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ajnabi ([personal profile] ajnabi) wrote2010-04-06 12:01 pm

Gender & Sexuality in South Asia: Response Paper 3

this one is not as good and late (extensioned) and i have been doing notsowell lately so yeah.

Representing the Agency of Sex Workers in South Asia

In her essay, "Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India," Veena Talwar Oldenburg argues that the courtesans, or tawa'if, of Lucknow have been and continue to be "independent and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male-dominated world" (261). They do this through "[celebrating] womanhood in the privacy of their apartments [and] resisting and inverting the rules of gender of the larger society of which they are part" (ibid.) Although, like many sex workers around the world, they are accused of perpetuating patriarchal norms, they actually challenge and reject patriarchy.

First, Oldenburg illustrates through the testimony of Chhote Miyan, the son of a courtesan, how in the tawa'if household, female children are celebrated whereas "when a boy is born in the kotha the day is without moment, even one of quiet sadness" (262). Opportunities for Chhote Miyan were and are much scarcer in the tawa'if world, and by extension his access to opportunities in greater society are also somewhat limited (economically, for example).

The profession of the tawa'if was quite respected in pre-colonial times under the rule of the Nawabs of Awadh. Oldenburg cites Abdul Halim Sharar, an early twentieth-century novelist, as saying, " 'it is said that until a person had association with courtesans he was not a polished man' " (263). Sharar implied that "the coming of the British had left these women as a beleaguered community" but, nevertheless, "the morals, manners and distinctiveness of Lucknow culture and society were sustained by the courtesans" (ibid.)

British colonialism harmed the tawa'if most directly through the legal regulations the colonizers enforced upon them. These included contagious diseases regulations and heavy fines and penalties on the tawa'if for their role in the 1857 rebellion. This "signaled the gradual debasement of an esteemed cultural tradition into common prostitution" (260). The tawa'if struggled to maintain their place in society with "imaginative extensions of the ancient and subtle ways.. [they] had cultivated to contest male authority... and... [constituted] a spirited defense of their own rights against colonial politics" (261). These methods included keeping two separate accounts of their income, one for themselves and one for the state, and bribing the local nurses to avoid bodily inspections, bribing local policemen to avoid arrests, publicly refusing to pay taxes, etc (ibid.)

Oldenburg charts her discoveries about the tawa'if world, countering her previous misconceptions and prejudices, and describing the complex hierarchies she observed therein. She challenges the popular view that the chaudharayan, or chief courtesan, most commonly recruited more tawa'if through kidnapping, and that this kidnapping was linked to and arranged via an underground network of male criminals (264). This popular view was fueled by Mirza Hadi Ruswa's book, Umrao Jan Ada (264-5), and most widely cemented (along with other disreputable views) by British officials. As Oldenburg says, "in their view it was official British policy to malign the courtesans... in order to justify the British role as usurpers of the throne of Awadh in 1856" (265).

Regarding the myths about kidnapping as a method of recruitment, Oldenburg describes the stories of the tawa'if she interviewed in detail, thereby clarifying just how false such a view is. Many women who became tawa'if did so because it was their way out of oppressive situations they had no other way of fighting or changing (267), very often located in the patriarchal institutions of marriage and the family. In this supposedly more respectable framework, these women were abused and exploited and constantly expected to defer to male power and depend on men. Several tawa'if were widowed at a young age, or deemed unfit to marry because they were victims of rape. There were also, however, tawa'if who gravitated towards that world because they loved singing and dancing (266).

In the tawa'if world, regardless of the reason for which they had become tawa'if, women were and are able to change and become masters of their own qismat, or fate (269). They resocialize and retrain themselves to "forget the expectations inherent in the meaning of the word aurat, or woman" (270), in the words of Rasulan, one of the tawa'if Oldenburg interviewed. This resocialization includes rehabilitative and therapeutic techniques of exposing the oppression inherent in patriarchal society. These include performances of satirical and bawdy songs, dances, informal miming and dramas that critique heterosexual marriage and the consequent setup of the family (271).

They also reject the notion that the only way to be respectable is to settle into such a framework, instead creating alternatives (ibid.) They do not cater to men, instead strategically and powerfully restricting male gaze through such mechanisms as donning the burqa in public (273-4). Oldenburg quotes Gulbadan here, saying, " 'We are not in the business of giving them [men] cheap thrills. While we walk freely and anonymously in public places.. they are deprived because we have blinkered them. We do not, as you know, bestow anything on men without extracting its price' " (274).

To me this seems to be the most significant example, in this context, of women reclaiming their power and demonstrating their agency. The tawa'if are not helpless victims of circumstance; they are skilled workers and performers who carve out an existence for themselves outside of the system. Several 'feminists' may see them as "just another example of that widespread affliction, 'false consciousness' " (277), and several theorists may see their resistance as 'not revolutionary enough' (280-1). Oldenburg effectively counters and challenges these views.

I found myself wondering, throughout this article, about the assumption that sex work is necessarily demeaning unless performed. Oldenburg talks about how it is natural that for sex workers, the heterosexual sex act is seen as more "routine" and "passion and pleasure are simulated or distanced," as it is "an essential mechanism that women, both wives and prostitutes, have universally used to preserve their emotional integrity and dignity" (283). She quotes a sex worker interviewed by Studs Terkel, Roberta Victor, as saying, " 'Of course we faked it... The ethic was: ... You always fake it. You're putting something over on him and he is paying for something he really didn't get. That's the only way you keep any sense of self-respect... You were the lowest of the low if you allowed yourself to feel anything' " (283). I can certainly appreciate and recognize the survival mechanism in play here, necessarily connected to the power structures that are so intimately replicated through sex. However, I find the construction of sex work as necessarily stunting one's emotional integrity, and as solely or primarily something to be resorted to out of desperation, problematic. Oldenburg seems to attempt to tackle this issue to some extent, but her project is more centered on recovering and exposing the voices of the tawa'if, who are so underrepresented in mainstream society.

Works Cited:

Veena Oldenburg, “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow” in Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, Speaking for Others/Speaking for Self: Women of Color. (Summer, 1990), pp. 259-287.