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Beyond Boundaries

Nalini Jameela: Oru Lyngika Thozhilaliyude Atmakatha, (Autobiography of a Sex Worker) prepared by I Gopinath; D C Books, Kottayam, 2005; sexually abused by their husbands or treated as legalised sex workers would not receive the support, even covertly, of the women of Kerala, was only to be expected.

Beyond Boundaries

sexually abused by their husbands or treatedNalini Jameela: Oru Lyngika as legalised sex workers would not receiveThozhilaliyude Atmakatha, the support, even covertly, of the women (Autobiography of a Sex Worker) of Kerala, was only to be expected. prepared by I Gopinath; No child is born as a sex worker. Neither D C Books, Kottayam, 2005; was Nalini. She was born into the same pp 151, Rs 70. society where parents teach their girl

children that “sex is a sin” and that the


hen Nalini Jameela’s autobiography was first published in June 2005, it created ripples in Kerala. It is no literary masterpiece, but it is remarkable that such a book, authored by a 52-year old sex worker, has been published in Malayalam. It has initiated a wider public discussion on sex and the need for proper sex education, and it has questioned prevailing hypocrisy on sex, both of which are rarely discussed openly in Kerala. The book tells Nalini Jameela’s story and reflects her experiences and struggle in a conservative society.

Nalini Jameela begins her life story… “Now I am 51 years old, I would like to live as a sex worker…”. Needless to say, widespread anxiety and anguish greeted her book when it was published. Years back, when Kamala Das serialised her autobiography Ente Kadha (later published in English as My Story) in Malayala Nadu Weekly, the moral policemen of Kerala savagely blackened her personality for daring to openly speak the truth. As the reception to Jameela’s story shows once again, Kerala society has demonstrated that it is impossible to accept such an “indecent” book, that too one written by a woman.

In such a society, when a sex worker openly dignifies her profession and compares it with other services like teaching, it is no wonder that cultural pillars are shaken. That Nalini says that she wants to continue to live her life as a sex worker is, of course, a blow to the Malayali who holds dear the family mantra and firmly believes in a patriarchal family structure dominated by the “man of the house” and where the wife is ruled by her husband. Kerala stands at the very top of the literacy ladder, but it is also a place where you wake up each morning to the news of sex scandals, child abuse and sex tourism. That Nalini Jameela who talks about wives being “woman has to safeguard her chastity”. Girls from childhood are told an old proverb, roughly translated as, “If a leaf falls on a thorn or a thorn falls on a leaf, it is only the leaf that suffers”. In Nalini’s home, her mother had no power despite the fact that the house was run with her earnings as a mill worker. Nalini’s father’s pension was insufficient for meeting his many diversions. Outside home he was a communist, but inside no less than a dictator. When her mother lost her job, Nalini had to discontinue school in the third standard and began to work in a sand quarry. At the quarry, female workers were regularly sexually harassed. It was a part of the women workers’ duty to “satisfy” the needs of owners and contractors. The quarry was also where girls and young women often had brief infatuations. Nalini survived this phase without any bruises despite her own infatuations. When Nalini’s brother married without his father’s consent, she supported him, for which she was beaten up by her father. Finally, Nalini decided to escape the four walls of the house.

Dawn of a Sex Worker

Outside home, Nalini faced insecurity. She wanted food and shelter. So when a thug in her village offered her marriage, she did not hesitate. He gave her food, clothing and shelter, as promised, but also sexually exploited her. More than a wife, Nalini was a legalised sex worker. When she questioned her husband’s extramarital affairs she was assaulted. And Nalini became addicted to the arrack he brewed and sold from home. Nalini could understand the meaning of the lascivious looks she invited from the clients who visited their home to buy arrack. But as she was the “wife” of a ‘goonda’ no one dared touch her. However, she lost that security when her husband died after three years of marriage, leaving behind two children. The old customers of her husband tried to help her, but knocked at the door in the

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006 night. Her mother-in-law was willing to look after her son’s children, but demanded Rs 5 a day, which was more than Nalini’s daily wage in the quarry. It was in such conditions that Nalini became a sex worker.

