a bimonthly publication of
the forum of indian leftists

Volume 1: Number 1                    May 1, 1997

In this Issue...
Disciplining the Mother Jude Fernando
Facilitating Genocide Niraj Pant
Gendered Boundaries Richa Nagar
Beauty Contest Debate K.Philip and P.Gopal
Debate: Politics of Resistance Shishir Jha
Foil Briefs

Intervening Carefully: A Commentary On The Nation's "Sexual Slavery" Article

Ashwini Tambe

There were many reasons to intervene in the reception of the article India's Shame: Sexual Slavery and Political Corruption are Leading to an AIDS Catastrophe, which appeared in The Nation last year. The printed responses to the article (June 1996), however, displayed some of the difficulties in making interventions. The controversy this article raised was not a typical episode of patriots protesting wounded 'national pride'. The article received irritated responses from community and activist organizations who saw themselves as progressive. When I read this article on dimensions of the sex trade in India, the impulse to counter orientalist writing was at odds with acknowledging the attention given to severely exploited women. At the same time, it was difficult to acknowledge this attention when the writer seemed to miss large dimensions of the problem. The following commentary is about the dilemmas of formulating strategies in the face of simultaneous oppressions.

In the dominant media coverage of Third World issues, writers often dwell on despair and chaos. Skeptical reading is sometimes aided by 'oppositional' codes for interpreting media texts on Third World topics. Such codes have, in the past decade and a half, become increasingly formalized. It is possible to do a standard oppositional reading of a text, for example, by just picking from a stock of accepted stand-alone accusations, most commonly 'Orientalist' and 'Eurocentric'. The formalization of codes has also meant a growing bluntness in their use-- they set up polarities which make it difficult for one to express a complex position, as was necessary in an intervention about Friedman's article. As it is one of FOIL's aims to carry out media interventions, here are some lessons that could be drawn from the Friedman article episode.

What the article and responses were about:- Robert L. Friedman's article, titled 'India's Shame: Sexual Slavery and Political Corruption Are Leading To An AIDS Catastrophe' (The Nation, April 8, 1996) claimed to describe the extent of the AIDS crisis in India, although it focused exclusively on Bombay's brothel district. It began with the case history of a girl trafficked from Nepal, and detailed the manner in which she was tortured and broken into her job. Next, it reported opinions of AIDS experts on the scope of the pandemic. It then took a detour into the topography, history, and current political climate of Bombay. Then it launched into a tirade against the mafia and the nexus between politicians and the underworld. After dwelling on the Indian government's inefficiency in dealing with the AIDS crisis, it ended at the scene of a daycare site for children of sex workers, with the final image of a boy who has been ritually castrated and plans to become a eunuch.

The June 24 issue of the magazine published long letters to the editor from members of community and activist organizations. Many respondents were annoyed that the article was presented as an expose: one observed that the sex industry and its relationship to political corruption had been `researched, publicized and contested for decades.' Others complained that Friedman failed to consult grassroots organizations working on the issue. Among the published letters to the editor was one signed by thirty-three people in the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and Sakhi for South Asian Women, that called on "South Asians, other people from the Third World and people of color to join us in denouncing the way The Nation reinforces a First World superiority". They wrote that "Friedman's orientalist and contextless writing is especially disturbing because the audience is unfamiliar with any other images of South Asian people and politics" (p. 3). Thus the two main lines of criticism were that Friedman had not understood or researched the issue well enough, and that his writing was orientalist. These criticisms, although valid, raised another set of issues:

Expertise and identity

One could justifiably be frustrated that it took a Western journalist's voice for a first world readership to recognize the Bombay sex trade as a crisis. But then again, isn't wider awareness of the issue a good thing? Isn't the outrage of readers over the issue of brothels holding women in bondage preferable to their ignorance of it? Responses which criticize Friedman for not being original or thorough only serve to display the respondents' familiarity with the problem, and also his or her position as a displaced native expert. In media interventions it is not constructive to have such a proprietary approach to the understanding of issues, i.e., holding that one understands a problem in South Asia better because one is South Asian. Such claims to authenticity for the purposes of left organizing are counterproductive.

The images that Friedman presented were those of women imprisoned in victimhood, of abject poverty and widespread corruption, all framed in a setting of filth. But the primary issue covered was that of abducted women imprisoned in brothels, victimized because of growing poverty, in an institution preserved by corruption. In this context isn't orientalist framing a secondary issue? What is at stake for elite intelligentsia (myself included) who are equipped to recognize and denounce Orientalism? To what extent is the urge to decry expressions of First World superiority motivated by mechanical defensiveness?

