Starting an ordinary day in a place seemingly devoid of hope, Sapna tells Tehelka, “Unlike me, my daughters will study, marry or pursue whatever career they want to.” Sapna lives in Kashmiri Building, GB Road, and belongs to the nomadic Bedia tribe. Many women from this community have traditionally been engaged in a form of dance called mujra, which has long been associated in the public mind with sex work.
Sapna and others like her live cheek by jowl in dilapidated, claustrophobic buildings along the labyrinthine bylanes of GB Road, Delhi’s red light district. Sex workers can be seen soliciting clients from crowded corridors, balconies and ramshackle stairways. The five kothas (brothels) where Bedia women live enjoy a special status legally as well as professionally. Ever since the government recognised them as “mujra centres” decades ago, they have been shielded from the frequent police raids that take place in these areas. The Bedia tag commands a lucrative market, prompting many women from other communities in the area to pass themselves off as one of them.
Although the locality is associated with a sense of despair and stigma, these women have not given up on the hope of a better future. Slowly and steadily, they are turning away from the centuries’ old custom of taking up mujra and eventually sex work as a vocation.
On getting to know them closely, the Bedia women reveal mixed emotions such as a sense of pride for their community, hope that the future generation will see a better tomorrow and the helplessness that comes with increasing dependence on sex work. They also come across as strong women both physically and emotionally. Holding a chirpy conversation is an art that comes to them naturally. Interestingly, though these women cater to select clients in Delhi and earn good money, they are reluctant to identify themselves as sex workers.
As the women prepare lunch, Rani, a Bedia woman in her late 40s, who has retired from the practice, calls mujra their ancestral vocation. Their tribe was one of the 151 notified under the Criminal Tribes Act in British India in 1871. This was a double whammy: It ended their nomadic lifestyle without opening up the road to a settled existence as agriculturists. The subsequent turn of events eventually forced them to send the women of the tribe to British officers for their “amusement”. This is said to have precipitated the steep decline in the respect given to the art of mujra .
“The men were dependent on women for security and these were the sort of compromises they had to make to settle at one place. Eventually, the men couldn’t match the kind of income their female counterparts were capable of making. It is good that things have started looking up,” says Anuja Agrawal, author of Chaste Wives and Prostitute Sisters, a book dedicated to the Bedias.
The story of the Bedias in GB Road shows how the institution of marriage, which plays a role in maintaining the dominant norms of society, can also be turned into a weapon for subverting at least some of those norms. “Meri apni chhoti behen ki shadi panditton ke ghar mein hui hai (My younger sister is married into a Brahmin family),” says a Bedia woman, who didn’t want to be named.
Indeed, unlike in the central Indian villages they come from, where marrying outside the community is unthinkable even today, Bedias living in the relatively more cosmopolitan national capital enjoy the freedom of choosing their partner even from non-Bedia backgrounds.
Sapna tells Tehelka, “There is an unwritten rule that once a woman enters this profession, she can never marry. Nor can a married woman take up this work.” However, this norm is not uncontested. Take Heena, for instance. Despite practising mujra and sex work, she is keen to find a partner and marry him. Unfortunately, her journey so far has been a long and winding one with no end in sight. Other women from her community, though, dismiss her wish as a childish whim.
One of the biggest hurdles that women such as Heena struggle to overcome is the premium placed on virginity by those looking for a wife or daughter-in-law. This regressive social norm is prevalent even among the Bedias. “The bahus (daughters-in-law) should be clean, chaste and undefiled,” says Sarita (name changed), 40, a Bedia who works with the Residents’ Welfare Association of a neighbouring colony and often comes to GB Road to visit other women of her community. So, even as the Bedia women are proud of their work and see it as part of their identity, they believe that sex workers should not get married.
Sapna has a different take on the question of marriage. “Married women are harassed and killed for dowry. My cousin was murdered by her in-laws,” she says. “What is the point of getting into such a relationship when we are happy with our partners without marrying them?”
Decades ago, when Bedia girls reached puberty, they were given an option either to join the traditional vocation or get married. At a young age when most girls play with dolls, the Bedia girls’ feet are tied with ghungroos and they are taught the art of “entertaining” men.
