Gen V K Singh’s use of the word “presstitute” to mock or insult the media is not new. He used it in a public forum over a year ago, and has done so repeatedly thereafter.
He described The IndianExpress and its journalists — after the newspaper’s report on how troop movements underhis watch rattled the UPA government — as “presstitutes” more than once. Mostrecently on March 24, reacting to a report on his visit to the Pakistan HighCommission the previous evening — and the series of odd tweets he put out — Singh tweeted: “Indian Express proves that P Word fits them like a glove.”
On April 7, the former Army chief, now Minister of State for External Affairs, posted on Twitter: “Friends what do you expect from presstitutes. Last time(TimesNow editorArnab (Goswami) thought there was ‘O’ in place of ‘E’.”
Predictably, Singh’s insults triggered a storm of protest in the media.
But in allthe outraged noise, no one asked one group of peoplehow they felt about the Minister’s favourite pun: the women whose identities, and jobdescription, contain the ‘O’, not the ‘E’.
“We are fighting in allpossible fora to replace this abusive word, ‘prostitute’, with ‘sex worker’, and for our rights. And along comes the Minister who thinks this is an insult and uses this word… What does he mean by it?,” Bharati Dey, secretary of Kolkata-based Durbar Mahila Samanway Samiti, said. Over 75,000 sex workers in West Bengal are associated with the Samiti.
Dey said she was angry and offended that the Minister had used ‘prostitute’ as an abuse. “Jab itna highlevel ka aadmi aise bolega to baaki sab ko kya bolein? Others use randi and tawayaf, so is that also okay to use cleverly as abuse?” she said.
Delhi-based Khairati Lal Bhola, a freedom fighter who set up the Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, has been workingwith sex workers and their children since 1966. Bhola described the attitude betrayed by Singh’s repeated use of the word ‘presstitute’ as “bada, bada anyaay”.
“Mothers givebirth, rear us. Do we have to use some women’s majboori as an abuse?” He said he was appalled that “General saab” had said this. “These peoplemay be in highposts, generaland now minister, but inka dil kaala hai. And there are so many women in journalism… I don’t think GeneralSaab gets it,” Bhola said.
In a world in which millions of helpless women are trafficked and forced into the sex trade the older, patriarchal connotations of ‘prostitute’ are often deemed sexist and deeply offensive. The battle over what terminology to use to refer to those who tradesex for money has been on since the 1980s. The WHO has, in this millennium, adopted ‘sex worker’ in place of ‘prostitute’.
Even the expression ‘sex worker’, said to have been coined by US academic Carol Leigh at a conference in the late 70s, is deeply contested. Critics have argued that making sex workappear ‘regular’, in fact, adds to the problem of trafficked women. In 2013, the EU voted to agree in a non-binding resolution to what is termed the ‘Sweden Model’ — where buying sex services is illegal, but selling it is not.
Robin Chaurasiya of the NGO Kranti, which works with sex workers in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, said, “I am shocked that a Minister, someone who is supposed to fix problems rather than ridicule people is using this word as abuse. We now know what he thinks of allthe peopleaffected by sex trade… it is justa cuss word for him.”
Mumbai-based Varsha Deshpande, whose Dalit Mahila Vikas Mandal has worked with HIV-affected women in the sex trade said Singh’s words suggest “what the government itself stands for — patriarchy and retrogressive values”.
“This is not surprising,” Deshpande said. It is justthat after the December 16 (Delhibus) gangrape case, there was an environment in which women’s issues came to the fore so they were slightly low-key about what they really believed. The Minister has now said it. Not unexpected.”