July 10, 2008

Scavengers As Models: Exploitation Chic or Empowering?

I FOUND this news story about Indian “sanitation workers” (scavengers, if we avoid the euphemism) modelling in New York pretty bizarre. I do hope you’ll read the article before proceeding to comment, but in a nutshell: 36 Indian sanitation workers were invited to a conference as part of the UN’s International Year of Sanitation. In New York, they took part in a fashion show called Mission Sanitation, walking the ramp beside professional models.

Scavenging is deeply dehumanizing work, and an end to the profession would be truly welcome. But why modelling (not professionally, I must add, but as a novelty event)?

A particularly interesting part of the article:

The ceremony was especially poignant for Usha Chomar, because she was unofficially crowned as princess of sanitation workers.

i don’t think that modelling is necessarily un- or anti-feminist. But I also don’t think that the simple juxtapositioning of a highly enviable profession and a highly undesirable one makes any real statement. I also do not believe that beauty pageants actually empower anyone at all, except perhaps the winners themselves, but in ways that are carefully orchestrated by the real power-holders. If half the promises made during pageants were actually kept, the world would be a much, much different place.

Maybe my feminism is a bit old-school, but attending a UN conference and then “doing some modelling” sort of sounds like a big drop to me. Coming out of one of the most degrading professions in the world… and then hitting the catwalk, en masse? Is that really activism or achievement? Or just another spin on that old oppression-chic cliche? I have no doubt that some of the participants must have really enjoyed the experience. But it’s the motives of the organisers that I question. When will we stop treating underprivileged people — of any background — as pawns that add a touch of controlled reality and an ambience of altruism to otherwise extremely unrelated situations?

What do you think?

4 comments to Scavengers As Models: Exploitation Chic or Empowering?

  • well, modeling represents “glamour” in society’s terms, and sanitation workers aren’t exactly glamorous. however, i don’t think it’s necessarily about making the scavengers seem “beautiful,” but when you juxtapose something that society considers “beautiful” with what society considers “the lowest of the low,” it’s going to draw attention, and that’s the point.

    plus, some of the clothes in the fashion show, i believe, were partially designed by the sanitation workers themselves.

  • SM

    To my mind, it is exhibitionism at its worst – akin to the time when people from Africa were taken to England and paraded around like exhibits.

  • The issue that Sharanya raises is really valid, but if one were to look at it on purely symbolic terms, I think it is a great thing. Manual scavenging has to be legally outlawed in India under the Safai Karamchari act, but like untouchability it persists. And Dalit women are forced to become manual scavengers not only because the caste system is in place, but also because they have sons and daughters whose education they have to support, and ailing parents whom they have to take care of. And being a sanitation worker in India is I think the closest to living hell.

    These women have to leave their homes at the break of dawn, and they have to carry what is so sophisicatedly called night-soil over their heads. They are seen as polluting, they are regarded as not-to-be-seen, so putting them on the ramp, for however a short period, means that you are sending out the signal/statement that the said dalit women’s enforced invisibility is being broken. It’s not just the higher levels of society that looks upon these women as less-than-human beings, but even their own children sometimes don’t like to identify with them in public places.

    Theirs is an extremely stigmatizing profession, and if they are to be empowered there’s no textbook rule of how it will come about. Every space under the sun has to be claimed.

    I am also not sure if the motive of the organizers was really one of exploitation. Sulabh has been working with sanitation for ages.

    Besides, the same BBC article also says that 700 million Indians don’t have access to safe and hygenic toilets. If that’s the real statistics, then all of us have to salute these women. This nation has remained clean because these women have been taking the unpalatable risk of getting dirty. In turn, they have only suffered in terms of stigmatization and poverty and health problems. These women, and their sisters need the reassurance that at least the future belongs to them, and that change is really possible!

  • anu

    Country’s Shame-
    Model-excreta-ramp article… .. …appeared bizarre to some readers -no doubt, but a number of other readers around the world traced up related articles about this profession and the continued apathy of the Indian people and India’s administrators towards this issue.
    To me, this exhibited the shame of my country, that it cannot clean after it self, it does not care to develop infrastructure for the very basics. Instead, even today has a community of humans to clean up, that it is home to citizens who carry excretum of others on their heads, citizens whom it wants hidden from civilized society.

    Kudos to those professional models having ‘enviable’, ‘glamorous’ lifestyles for sharing their space briefly with women -whose undesirable job hazards include rain washing down the shit from the open containers on their heads on to their faces and drenching their sarees. Most other Indian women actually cover their mouth and nose, if God forbid, they come within walking distance of these workers even when they are not on the job.

    Gender neutral coverage?
    Both men and women share this profession and I hope the agencies working to create awareness of marginalized men, took note that there was no coverage about male models or the lack of them. Considering that men intoxicate themselves, numb out their senses before entering the dry septic tanks, finish the task, intoxicate again to forget the sights and smells until the next night……….. walking the ramp and the subsequent media interest does seem out of their reach. Any ideas?

    My 2 cents on comments 2 and 3:
    In the US, Africans were exhibited and then sold. Condoleezza Rice, Toni Morrison and others are descendants of some of those ‘exhibit’ ancestors and today happen to be world figures……this trajectory is filled with many episodes of dehumanizing spectacles that offended well-meaning mainstream individuals. Everything helps to bring about change -thanks for writing up this post.


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