(Content from TrustLaw with permission)
Rathi Ramanathan is a human rights activist in Bangkok. Her latest job is as a policy worker for Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, a coalition of groups and projects working on HIV and human rights for male, female and transgender sex workers in Asia Pacific. She features in What do women’s rights mean to you?, a multimedia production to mark the launch of TrustLaw Women.
(Interview by Thin Lei Win)
To hear Rathi’s interview, visit to the TrustLaw Women website.
What do women’s rights mean to you?
“I want to say at the outset that I am a privileged woman. I have come from an upper middle class family and have had the privilege of having a tertiary education and two masters. So I don’t necessarily believe I represent every women and I just want to state that.
“However, for me, because I’ve been doing a lot of work around the struggle of women’s rights, I think the biggest struggle is the fact that women continue to still feel the need to talk about women’s rights. I mean we shouldn’t have to – we shouldn’t have to actually position ourselves in terms of women’s rights.
“I actually want us to all come together and be able talk about human rights for everybody and that we’re human rights defenders for all women.
“But the women’s rights movement doesn’t t often talk about sex workers’ rights, and the sex workers don’t talk about women’s rights and I think it creates a kind of chasm that’s not going to ever be resolved unless we all sit around the table and talk about what rights mean to all of us.
“Because we all face multiple levels of discrimination. We all have different experiences. Whether you come from the community and you are illiterate and you are a sex worker, you still need to be respected from that space.
“Sex workers have agency, and I often find that feminists don’t always understand that fully well. They still feel that some women are forced to do certain things. I think that reality can only be matched if there’s more conversation between different communities and different movements and I don’t know why that doesn’t take place more often but that needs to happen.
“And I also think that too often, women’s rights or the women’s movement tend to be comfortable in their own spaces and they tend to be elitist. They tend to be friendship-based and they don’t extend their hands to a lot of the work and other allies in the political and civil rights struggle.”
What rights do you think all women should have?
“Off course women have fought for decades to get women’s rights and we now have a mechanism to protect our rights. But what continues to elude us is the ability to exercise our rights, particularly the rights around sexual rights, and I think it continues to be a tool for a largely very patriarchal system in Asia to keep women in their place, to check them through our bodies.
“I think women need to start to understand a little bit about their body politics and how often our bodies are the first to be violated, whether it’s in times of conflict or whether it’s in terms of power struggle within the bedroom.
“Let’s just look at Egypt where women are being sexually assaulted just for being protestors because they’re soft targets. They’re easy and it’s using again their bodies to leave a loud message saying: ‘We’re men, we can do whatever we want with you,’ and that continues to be humongously problematic in this region.
“And let’s talk about sexual rights. What do we also mean by sexual rights? We also mean the right to pleasure, that women cannot articulate the need within the bedroom to talk about their desires, their need to also experience desire in the bedroom. It is really sad.
“And it also contributes to what we call the hosting. If you ask someone like me, who’s sexually liberated, whatever that means, and is able to enjoy sex, who’s able to say I have multiple partners, I’m stigmatised for that because the gender norms around women’s sexuality continue to be: ‘You need to be a virgin. You need to be satisfying your husband and you cannot say you have a high libido because that would mean you’re a slut.’
“The issues around women sexuality is completely subjugated under these oppressive structures of control where a man still wants to be able to say: ‘I can be promiscuous but you can’t be promiscuous.’
“There are double standards around how women’s expression of sexuality and their behaviour around sexuality is not free.
“And I think that itself creates an extra problem for the sex worker movement because for sex workers to actually be able to say they want to be sex workers – because you know what, they don’t actually have problems having multiple partners or a lot of them have good, stable clients who treat them well – they’re not able to say comfortably that they enjoy the flexibility of being a sex worker and getting actually paid for being a sex worker.
“Instead the portrayal of a sex worker in this region is of a woman without agency, a woman who’s forced into sex work because she has to feed the family.
“That is absolutely not the pluralistic positions of sex workers. There are many multiple realities for sex workers but the constant dominant idea is that a sex worker is somebody who’s been forced to go into sex work to feed the family.
“And I think that is also part of whole gender norms around women’s sexuality, women’s right to pleasure and the fact that men continues to control us and our bodies.