What does it mean to be a woman in prostitution? What does it mean to sell sex? In a first-person excerpt from 'Unzipped: Women and Men in Prostitution Speak Out', recently published by Point of View, Mumbai, the feisty Shabana, who works the highways on the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, but also distributes condoms in collaboration with two voluntary agencies, opens up to the reader her world of exploitation, survival, empowerment, victimhood and choice.
The testimonies of the men and women who speak out in 'Unzipped' chip away at the myth that those in prostitution are eternal victims -- with no power to deal with the situations in which they find themselves. They also tell us that it is not just poverty that forces women into prostitution, but poverty acting in concert with gender. Until we stop marrying young girls off, until we stop burning, harassing and discriminating against young girls in ways big and small, the family will not be a safe place for young girls. The family will be a place to run away from...into the arms of a pimp, a shyster, or even a distant relative who is a gateway to prostitution.
The first time I got into the dhanda (business), I was 12, in Kolhapur. I worked for two ears in Shantibai's house, washing utensils, cleaning, serving beer, getting a quarter for someone. I grew up there only. There was a dada (bully) there called Salim. He used to eat up anyone, anytime, anywhere; the police would never catch him. Even if they caught him, they would leave him in one or two hours. Two-three months after I grew up, he started making advances toward me. I told the gharwali (madam), "See that man who comes here, he talks to me a lot, wants to take me out for a movie, he catches hold of any other girl and takes me along, why does he do this?" "He wants to sleep with you," she said. Two-three days before this her son had come to rape me. I went to the police station. I was on my way, when I met Salim. "What happened?" he asked. "This this happened, that gharwali's son is trying to rape me, he touches me here there; I'm going to the police station." "No you don't go," he said. "I'll take care of it, come." He stripped him completely and beat him black and blue. Then the gharwali got angry. "Look, you can't stay here in our house any longer," she said. "Why not?" I asked. "I work, I eat, am I staying in your house just like that? I wash all the girls' clothes, I clean utensils, I scrub the floors, do I stay for free?" "Get into dhanda then!" "Fine," I said, "I'll get into the dhanda. Salim, c'mon, you book me -- how much will you give? I'm going to sleep with you for the first time, tell me, how much?" He didn't say anything. He just handed the gharwali 5000 rupees." There's a place called Gujarat Lodging in Kolhapur; he took me there. He didn't touch me for the first two days. After three days, after drinking, he did it.
From Kolhapur I came to Nippani.. In Nippani I had Salma, my daughter. I was 14….I stayed in Nippani for one-two years. First, Sonabai was my gharwali. I was very thin then; they used to beat me a lot. "Get sharab, this-that, get food!" If I don't have myself, how to get it for them? And when I had to go for work, I would think a lot. "Should I go? What to do, is this life, what is it?" I didn't know how to fight with anyone, and used to get beaten up a lot. With sticks, then that sugarcane, the women used to beat me with that. I was always scared. I had come to a new place, how things happen here, what happens, I had no idea. I sleep alone here, anything can happen. Sometimes I'd go hungry, for two-two three-three days I've gone hungry. I would sleep after having chutney, only chutney and water. That's how it was.
When Salma started to walk, we went to Bombay. We stayed in Bombay for five years. Customers in Bombay are very different. Bombay customers, means, we have to take them how the gharwali says. Some gharwalis don't give food, they keep the girls behind bars... and when it's time to go to the toilet, one woman will go with them, one in the front, one in the back.
Champabai was not like that. "Listen," I told her the very first time I stepped into her place, "I don't want any restrictions. I am not bound to you. I will take who I want, I will leave who I want, I'll come and go as I want. If you want to keep me, fine, if not, let me go." She said, "Do as you like, but don't do one thing -- don't get too friendly with the men here, the chaiwala, the breadwala, you should not entertain such fellows."
Champabai really stood by me. I told my whole story to her. "You should not think of your heart as weak," she would say. "We are the kings of our hearts, we should do what we like. If our heart says give, then we should give, if not, then no need. Why to put up with someone's nonsense? We are not weak, there's always something we can do."
In time I saw Bombay's dhang-rang (ways). Then I became very smart. Bombay is very good for money. There is lot of money in the hands of Bombay men. But we have to do as they want. Now if he says, "Let's go to Juhu, Chowpatti," then I have to go with him, because he has given money for this. Sometimes they'll say, "Let's go for a picture." Some book us for two days, some for two hours, some for a whole month also.
For three full months I was booked with one customer. When he would go out, I would take two-three other customers. Then I would coolly come and sit on his bed. "I have not done anything," I would tell him. He had a plane accident. He died. He was, what was he, he was the one who showed the way in the plane. He was that. He did a lot for me -- gave me gold, silver, money, everything. They come, they go, hisab hi nahi rehta hai (we cannot keep count).
In 1993, I left Bombay and came back to Nippani. I shouldn't have come, but I came. There was that Hindu-Muslim riot no? That's why I came. Otherwise I wouldn't have come. They would burn men alive, do you know that? They would kill them, dump them, kill them, dump them. After doing all this they would pour what you call it... and put a match to them. I would watch all this from my window. There would be firing. When there was firing downstairs, then upstairs I would pee on my mattress. I used to get so scared. When you watch firing in films, you don't feel anything. Now I was watching it in real life. One time I had sent Salma to get milk. She was getting milk when they cut a man's right hand and stripped him to see whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim. Just like that. They cut his hands and left him. Salma saw all this. She left the milk bag there itself and ran. The curfew was imposed... it was relaxed for two-three hours so people could shop. The curfew continued for full one month. Many people died.
Then I settled here in Nippani only, with all my things. Salma also grew up. Then what? I didn't go back. I stayed here only. I was not used to staying in dhande ki galli. Since the beginning, get money or not, I would stay separately. Why not have a little hut, and live on my own, sleep on my own? Earlier the rate here was 20 rupees. When I came, I raised it to 50 rupees. No one would pay more than 20 rupees. Now it ranges between 50, 30, 20. Some people take 15. The old women take five, ten. Right now I am at Kashibai's house. She is nice, Kashibai. She never comes and asks, "How much did the customer give?" She never asks for this or that commission. For one-two years, I worked on a commission. Later on I started roaming here and there, took a house on rent. If truck drivers call me, I make it with them in the fields; wherever they want me, I go. Kashibai told me, "You pay me rent only." Otherwise after earning 20 rupees one has to pay five rupees to the gharwali. On some days you don't get a single customer. At times one earns 100-200 rupees also.
I also work on the highway, on trucks. I get to keep all the money I make on the truck. I leave at four in the morning, very early. At four o'clock, no one is around; I can go as far as I want. I go till Ukdu Ghat, till there I get two customers. Still it's too early for people to wake up. I go further, taking more customers -- it's nine or ten by the time I reach Kitur. From Kitur I go to Kotur - till 12 or one I do dhanda there. Again at four I catch a truck and reach home by 11 o' clock. One doesn't have to pay a thing to anyone on the truck. If I get three customers, I earn 150 rupees. No one needs to be paid nothing. You earn more on the truck, but there is also more danger.
There is a lot of freedom in this dhanda, so is there a lot of money. Without asking for it we get what we want -- liquor, beer, food, everything, and money on top of it. One can buy anything with money. If you want to adorn your body, you can. When you have a husband you can't do any such thing. They don't even allow us to do up our hair for two-two months. Now see where do the women of khede gaon (interior villages) do up their hair? After eight-ten days pass, they might wash their faces with soap. If they're going to the village, they'll do up their hair, that too just a messy roll, like I make everyday, just like this.
But there is no barkhat (prosperity) in our money. Even if you earn one lakh, there is no money left for tea in the morning. That's how it is. The 20 rupees that you get working in the field lasts for eight days. Beediwalas earn 100 rupees -- in eight days. They survive in that only. Everyday I earn 100, 200, or 500, but every morning I'm broke. I may or may not get a customer. I'm a beggar.
But Oh God! There are so many problems in this dhanda, nobody must have so many problems. Goondas. The police. The policemen are total pimps. They'll beat you wherever. They don't see where they are beating you, whether you are getting hurt, they don't care. "Get me a quarter or I'll take you to the big boss." We have to give them money to buy a quarter. We have to sleep with them how they want otherwise they don't let us stay in Nippani. They put two-three cases on you and pack you from Nippani.
One has to live in fear. Even if I don't want to, I have to live in fear of the goondas and sleep with them. Military men stay right next to the Ukdu ghat, they also come and trouble us sometimes. They also sleep with us free. That's the problem. Recently at Ukdu ghat they beat me and Baby. Baby died, I survived.
I don't want to be reborn a woman. It is too painful. I didn't get my mother's love; my father's love I didn't get also. I don't know what a brother-sister love is like. How a father loves a daughter, how a mother loves her daughter, I don't know. I used to stay with my grandmother. My sister was getting married to a military man. The wedding was on Monday. On Sunday my mother, I mean my stepmother, poured ten litres of kerosene on her and set her on fire. "The stove burst, she died," she told the police. She also blamed me for stealing money, which she actually used to give to her mother. My father is a policeman. He took his police cane and beat me for three whole hours. All this had become blue. He tied me and left me there. There is someone called Major there, he freed me. In the night I walked from Sangli to Rambagh to my granny's place. I had been thrashed so much for the first time in my life. I had never stolen even five paisa from someone in my life. There is a lot of pain in my life. My elder sister got married. I became like this. They don't know about it. I go there, come back, but they don't know I'm in this line. Really, I get so angry. People should know how a policeman's daughter ends up ... in the hands of a stepmother. I have never known happiness. Right now also I am not happy. Right now also.
Even now, my man Dastagir, even earlier, he used to beat me a lot. If truth be told, I get 20 rupees from the customer, give five to the gharwali, give this 15 to Dastagir, and I have to sleep with the customer. If I'd get late with some customer, he would strip me completely naked and beat me. Because of this I left for Bombay, leaving behind all my belongings. Don't even ask how much he beat me. After coming back to Nippani, I again met this bhadwa (pimp). He still beats me up.
This doesn't really bother me. But Salma does not side with me, my daughter. Salma wants her father (Dastagir), I want Salma, what can I do? I can't move. Either I should kill Salma, or then I should kill myself. Wherever I go, I won't be happy without her. Is there any mother who can leave her children behind? Salma's father also makes life miserable for me. If I ask him to go for work he starts fighting. Now what to do? Then one should go and wash dishes in some house. But nobody leaves you alone. If you are a little beautiful, then the seth makes advances towards you. Really, I have done that too.
I have so much himmat (courage) that I can take 100 men even today. I have the strength. Really, all for this girl. I tried putting her in a hostel, but she tells me, "Why did you give birth to me if you couldn't take care of me?" Ask her, am I lying?
Right now, I don't want Dastagir, I want someone else, someone else who loves me. Someone who can give me more sex than Dastagir, I'll have sex with him. I do it; it's not a lie. If a man gives me sex the way I want it, I like that man. Women also, when they see a good man, they think, "If this man gives me a kiss it will feel good. If he holds my balls it will feel good. If he touches me here and there, that kind of sex." When I talk to the other women, I talk about sex. First I ask about their husbands, then I ask them what they like. What kind of men would they like to sleep with?
Other women don't use Nirodh with their maalaks (lovers), or the men they love. "We use Nirodh with everyone," they say, "Why should we use it with our maalaks (condoms are used with customers but not with lovers, to distinguish between the two)?" They don't use. "Forget it, he's my maalak, where does he go, he doesn't go anywhere without me!" A woman gets married and lives like a keep in her own house; their husbands leave them and come to us. These women really trust their husbands. They think they are gods.
I use Nirodh with Dastagir. He has a woman, had a woman, I don't know where all Dastagir goes. Right from the beginning, I don't trust men. "If you use Nirodh, then only sleep with me, otherwise forget it!" I tell them. Now, wherever I go, first Nirodh, then anything else. "Tera pyaar baju pe rakh, yeh Nirodh baju mein rakh. (Put your love aside, put this condom by your side)." I use two-two Nirodhs. I put it on the customer myself. I don't let them put it on with their own hands. They tear it with their nails.
I used Nirodh for the first time six years back….Then I started using Nirodh with every single man. Many went back. I lost many customers because I would not sleep without Nirodh, so the work became less. Earlier it was not like this. Earlier there was so much work that I would hide behind the others in fear, there was that much dhanda in that area. In one day, one woman would get seven-eight customers, even after saying no to many. Every woman used to easily get seven-eight customers. Now it's difficult getting two.
Now I work for two organisations, SANGRAM and VAMP, distributing Nirodh to women. For this I take a bus. In the bus I start talking to the man sitting next to me. "What is there in this box?" he might ask. "It has Nirodh," I'll say. "What do you do?" he'll then ask. "I do Nirodh work," I'll say. By now his interest is piqued. "What for Nirodh, who do you give it to?" he wants to know. "I give to the veshya (prostitute) women," I say. "I myself do dhanda, and HIV is spreading, that is why we supply Nirodh." Then talking like this, some customer, some man who I like, I mean, who likes me, buys my bus ticket. When I reach Belgaum, l take an auto to the places I need to go. He takes another auto and follows me wherever I go.
I keep moving, picking up men here and there; I get my fare out of it. If someone doesn't buy my ticket, I just hold him like this, slap him a bit, and he'll come around. If I make a racket in the bus, I will be embarrassed. So, quietly sitting like this only, as if I am asleep, I hold him and hit him. 'Dissh!' Then he understands it's like a sign. "One should not mess with her otherwise she'll beat me up."
The government thinks that this dhanda is a bad thing. What about filmstars? They show so much sex in the films. Films, think of it, that is also a dhanda. Hero-heroine take money and show sex in the open, call it sex, love, whatever. That's also a dhanda -- then that's also very bad. Are they so different? Woh uparse sex karte hain, hum neeche se sex karte hain (they do it from above, we do it from below).'' Why doesn't the government find this bad also?
I enjoy Hindi movies. Marathi. Hindi. Jeetendra. He gives respect to women and keeps two-three women in all his films. One he's married to, and one prostitute. He dances very well. He dances as well as a woman. Earlier I never missed a single film of his. He doesn't hurt his wife or his rakhail (keep). Even if the keep dies, he'll go himself to perform the last rites. He ignores the family's objections. He doesn't care what outsiders think. He doesn't listen to the village panchayat. He carries her himself. He performed the last rites on Rekha. I mean that's what they showed. He's a good hero.
Really some men are good, some bad. But still our dhanda provides for us, means food, boarding, lodging, everything. I really like this dhanda. because in this you don't have to bear any hardships. We get money, and whatever our needs, they are fulfilled. It's easy money. For 20 rupees other women have to go out in the sun, lift stones. We coolly get 50, 60, or 100 rupees only for a five-minute job.
Some people use their brains, like a lawyer. We have our bodies, we use those. We offer our whole body to them. It is hard-earned money. We give our self-respect to them, wouldn't you call it hard-earned money? I say, I have the right to be here, the right to sell my body -- and I will sell it. Aamche mula aahe, baala ahe, pot bharay saathi kartaat ami... (we have children, we have to fill our stomachs)."