The (Im)possibility of Return: Sex Work Movement, Anti-Trafficking and Victimhood in Sonagachi, India
An online interactive lecture by IIAS fellow Simanti Dasgupta.
Based on ethnographic work with Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar), a grassroots sex workers’ collective in Sonagachi, the iconic red-light district in Kolkata, this talk has two aspects. First, it offers an overview of the larger work, which examines the emergence of the sex work subjectivity at the intersection of two surveillance apparatuses: HIV/AIDS prevention and anti-trafficking. In formulating what Dr Dasgupta terms, the ‘medicolegal unstable’, she argues that that for labor to emerge as a political category, the women submitted to the HIV/AIDS and anti-trafficking surveillance, while also subverting them with resistive meanings.
Following this, Dr Dasgupta elaborates on a specific issue that plagues much of anti-trafficking work in Sonagachi, that is, the ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘victims’. While they both seem apparently straightforward, her ethnographic work reveals that they are juridically rather abstruse. The carceral approach embraced by the Indian state, like many others, often eludes the larger social structure and the question of social justice. On the other hand, the work of the Self-Regulatory Board established by Durbar in 1997 to prevent trafficking in Sonagachi, centres on a human rights-based framework premised broadly on the notion of sisterhood and kinship. In featuring return or phera, as sex workers in Sonagachi put it, vis-à-vis the juridical rehabilitation of victims, the paper makes a linguistic move to one, examine the lived experience of restoration, and second, to ask whether one can return, if at all.
Simanti Dasgupta is an associate professor of anthropology and the director of the International Studies Program at the University of Dayton. Her overarching interest in the politics of citizenship and belonging in postcolonial and neoliberal nation-states link her works. She is currently preparing a book manuscript titled, Prophylactic Rights: Sex Work, HIV/AIDS and Anti-Trafficking in Sonagachi, India (Under Contract, Cambridge University Press) based on her ethnographic research with Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a sex workers’ collective, since 2011. She published this work in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review; Anti-Trafficking Review, Opendemocracy:Beyond trafficking and slavery and The Conversation. She previously authored BITS of Belonging: Information Technology, Water and Neoliberal Governance in India (Temple University Press, 2015), which examined the emerging neoliberal politics in urban India at the intersection of Information Technology and water privatization.