The fierceness was all backstage at a recent South Asian feminist assembly, found Nisha Susan
WHEN BRITISH journalist Sarah Harris made a documentary on dev-dasis and sex workers in India, who could have guessed the twist in the tale? She hung out with members of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a 5,000-strong collective of men, women and transgender sex workers in Sangli, Maharashtra. Duly a film was made and Harris christened it Prostitutes of God. The film is packed with foreign-filmmaker-in-India clichés — ‘fat Hindu gods with blue skin bikinis’ and an alarming disrespect for those who welcomed her into their homes. Harris also ‘outs’ a young woman’s HIV positive status. When the collective watched the film in 2010, they were outraged at the many betrayals.
The Pakistanis winced when Begum Nawazish Ali made another lame joke
Normally, this is where the story would have ended, except VAMP decided to fight back. The collective made a short, pithy video riposte and uploaded it on YouTube — it is a remarkable document. Speaking directly to the camera, several members of the collective in Sangli confront Harris, wherever she is, on her racism, manipulation of the facts and plain ignorance. “Did we come to your house and insult your god? Did you tell that girl you are going to tell everyone she has HIV and that she is spreading AIDS?”
The video’s first impact is forcing Harris to excise the outing of the HIV positive woman from her film. There has been no apology from the filmmakers but as of now, nearly 10,000 people have watched VAMP’s response — Sangli Talkies’ first hit.
This film was one of a handful of spunky exemplars of the global south staking digital turf that emerged at Count Me In! — a recent feminist conference in Kathmandu, Nepal. Delhi-based human rights organisation CREA brought together marginalised women — sex workers, disabled, single, young, lesbian and HIV-positive women, and trans people from South Asia — to discuss violence against women.
The usual criticisms of too much, too little can easily be levelled at a conference of this scale (nearly 400 participants) but as non-profit conference- hoppers will tell you, look for the energy offstage — in the (o, overused phrase) margins. At Count Me In!, the margins swarmed with the attitude of Sri Lankan photography of drag kings, Indian activists loudly speculating over international phone lines on how Section 377 will fare in the Supreme Court this week, and a beautiful, disabled dancer. The piquancy lay more in the Pakistani contingent covering their faces and wincing when the cross-dressing television host Begum Nawazish Ali made yet another lame phallic architecture joke. The promise of a different world lay more in the confidence of the members of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), an organisation working for the rights of the third gender in Nepal. Two days before the conference, BDS had finally persuaded the government to issue citizenship certificate to a person of third gender for the first time. The promise lies in imagining a conference a few years from now, when Sangli Talkies would have their own hits, not rebuttals.
Nisha Susan is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka