Beyond Choice: Unmasking Anti-Feminist Dynamics in Sex Work and its Portrayal in Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi

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The Muse’s Revenge by Ilya Milstein (2019)

A Critique of Liberal Choice Feminism

Sex work is an umbrella term encompassing various forms of adult entertainment and prostitution. Choice feminism often holds that sex work is a valid line of work and it is important for women to exercise their agency, i.e., right to choose to enter this industry. However, one of the biggest problems with choice feminism is that it ignores the fact that choices are constructed and influenced by existing systems of oppression. Women are taught to be objects of male desire and subjugation. Choices that reinforce this idea, even when willingly made, do not represent empowered progressions; rather, they affirm the lack of female agency under patriarchy.

Immense exploitation often occurs within the industry. The majority of sex workers, particularly women, are compelled to engage in such work due to economic hardships, lack of job opportunities, and systemic inequalities. These factors leave them vulnerable to exploitation by pimps, brothel owners, and clients who may perpetuate harmful power dynamics. All these factors make it difficult to ascertain whether the decision to engage in sex work is truly autonomous. As the International Dalit Solidarity Network points out, “most girls and women in India’s urban brothels come from Dalit, lower-caste, tribal, or minority communities”

Choices exist in social contexts, not in ahistorical vacuums wherein apparatuses of oppression can be looked over. The question of whether the choice of entering into sex work can ever be a legitimate choice is a valid one, one which choice feminism advocates ignore. Entering into this field, if prompted by lack of other choices, would lead to recognising this choice as a thinly veiled form of structural coercion. It is not a choice if there are no other valid options to choose from.

Liberal thinking focuses on the ways in which sexual trade qualifies as employment, involves human activity, and may be potentially empowering for workers. Anti-sex work arguments, like those presented by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, often trace their origins back to radical feminist theory. Radical feminists assert that pornography teaches males to adopt abusive attitudes towards women and/or women to accept sexual servitude by men. Moreover, they argue that prostitution supports cultural norms centered on dominance and control of women. 

Abolitionists quickly discredit this liberal justification. They contend that sex labour instils patriarchy in its purest form, is essentially violent, and harms prostitutes psychologically. Additionally, by promoting sex work, you normalise these ideas and support the societal construction of gender inequality. They argue against the idea that sex work is “legitimate work” on these grounds. Sophia Gore points out how “prostitution is an exploitative, harmful and illegitimate form of labour, that it is, effectively, publically accepted sexual abuse”.

One of Bollywood’s Most Celebrated Films Does More Harm than Good

Gangubai Kathiawadi,” a popular Bollywood film centered around prostitution, was released on 25th February 2022 to high praise. The film’s cinematography, visuals, and acting, in particular, were focal aspects that inspired its admiration. It has also received its share of criticism, particularly directed towards the casting of Vijay Raaz, a cisgender man in the role of a trans woman; and justly so – inauthentic representation dissolves into mockery. However, the film’s stance on prostitution is mind numbing.

It chronicles the life of Ganga Kathiawadi (played by Alia Bhatta) based on Ganga Harjivandas, the madame of a popular brothel in the Kamathipura region of Mumbai in the 1960s. After eloping with her boyfriend during her youth, Ganga was sold into prostitution. Even though the film comes off as empowering by depicting the transformation of a once frail and tormented woman into a stronger version of herself, it fails to critique the workings of patriarchy functioning underneath the seemingly feminist veneer.

The movie consistently highlights the plight of sex workers; from being subjected to the brutality of tyrannical men, pregnancy, and the social stigma that often accompanies sex and consequently, the vocation related to it. After a series of distressful events, Ganga is exposed to assault, after manipulation by the current madame of the kotha, Sheila, who willingly places her in a dangerous situation to repress her vehemence. This incident spurs her ambition as she seeks retribution, eventually gaining it by befriending the gangster Rahim Lala, who strikes her attacker.

After this traumatizing incident, Gangubai does feel affection again, this time for Afshan, her tailor’s nephew. After flatteringly lovesick music underlines the brewing romance between them, ‘Meri Jaan’ features an uncomfortable moment where the audience becomes aware of her reluctance to engage in intimacy and companionship. Despite this, the two embrace and reconcile, only for the plot to bring about an unfortunate reversal.

After discovering the daughter of a fellow worker sleeping in confinement on the terrace, Ganga confronts her mother about it. The mother expresses frustration at her daughter’s lack of prospects and contemplates either killing her or pushing her into the industry. Fueled by this heartbreaking encounter, Ganga sets out on a determined mission to arrange the girl’s marriage. She hopes that if matrimony is a viable option for her, then Kusum’s daughter can also find happiness as a bride. She is eventually married to Afshan, despite his protest and disinclination. Interestingly, the daughter is never consulted. Her wishes are neither spoken nor silently expressed.

The film highlights the paradoxical futures of women employed in the industry. Ganga enrolls the children of the brothel in the very school that opposes its existence and attempts to terminate its functioning. Whereas on one hand, she advocates for the brothel’s children’s right to education, on the other hand, Ganga is hailed for securing a marriage alliance between the daughter of a prostitute and a respectable man, as though the highest order that a woman can achieve is that of a wife. Granted, she has managed to skirt around the boundaries of sexual morality that dictate and qualify women in order to maintain the sanctity of marriage. Yet, the importance of education and the barriers faced in acquiring it are acknowledged, but tossed aside in pursuit of Gangubai’s political ambitions, which she successfully achieves.

Toward the end of the film, Ganga is invited as a speaker at an event centering around women’s rights, to shed light on the discrimination faced by women in the sex work industry. This becomes the most problematic moment of the film when Gangubai insinuates that prostitution and brothels serve as a means to prevent sexual assault by providing an outlet for those desires that would otherwise target innocent women. Despite the heart-wrenching moments of pain that such women undergo in their daily lives, the film only serves to advocate it, rather than addressing its complexities.

This statement is the most irksome of all. Sex work does not dampen sexual assault, which stems from unequal power structures rather than unchecked lust. However, even if one were to concede to this notion, it is morally vile to argue that there should be a designated section of women in society for men to misbehave with and use as a means to control their animalistic and uncontrollable desires at their convenience, so they can appear presentable and humane to the other, supposedly more respectable members of the community.

The argument against sex work made in the film by Father Namit and other opponents is that sex work has a negative influence on the children of the school, and therefore the brothel should be dismantled so as to preserve the inviolability of childhood innocence. However, the same school denies education to the children from the brothel, casting them out after initially enrolling them. This lack of sympathy towards these children calls for an even deeper understanding of how pressing and challenging the profession can be.

The Inherent Anti-Feminist Nature of Sex Work Calls for Erasure

It is the dismantling and eradication of the exploitative sex work industry that we, as a society, should seek. However, attacking women for participating in the industry is not the right approach. We should oppose sex work, not sex workers. Criminalise clients, not sex workers. The issue with sex work is not that it is immoral, but that it is intensely commodifying in nature and presents sex as something to be taken from a woman and given to a man. It treats women as objects whose pleasure is inconsequential, thereby reinforcing a power dynamic where men are dominant.

Arguments against the decriminalization of sex work, which suggest that it would only push work underground, in my opinion, point to another problem – the uselessness of the law. This is a prime example of a slippery slope argument: if criminalization guarantees an illegal pathway for a certain activity, then this failure reflects that there is no point of law and order at all. Granted, the law has not been kind to women and needs an overhaul, but it will not come by regulating an industry that is inherently unfair to women.

Regulation of sex work, arguing that it will establish respect and a place for sex workers in society, operates within the framework of patriarchy. It ignores the true causes of patriarchy and exploitation. It falls short of addressing the core issue by offering remedies and enhancements to the conditions of prostitution within current societal institutions. Sex work is essentially violent and psychologically destructive towards women. 

The truth of it is, the industry shouldn’t exist. Not because it goes against conventional moral sexual regulation or is a negative influence, but because women have the right to better lives and designations than havens that men can employ for gratification. Ganga herself was sold, and initially was unwilling to partake in the work. There should not be arguments for women to be more comfortable within coercion; there simply should be no coercion.

The need to address root causes that push individuals into sex work, such as poverty, lack of education, and limited job prospects, is essential in reducing vulnerability and exploitation. Sex work perpetuates the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies, reducing them to mere instruments for the pleasure of others, and perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes, presenting women as submissive, sexually available objects. This can hinder the progress made in achieving gender equality.

There is nothing feminist about the approach to sex work in the film. While Gangubai addresses the miserable conditions in which they function, she does not attack the roots of the industry. Meanwhile, the Father heading the school is opposed to it because he dubs it morally corrupt. Nowhere is there an attempt to address the truth that subtly pokes through during the portrayal of the quality of lives that women in this profession lead; that the industry is not an expansion of women’s sexual agency as much as it is an agent for purporting male exploitation of female sexuality and vulnerability.


Urvie Bhattacharya

Urvie is a student pursuing literature at the University of Delhi. She’s a blahcksheep because she doesn’t feel like a real person and is angrier than she should be.


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