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Paying lip service to liberation

Paying lip service to liberation

Reading through 20 shortlisted stories for a contest organized to promote awareness about HIV AIDS, I realized how much perspectives have changed. And with it the language of sexuality.

The competitors had obviously been given some background that included the lives of sex workers, HIV AIDS and the risks involved, as well as the NGOs that worked to rehabilitate those involved in the sex trade.

The non-judgemental tone that bordered on empathy was a common factor in almost all the stories; though at times the writers erred on the other side, with the themes bordering on bathos, or the maudlin. The reality that the stories were obviously fleshed from was harsh...of women tricked into the trade; of hopes raised and dashed as drunken husbands and starving children pushed the women seeking a way out back into the brothels for extra earnings.

Among the majority of stories of women abused by life and society there were a few that spoke with a never-before-encountered frankness about men trading their bodies for money. Men, who, though young and fit, had a secret life, trying to make that extra buck to support a lifestyle that they had found enticing through films and television.

I understood then that money is the great leveller. Women who dance at bars, or live the night in sleazy rooms do so for survival. Society and a lack of education condemn them to eke out their livelihood in the oldest profession. So it has been through the ages. And so it is today.

But today, the wraps are off. Sex is out in the open. The new-found liberalization of India includes discussion on everything from HIV AIDS to homosexuality. Men who find trading sex for money easier than fighting in the job marketplace have no qualms about selling their body. And, of course, even in once genteel society, the use of four-letter words has actually lost its ability to shock.

All this is, however, not a real indicator that India has come of age in matters sexual. The gender equation remains unequal. Eve teasing is still a given in any small town, being as it is the main pastime of boys. And any woman between 10 and 60 will tell you what it is like to walk unattended at nightfall in cities, especially if they are located north of the Vindhyas with Kolkata, perhaps, being one exception.

In fact, thanks to three days in Kolkata, where one can walk anywhere without unwanted attention coming one’s way, I almost had a personal safety issue when I continued on from there recently on my holiday to Puri. We were walking the beach at sunset, my friend and I, taking photographs of the sun reflecting on the water. As we turned back to repair to our hotel, we traversed the lonely stretch of land between the beach and the buildings that fringed the road beyond. I happened to see a group of boys sitting around a sand pit. My friend, in her 20s, stopped to take a few more photos, and that is when I realized that some of the boys were aiming their cellphone cameras at her. Others were making kissing sounds. The bottles of country liquor around them warned me. I told her to hasten; if these boys were into serious drinking, we were wise to leave the place as soon as we could.

We abandoned our idea of a moonlight walk by the beach; and wisely so. Recounting the story to a niece who had visited Puri sometime ago, we were aghast to know that she had not been as lucky; and had had a narrow escape when she was pounced upon by a gang of inebriated young men, who almost tore the clothes off her back.

Liberation then still does not imply liberation for the woman…she remains largely vulnerable. Though, fortunately, it does bring with it a certain degree of awareness that helps the “weaker sex" know when to avoid what could be a potentially dangerous situation.

Sathya Saran writes on gender issues every fortnight.

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