Patting her six-month-old daughter to sleep, Sapna tries to dispel the canard that Bedia girls are pressurised into dhandha (sex work). “That used to be the case long ago,” she clarifies. “My family allowed me to choose between mujra and marriage.” She insists that now the girls are asked to take the decision only when they are 17 or 18.
When asked how she would react if her baby refused both the options and wanted to pursue a career, she replies, “Even if she wants to become a police officer, I will stand by her.” Her two older daughters go to school. Sarita, too, has a similar opinion. “I was lucky. My mother’s family as well as my in-laws were open-minded,” she says. “My in-laws are into this business, but they kept me away from it. None of the children are into the dhandha.”
Katkatha is one of the few NGOs that work in GB Road and reach out not only to the Bedia women but also the other sex workers. “Bedia women have always been stronger than the other GB Road women,” says Geetanjali, a founding member. “Bedias who practise mujra have a different lifestyle. But those among who are solely dependent on sex work are indistinguishable from the other sex workers. NGO interventions have helped these women feel more confident. We also help them deal with harassment by the police and provide them with vocational training during the day. We are doing our best to ensure the education and empowerment of their children, too.”
The change is not confined to the women alone; it has begun seeping down to the men of the community, who are considered to be mere parasites living off their sisters and daughters’ income. More and more Bedia men are now looking for employment. “Now we have Bedia men who are doctors, engineers and even judges,” says Sapna. Although the claim cannot be verified, one cannot fail to notice that the men, too, are beginning to be disenchanted with their old customs.
These changes among the Bedias have been occurring across India since the 1990s. In June 1991, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stood by Ram Sanehi, an elderly Bedia man who had single-handedly taken up a lifelong fight against his community to stop the custom of initiating their daughters into sex work. The court pulled up the state government for turning a blind eye to prostitution and asked it to enforce the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act in the affected areas. The court also asked the government to rehabilitate the arrested sex workers. Since then the Madhya Pradesh government has established special schools for the Bedias in 16 districts. One of these schools was established by Sanehi.
Back in GB Road, meeting children such as Rohit (name changed) gives a glimpse of the bright future that could well be within the community’s grasp. Rohit studies in one of the NGO -run schools for the children of sex workers. Barely 11, he dreams big — something unusual for a boy from his background. “I want to become a photographer. I am not into theatre like the other kids here but I love dancing,” says Rohit. And indeed, he has great potential, going by the photos he has clicked at this young age. This turn towards a better life is driven by forces from within the Bedia community in Delhi. The government, though, is yet to frame any policy to speed up the process.
Shakti Vahini, another NGO, rescues and rehabilitates sex workers, provides education to their children and takes up campaigns for literacy and HIV/AIDS awareness. Rishikant handles the NGO’s rescue operations across north India. An ordinary day involves travelling from Delhi to Ranchi and Fatehabad trying to rescue girls being forced into sex work. He tells Tehelka, “Women are more open to change than men. For the men, this is the only means of livelihood they have and so they, along with their lawyers, try to stop this change. There are many women, on the other hand, who pursue higher studies from institutions such as the Indira Gandhi National Open University.”
However, not to paint too grim a picture of the men, he says, “Some of the men are opening up to other avenues and are trying to respect the choices that the women may want to make for themselves.”
These examples show that it is indeed possible for the Bedias to change the circumstances that determine the contours of their everyday lives. And every such instance can inspire others to follow suit. Although there is still resistance to change, the seemingly small steps are no less than giant strides in terms of their impact on the Bedias’ psyche.
Despite being socially ostracised and abused historically, Bedia women take pride in their identity, which revolves around mujra. What makes the single-mother households in Kashmiri Building different from the average household in other parts of the city is perhaps best described by the framed pictures hanging on the walls. Here, instead of the usual frames celebrating the traditional Indian family structure one is accustomed to, pride of place is given to images of the women going about their work — dancing to mujras or with their partners. Hopefully, in a few years, there will also be pictures of Sapna’s daughter in a surgeon’s apron or a police uniform.