulted in people “rescuing” Devdasi and making it “worse” by removing their income. Think of it in this way. You don’t like the exploitative nature of McDonalds. So if you smash up their restaurant and force it to shut down… then are the workers free or are they now without jobs?
- I repeat this again because it needs to be said. What we consider child prostitution is due to our culture. My grandmother had sex aged 13 to a man aged 16. Why? Westerners say “Child Prostitution”. I know the answer is that you aren’t considered a child anymore by the reckoning of society. Being horrified about another culture would be like these people being horrified that you eat cows and throw your parents into prisons for the elderly rather than being good children to your parents. Cultural differences are precisely that. In India you are a man in many parts of it aged 13 and you are a woman after your first period. India is trying to get people to “stop” doing this and considering the teenage years as part of childhood but you are changing culture and that takes time. Remember the land that is Mumbai was traded on a child marriage in Western Europe. Culture changes over time as seen by the cessation of Sati. However to make that change you need a concerted effort through all parts of society. Simple Bans didn’t make Sati go away. It was the accompanying Hindu reform movement and change of social attitude to such actions that made the change. Likewise, child prostitution in the form of the Devadasi will not go away UNLESS you create a societal change that gets people to stick to statutory ages. Which means “womanhood” needs to be decoupled from menses and the ability to bear child as we have done in the west.
- When you have an entire caste whose ultimate role in life is to acquire wealth, you must realise that Indians understand capitalism in a much much more thorough way than “Western Capitalism” seems to think we do. Ever wonder why a lot of Indians end up being small business owners? They aren’t half bad at it because they know how to run it.
The cultural grasp of western ideas is slowly percolating through Indian culture and this widens the gap between rich and poor making the poor more vulnerable to such abuse.
The major driving force here is the death of serf agriculture as India mordernises. This is worsened by the frankly astronomical population explosion which primarily affects the poorest and indeed the agricultural parts of society which keeps them poor and further exacerbates the problem. Elimination of Yellama will simply mean that the prostitutes will stop being “Devdasi” and start being “Prostitutes”. The number of Devdasi has gone down but the number of prostitutes has gone up because prostitution is mainly economical in nature for these women and in some cases because this is the best level of freedom they can accomplish. If you want to rescue these women then don’t tilt at windmills dear white k
Many women who were prostitutes and who left the trade have generally done so because they have achieved economic stability that matches the stability of prostitution. Sangram’s training of sex workers as educators and midwives and adult teachers has helped improve their lives outside their “attractive prime”.
That’s the sort of thing we need. The sex workers need to be free from harassment and exploitation and have access to healthcare and condoms and indeed the power to enforce their use. The sex workers need to have economic choices that are viable. The economic choice within society needs to improve. The treatment of girls and women needs to improve and a cultural shift needs to occur where Hinduism declares that women and men are equal in terms of last rites. In addition you need to break the caste system.
Then you may see a fall in the number of Devdasi and indeed the changes to the demography of sex work. Religion plays a part for sure but it is a very small part compared to other stuff.
If you want to know more? Check out the work of Sangram.