Equalizing Gender through Bhangra Dance and More

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Note: 0:00-2:49 Speech (Hindi) 2:49-4:50 Speech (English) 4:50-10:30 Bhangra Performance 10:31-End Awards Ceremony

My time researching intergenerational prostitution (IGP) near New Delhi, India is coming to what I might think of as both an ending and beginning. Recently, my students (they are not involved in IGP*) and I culminated our regular dance classes with a performance for their community. Present were some of the women engaged in IGP as well as staff members of various local NGOs and visitors from America and elsewhere. I had been teaching the girls bhangra, a traditional Indian folk dance which is historically performed only by males (females typically dance giddah). However, partly to reinforce an ideology which I believe in and partly because I’m utterly incapable of dancing giddah, my students learned bhangra with the conviction that men and women are both capable of equal accomplishment and participation in all aspects of life.

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Performing the traditional "jugni" step

And bhangra they did. At the top of this piece, I’ve posted a video of the full performance, beginning with a short speech I gave in both English and Hindi about the dedication that the girls showed in learning a new art form, that too well enough to actually perform it in front of an audience. Back in January, none of these girls knew a single step of bhangra and many of them shied away initally, stuck with the idea that only boys could and should be bhangra dancers. Aside from this initial mental inertia, we faced many logistical challenges as well. Working in a rural village, many days there was no electricity (meaning no music and no fans) and we had to fight through extreme temperatures (100+ degrees of Delhi’s summer heat) while I would count out the beats for them to practice to. It wasn’t all fun, but they did not falter, instead showing endurance and steadfastness toward a goal. During the week prior to the show, each girl sewed her own dress and on the day of the performance, excitement rather than nervousness was the mood backstage. At the end of the dance, I presented each student with a different award that captured the strength which they showed during our times of adversity throughout the training.

In my experience, most efforts at working with sensitive populations seem to focus only on the issue (such as only focusing on sex work when working with sex workers), inadvertently ignoring the complexity of the individual. By engaging in an activity that was mutually enjoyable, I was able to do more good than harm for my students. While I did not end sex trafficking, I did help gradually gain the trust of the community and this will now hopefully open the path for some of my local NGO partners to work more effectively. More importantly, I’ve made life-long friends and unforgettable memories.

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My students performing the routine

My research was based in the grounded theory approach and can be best classified under medical anthropology. My question was to what extent culture, family, and psychology influenced these women to choose lives as sex workers, and once understanding this, in what ways alternative opportunities could be presented to improve aspects of life, particularly healthcare. If I had more time, I might have been able to more fully understand whether women truly are equal participants in the creation of a “culture” where sex is the commodity which runs a household and where men control finances while alcoholism controls them. Nonetheless, I am currently in the process of decoding through hours of interviews and field notes and will be publishing a longer research piece in the future which begins to address this question.

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A regular practice

To the outside observer, the place where I work might seem entirely bleak and unfortunate, but the last several months have shown me how much deeper and more colorful the community is than just the hardships they currently face. There is love between children and parents, as proven by the proud faces of several mothers who came to watch their children perform. Also, the girls are admirably responsible beyond their age- I regularly see my 12 and 13 year old students walking alone to the market after class to pick up groceries for the house, and most of them are busy doing chores for several hours into the evening when I make home visits. At the center, the girls are often happily chattering away in their intriguing dialectical mix of Hindi, Rajasthani, and Haryanvi, and most of them won’t leave the center until glimpsing at least part of their favorite Hindi film song on YouTube. They are the children of a very interesting and historic community whose origins are shrouded in mystery and struggle, and whose future is hopefully going to improve and progress alongside society.

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Our team

While my fellowship is nearing its end, my time with the community is only just beginning. Intergenerational prostitution is an interesting topic that encompasses several schedule tribes and groups spread across India, including Bedias, Nats, Devadasis, Kanjars, and Pernas, the last of which is the group I’ve been working with. A few NGOs (MRYDO, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, YWCA, Becoming I Foundation) currently work in the outskirts of Delhi, one of several areas where this practice is occuring, and they are looking to expand their network with interested individuals who may help in creating alternative livelihoods for the women. Some might (and do) argue that perhaps women do this of their own will. My research suggests that many don’t and some might, but regardless, they all suffer a variety of physical abuses from violent clients and most are controlled by their husbands fiscally and emotionally. Moreover, almost all are subject to domestic violence.

Whether you take the “right to be a sex worker” approach or the approach that attempts to empower women and provide them with alternative choices, I would suggest looking more into the on-the-ground realities if this topic interests you. I will be expanding my work in the near future and will be looking for collaborators. Again, entering a field such as anti-sex trafficking should not have with it a single metric of success, such as whether sex trafficking was ended or not. People are far more complex and diverse than just their adversities and it’s time we paid more attention to connecting with the person before the issue. Providing my students who have difficult household circumstances with an outlet such as bhangra dance is in itself extremely rewarding and very important from a simple “happiness” perspective for them. If you have a skill or passion to share and have some experience in this field or working with sensitive populations, I’d encourage you to contact one of the above mentioned NGOs or me directly.

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