Keralites keep reminding me that I still am a sex worker even if I conquer heights. Huge wars should be waged to change the mindsets of such people,” says Nalini Jameela in an interview. The sex worker, author and activist, who has been mobilising to bring a shift in the attitude of the society towards sex work and sex workers.
Not surprisingly, she is, therefore, shunned by the archaic society of Kerala to the extent that she has to “live like a fugitive” in hiding. However, Nalini Jameela’s activism to change the narratives around sex work holds significance especially in the arena of the feminist movement that sees sex work as work.
Born on August 18, 1955 as a Ezhava (one of the lower-caste communities down south), her battle with social taboos and patriarchy started at a very early age of 9, class 3, where her education was stopped because according to her family she had learnt enough to manage the household chores. Her father sent her to work at brick kilns.
Nalini Jameela was a child when her mother lost her job at the spinning mills because of her father’s connections with the communist party. In her book ‘The Autobiography Of A Sex Worker’, Nalini recounts how she had supported her brother’s decision to marry a woman elder to him. As a result, she was abandoned by her family and her own brother did nothing to support her. Considering how alienating her brother from the rest of the family would have meant “no heir” to take forward the family name in a conveniently patriarchal set-up, Nalini had to bear the brunt. Nalini’s father would repeatedly beat his wife and not surprisingly, his authority stayed unquestioned.
At about the age of 18, Nalini Jameela got married to an illicit arrack brewer. Given how she was deprived of the comforts of a safe place at home, marriage became a means of getting shelter, security, food – the basic necessities of life. Nalini became a mother to two children and within a few years, the husband passed away due to cancer. In an interview to a Malayalam news channel 24 News, Nalini states how her children grew up in informally adopted homes. Given the societal stigma around sex work, Nalini ferociously ensured their identities were protected and said that they were leading happy lives.
It was after the death of her first husband that Nalini Jameela, with no formal education to take up a normal job, turned to sex work as a profession.
After that, she got married twice and it was in her third marriage to Shahul Hameed that she had to change her name to Jameela for Shahul’s relatives to accept her.
In her attempt at initiating a change in the attitudes of people towards sex work, Nalini Jameela has spoken at length about her own life as a sex worker. In addition to that, she wrote and published “The autobiography of a sex worker(2005)” and “Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker (2018)” both of which were bestsellers and translated into several other languages. Despite her success as a writer, she is still not welcomed just enough by the literary world. She also works as a coordinator of an association of sex workers in Kerala.
She is also the main protagonist of a documentary named “Sex, Lies and a Book” directed by Sanjeev Sivan, produced by United Nation Development Program (UNDP) and Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT).
Nalini Jameela wears her crown with pride, she calls herself sex worker and doesn’t uses any derogatory term to define it but thinks of it as profession and sex as an art form.
Coming to her life as a sex worker, Nalini talked about her encounters spanning a career of 25 years. Her first client was a policeman who also arrested her the very next day, after sleeping with her. This shows the hypocrisy of the world, everyone has sexual needs desires irrespective of gender, class, religion etc. and it doesn’t matter whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Nalini Jameela says that men in Kerala are especially sexually frustrated and to maintain the “good man” repute, would come to her secretly. She says to have met many clients who were sexually, physically and verbally abusive and witnessed many men being especially sexually aggressive towards underage girls. She was especially hurt when some of her clients asked her when was she introducing her daughter into this line of work.
Nalini also discussed how many times people have approached her for only talking, having a company to spend time with, or even taking advice. Nalini observed a class-specific behaviour among her clients. If they belonged to the lower middle-class, the assumption was that they would be mild in their approach. Men from the middle class men wanted value for money and men from upper class were mostly a bit harsh and rude. The pay you get also depends upon the standard of the area you are at when you are approached. With these things she makes sex a commodity to be sold, referring to it as normal as selling any other product. Nalini has, therefore, been fighting to make sex work legal.
Nalini Jameela says that most of the sex workers got into the profession accidentally while they were fleeing sexual abuse, when ‘lovers’ cheated them by selling them off to pimps or when pimps pretended to be job agents from big cities. In the interview, Nalini says getting out of the profession is difficult because the stigma attached is so entrenched that the workers cannot find jobs or even a house for rent without being exploited when not shunned.
Her first book “Oru Lymgikathozhilaliyude Atmakatha”(“The Story of a Sex Worker”) was published in the year 2005 first in Malayalam, then later translated in English in the year 2007 by J. Devika. The book was a great hit and sold 13,000 copies, ran into six editions within 100 days of publication. Since the topic was controversial it caught many eyes. The book faced backlash by one section of the feminists for glorifying sex work and of course, the conservatives who thought subject of sex should not be publicised.
In her second book “The Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker (2018)”, Nalini Jameela is again breaking the taboo by talking about her lovers and the many love affairs she encountered, while working as a sex worker. It has eight stories from between 1970s to 2000s.
She is now working on her third book which is slated to be published soon.
Sarah David is an educationist, a recent postgraduate in Education from Ambedkar University, Delhi, NET qualified educator, with experience of teaching in schools. The subjects within her discipline are Gender, Pedagogy and Policies, and she is interested in the area of Gender Schooling. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Featured Image Source: Manorama Online