Since then Nalini has been in the profession of sex work, except for two breaks during two more marriages. Many clients came to her, different personalities with different needs. She moved from place to place, changing various “company houses”. Some of these houses were run by proud nair families. A variety of people approached Nalini – politicians, policemen, cultural activists and others. Her path was rough and risky, unimaginable for an ordinary woman. She faced police harassment, encountered local goondas, escaped from a gang rape attempt and even death. For a brief period, she enjoyed a normal family life. Twice she tried to settle down as wife and mother, and even had a daughter. It was after her third marriage that she assumed the name of Nalini Jameela. But this did not last. Nalini developed acute health problems; her husband’s attitude towards her also changed gradually. She eventually left her husband’s house with her 13-year old daughter. After putting her daughter in a house as a domestic servant, she worked in the Erwadi mental hospital in Tamil Nadu. There she saw the poor conditions and ill-treatment of the mental patients. Then she begged on the streets for some time, moving from one place to another, church to church and somehow reached the medical college at Thiruvananthapuram where she was treated for a tumour in her leg. When she recovered, she went back to sex work.

Jwalamukhi: A Turning Point

Nalini’s life changed with her association with Jwalamukhi, an organisation which works for sex workers’ rights. That was a turning point in her life. It was a platform on which she could share her problem with others. Study classes were conducted for the sex workers to make them aware of AIDS and the need for safe sex. They discussed harassment by the police and exploitation by middlemen. They demanded a human rights approach towards sex workers. At Kozhikode, where Nalini had moved, life was miserable due to frequent police raids and arrests that were made on trumped-up charges. One sex worker who was arrested “vanished” from the custody and her body was found later. This incident sparked off mass protests by many civil society organisations, but no one could establish the culpability of the police. (Nalini even speaks about the need for safe places where a sex worker can meet her client without any police interference.) For Nalini, the association with Jwalamukhi eventually led to her travelling abroad to attend global conferences. With the travel came exposure and soon she acquired the skill to make documentary films.

The conflict at the global level between feminists and sex workers is reflected in Kerala too. Feminist groups extend their support to sex workers but only up to a limit. They accept the fundamental rights of sex workers, but their rehabilitation policy is unacceptable to the sex workers. Nalini Jameela too is against rehabilitation. According to her, no rehabilitation policy has been successful. “The sex workers who come to this field on their own do not need any rehabilitation, because they have a job. They work with their body, just as some people work with their hands, others with their heads.”

The Future?

In her book, Nalini Jameela is silent about the future of sex workers and their social security. Since basic factors like age and health determine the duration of their profession, sex workers cannot work beyond an age. Later they have little social security to fall back on. The legalisation of sex work may solve many of their problems, especially routine police harassment, but even this is only up to a limit. Goondas and middlemen would remain active and their harassment of sex workers would not end with legalisation. And there is another terrible side to sex work, which one cannot remain oblivious to. Many young girls are exploited and forced into this job; trafficking even takes teenaged girls abroad. As has happened in other professions, in this field too, the “demand” for sex workers in certain categories is high in our globalised world. And other sex workers, who cannot reach these global standards remain “last grade sex workers”. The author dignifies her work and at the same time she is happy with the “normal” lives her daughters appear to be living. Nalini Jameela believes that she has more freedom than an average woman to “choose” a man and she can select her child’s father, even if this was not “allowed” to her.

Through her unusual book Nalini Jameela offers us an opportunity to sort out and question this complicated and sensitive issue of sex work. Before joining Jwalamukhi, Nalini Jameela was an ordinary sex worker, who worked for food and shelter. But joining this NGO and sharing the experiences of other sex workers has given Nalini Jameela the strength to accept her social stigma with dignity.



Call for Papers

Workshop on Water, Law and the Commons, Delhi 8-10 December 2006

The International Environmental Law Research Centre (IELRC) is hosting a workshop on Water, Law and the Commons in the context of a 3-year research project entitled ‘Legal Issues Related to Water Sector Restructuring: Human Rights, Environment, Agriculture and Socio-Economic Aspects’ funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

We invite papers for the first workshop organised in the context of this research project. The objectives of the workshop are to provide a platform for discussions concerning some of the most important legal and policy issues arising in the context of ongoing water sector reforms.

The workshop is calling for papers focusing on the following major themes. Section 1: Changing legality of the commons in India – Land, Forests and Water. Section 2: Water reforms and legal and institutional restructuring in India. Section 3: Water and human rights. Section 4: Case studies on water restructuring, water reforms, water rights, water users associations.

Abstracts (in English) must be received by the Organising Committee by 1st May, 2006. The abstract should be no more than one page or 400 words and must be accompanied with a brief CV of the author(s).

Contact: The Water Workshop Coordinator, 75 Sidharth Enclave, New Delhi 110 014, Phone:+ (91) 11-5595 2322,, Full details are available at

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

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