Of Sex Workers, Festivals and Rights: A Story of an Affirmative Sabotage

by Debolina Dutta

View/download paper

Winner, Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights (2017)


In 2013, Durbar (DMSC), India’s largest collective of sex workers organized the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, a major religious festival of Bengal, as part of their rights activism for the de-criminalization of sex work. The event established mutual ties between sexuality and religion in a way that has historically been of concern to feminisms in India. In this paper, I read this event as ‘affirmative sabotage’: an act of re-ordering the terms of power relations, as opposed to merely resisting dominant power; an ethical, political practice grounded in a post-colonial feminist tradition. I situate this account of sex workers’ rights activism alongside a rival narrative of the festival put forth by Dalit and adivasi groups. By doing so, I argue that DMSC’s activism, in aligning sex workers’ rights with religious practices, provides counter-intuitive insights for feminist projects in India. It shows how, a particular account of rights is tied to its rival idea and the two co-exist, and a marginalized group re-orders discriminatory relations in light of their particular histories. It also fosters a non-adversarial feminist discourse of rights through which we can locate how the shifting lines of the web-like patterns of discriminations are re-drawn in the everyday practical conduct of life and relations.

About the author

Debolina Dutta is a feminist lawyer and a doctoral researcher at the Institute for International Law and the Humanities, Melbourne Law School. Her research looks at forms, practices, and politics of feminist jurisprudential knowledge productions in post-colonial India, including by sex worker movements. The fieldwork for her doctoral research was supported by The International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS) through their Emerging Scholars International Research Fellowship. Debolina has previously worked with CREA, a feminist organization in Delhi, where she conducted sexual rights advocacy work at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Debolina co-directed the documentary, We Are Foot Soldiers, which tells the story of the collectivization of children of sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata. The film received third prize at Jeevika: Asia Livelihood Documentary Film Festival in 2012. With the support of a seed grant from the Association for Women in Development (AWID), she is currently putting together a collaborative book project with sex workers of DMSC and VAMP, two sex workers’ collectives in India and a graphic artist. This illustrated story-book titled The Rule of Laughter looks at how sex worker activists in India use laughter and humor to counter the criminalization of their daily lives and livelihood.

Project & Publications Type: Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights