Raksha - The Story of an Indian Sex Worker
It was a hot July afternoon. Mumbai’s streets were littered with puddles from last night’s rain, slowly evaporating under the glaring sun. Sequined blouses and hip scarves with fringes richly embellished with beads became a drop curtain behind a tailor in 11th Lane, Kamathipura. Prakash now runs his father’s tailor shop which was set up, he says, many years ago. The purpose of our visit was to speak to Kamathipura’s sex workers about the changes, if any, after the release of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s critically acclaimed movie ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’. Prakash was our insider; he knew his clients and could introduce us to somebody willing to talk. He points opposite at a narrow door which leads into what looks like an incommodious room, “Speak to Raksha.” The ajar door swings open and a petite, middle-aged woman walks out. Almost instantly, we knew she was Raksha.
“Hey! I am Raksha. Got it? Now, you better remember it.”, she addresses a group of women to her right.
The story of the Indian sex worker is assumed to be one of pessimism, misogyny, abuse and trauma. But while the above can be said to be true about Raksha; a story of confidence, feminine power and of sisterhood is what shone through. Raksha has been a sex worker in Kamathipura for over 25 years. A quick calculation reveals that she was trafficked here as a minor. She was born in a quaint town in Maharashtra and was in dire need of money after both her parents passed away. Her neighbours advised her to come to Kamathipura to find work. Women here can earn up to Rs. 500 daily, an attractive amount for an orphaned girl. Raksha has a 10 years old child whose father she was married to but is now separated from. She independently supports her small family, which leaves her searching for a reason to want another husband.
Midway through our conversation, another woman walks out of the door. Raksha calls her over and introduces us to Freya. Freya is Raksha’s roommate and calls her ‘didi’. Raksha begins to let us in on how she runs her home. All the women who stay here, she says, do sex work voluntarily and their establishment is run by them. When a woman approaches the establishment looking for work, their practice is to ask them why they want to do sex work. Raksha elaborates by saying that often it’s out of circumstance but sometimes they just simply want to. They investigate whether there might be any sign of coercion; if they sense that the woman is being pressured to enter the business, they do not put her in sex work. “We will beg on the streets before making a girl do sex work involuntarily.” The women share the household chores and are sisters to one another. It is a misconception that most sex workers are controlled by a ‘pimp’. According to Raksha, at one time there were many pimps but now barely a couple remained. Most of the sex workers in Kamathipura today do sex work out of their own free will. It is a safe place for them and ever since the Supreme Court clarified its position on voluntary sex work, police authorities do not harass them like they used to.Before the verdict, police would drag them out of the rooms by their hair. Having lived and worked in Kamathipura for 25 years, we didn’t need to ask whether Raksha had faced abuse. Instead, we were curious to know how she coped with it. “I make my sisters smile and seeing them happy, makes me happy.”, she explained. When they feel lonely and crave a male partner, Raksha questions them, asking them why.  “If we make our own money and support our family, why do we need a man? Who said the next man will be better than the last? It doesn’t work like that.”
Indulging in paid sex is usually looked at as a symptom of lustfulness. Those who partake are amoral and perverted. However, from Raksha’s point of view, her customers, though almost always married, often use some of the time to talk about their lives. She’s listened to their financial troubles, marital disagreements and anxieties about their children. Laughingly, she discloses that she shares her difficulties too. Paid sex is free therapy? Needless to say, sex work in Kamathipura is not immune to the regressive attitude towards contraceptives that plagues the country. Apart from unwanted pregnancies, worldwide sex workers are significantly more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than the average female. Unfortunately, those engaging sex workers resist using contraceptives such as condoms and often remove them during intercourse, Raksha says. This results not only in a lack of consent but also serious health risks.
A community of transgender sex workers also work out of Kamathipura which made us curious to ask Raksha if she had ever been approached by a member of the LGBTQ+ community looking for paid sex. At first, Raksha misunderstood our question and instead gave us an interesting answer— occasionally, lesbian couples approach the ladies asking for a room where they can be together for the night. Lesser privileged LGBTQ+ persons are unable to find privacy surrounded by conservative family members and instead find freedom from interference around red-light areas.
As the sun began to move behind the chawls and we reached the end of our conversation, we made our way to Gangubai’s ‘pinjra’ where she lived and ran her establishment . A narrow and dark staircase led to a corridor where a single red bulb lit up a bust of Gangubai, put up as a tribute for her work in Kamathipura. The building is still used to house sex workers albeit in rooms big enough for a mattress and a window as big as a chessboard. We were told one of Gangubai’s adopted sons still comes to Kamathipura to visit and that this bust has become a tourist attraction after the movie’s release.
It isn’t difficult to observe the similarities in the philosophies of Gangubai and Raksha. Was this because of the movie’s influence or a coincidence? I would have to say neither. This is a form of survival. Apparently, in the first week of the movie’s release, the union organised to take sex workers in Kamathipura to watch the movie. Raksha said she didn’t go because all the girls her house went so there would be no one to watch the house. Raksha informs us that even the movie isn’t entirely true. She isn’t aware of any strong political opposition to Gangubai as portrayed by Raziya Bai in the movie. Unlike in the movie, the Kamathipura sex worker union is not a battleground for intense politics. They are approachable and work effectively to improve the standard of living. Sex workers at Kamathipura get easy access to abortion and gynaecology clinics at a nearby hospital, where due to the local union and politicians, they don’t have to wait hours in lines.
As our conversation came to an end, to say I was inspired would be an understatement. Personally, I’ve never shied away from my femininity, I’ve embraced it. Raksha was the embodiment of feminine strength, courage and confidence. There were moments in our conversation where I felt almost embarrassed to call myself a strong woman. Not only is the respect she has for herself admirable but that she has the passion to instil that in her sisters is heroic.
"I began to understand that self-esteem isn't everything; it's just that there's nothing without it."
– Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, January 1993.
1 . Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West Bengal & Ors, Order dated 19.05.2022, Criminal Appeal No. 135 of 2010 in the Supreme Court of India.
- A pinjra’ (meaning, cage in Hindi) is loosely used to refer to a sex-worker establishment. However, in the past, trafficked sex workers were kept in locked metal cages in the dark for several days for the purpose of demoralising them and making them subservient.