The charge of Orientalism should not be used simply to call for more palatable representations of the Third World. Take for example one reader's complaint about Friedman's descriptions of dirt, which s/he calls "a standard trope of colonial and neo- colonial writing about India". Such media interventions at image management unintentionally become complicit with an elitist 'all's well in the world' position. In our time, the ideology perpetuating globalization celebrates largely the elite experiences of it. Routinely, one comes across celebrations of how much better off we all are with supposedly 'freed' markets. Commercials for everything from apparel to coffee to postal and telecommunication carriers present only the smiling faces that can be reached in such an ideological climate, stories of distant crises which can stir readers out of apathy, which complain about grave oppression of women and corruption, have to be treated with some good faith from a left perspective.

That said, what would some of the criticisms of the article be?

Insular thinking The most serious problems with Friedman's article lie not in his lurid descriptions of dirt, but first, in his inadequate attention to global and national political structures, and second, his making prostitutes the locus of the AIDS crisis. The first problem was iden-tified by three of the respondents, who wished that Friedman had better con-textualized the issue, and placed it within the framework of world capital flows and the policies prescribed by financial institutions. This was a serious flaw that, astonishingly, Friedman did not acknowledge in his reply to the letters. This silence was loud. It leads me to conclude that his framework for understanding the crisis could not accommodate global connections. This way of thinking is a familiar challenge to left organizing. Its facets are:
Accusing Friedman of Orientalism is counter-productive from a left perspective, since it bypasses questions of global interconnections.

  1. 1. The world is seen as a collection of insular nation-states, with problems occurring within states being constructed as exclusively 'national' ones: for example, the title of this piece is 'India's Shame'.
  2. 2. Secondly, the state apparatus is seen as a simple reflection of national will. Hence, Friedman locates responsibility for problems in elected officials-- thus, his self-styled inquisition of Murli Deora.
  3. 3. Because problems are seen as contained within nations, they are also associated with myths of national character. The figure of an evil Indian male lurks at the corner of his analysis-- no explanation is made for why the brothel industry persists, it is almost as if the men in his analysis are condemned to being goons, perverts, pimps, or "Indian wise-guys" (a category he invents); the only exception are a few doomsayer-doctors. In Friedman's response to the letters, there is also a strain of blaming people of that nationality-- he suggests that respondents such as "Meenakshi Ponnuswami et al. spend some time on Falkland Road dispensing condoms and medicine and rescuing child sex-slaves", if they truly wanted to express their commitment to the cause.

Voyeurism Not only is Friedman's understanding of globalizing structures inadequate, but his focus on prostitutes, instead of clients, when he claims to be covering the AIDS crisis, is misplaced. In much writing on this issue, clients of prostitutes remain largely invisible or shadowy figures. Friedman has unwittingly repeated this position of focusing on prostitutes as if they were the locus of the problem, since it provides the news story with sensational value. Little mention is made of conditions which lead to the women being sold into the trade. Friedman is at pains to set up a distance between himself and clients: there is not a single reported voice of a client. When contrasted with the great detail with which he recounts the most personal experiences of sex slaves, this appears to be poor investigative journalism. Because of his understanding of the problem as essentially a national one, Friedman is content to pass it off as a flaw in the attitudes of men of that region: he treats preferences for pus babies, sleeping with virgins, and with children as inexplicable alien behaviors.

The author's descriptions of women often seem voyeurist, as one respondent pointed out. Friedman relates stories of their torture with distance and with detail. He betrays a certain fascination for the demand for women from Nepal, by using words such as "a sweet-faced virgin with golden brown skin" to describe, from his imagination, what a woman he has met might have looked like twenty years ago. He does nothing to dislodge the fatalistic assumption that male desire is uncontrolled. He instead perpetuates the sexist notion that because these women are desirable, it is no wonder that they are victims of the flesh trade.

One cannot use accusations such as Orientalist or Eurocentric to refer to this specific problem of Friedman's gendered understanding of the issue. Friedman's piece is not Orientalist simply because it paints a sordid picture of the conditions under which trafficked women work/are institutionally raped. One cannot read Friedman's article as just another example of the intellectual system of 'othering' the Third World. The distances he sets up between himself and prostitutes, himself and politicians, himself and clients, and himself and doctors researching AIDS are different. The issue of Orientalism seems less relevant than the fact that his analysis of the AIDS crisis ends up only sensationalizing the lives of prostitutes. It completely ignores the carriers-- clients, who incidentally have now made housewives the fastest growing population infected with the AIDS virus.

In spite of the problems in this presentation of sexual slavery, there is still much to be said for the author's sustained concern about the problem. The responses to the article however, reflected more often the location of the respondents, as South Asians contesting the image presented of a country, than responding directly to the phenomena being reported. In this piece I have argued that accusing Friedman of Orientalism was counterproductive from a left perspective, since it bypassed questions of global interconnections. Furthermore, it did not enable specificity in the critique of Friedman's representation of sexual slaves. The question of the usefulness of interventions has not been dealt with here; that is a separate issue. But it may be concluded that a stronger leftist intervention might have looked different from the responses that were printed.

[Ashwini Tambe is a graduate student in political science at American University, Washington, DC.]

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