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Bombay Going: Nepali Migrant Sex Workers in an Anti-Trafficking Era by Susanne Åsman

Brigitte Steinmann
Bibliographical reference

Bombay Going: Nepali Migrant Sex Workers in an Anti-Trafficking Era by Susanne Åsman. Lanham: Lexington Books. 2018, 219 pp, 19 black and white photographs, ISBN 9781498558549 (hardback), ISBN 9781498558556 (e-book)

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1Susan Åsman conducted her ethnographic research during the first decade of the 21st century (2005–2006) in Sindhupalchowk (a district in the northern central part of Nepal, near the Tibetan border) and to be more precise in Ichigyang, a Tamang area ‘where there had been a continuity of women’s migration and return over generations’, and where women ‘have been creating an acceptance of their migration also for sex work or what is defined as sex trafficking by anti-trafficking organizations’ (p9). Through an intensive, multi-situated ethnographic and anthropological investigation, and ten years of regular contact and round trips between Ichigyang, Bombay and Kolkata, Susan Åsman is keen to demonstrate using narratives, biographies and sociological and historical analyses how Tamang women – formerly employed in Kathmandu palaces as nannies and maids, but also as concubines at the service of Râna dynasts in the Kathmandu Valley for sexual pleasure – were able, after the political decline of the latter, to develop a sex trade in Bombay for their own financial benefit and great individual and social success. This success was achieved despite all the vagaries and the political and economic changes that had already marked the 20th century. While their renowned beauty and dedication had enabled them to secure gratifications and positions in palaces, which would have been impossible in their rural home setting, it is through their own virtue that Tamang women developed, for their own benefit and for that of their community, the goods and outward signs of a true rural middle class. In a society where women and men not only occupy a subordinate position but often provide forced labour for caste Hindus and neighbouring populations, ‘by creating continuity in migration for sex work over time’ and without ‘resisting or fighting a male-dominated, gendered order, or abolishing or leaving prostitution, nor (by being) concerned with the fight for women’s liberation (...) in the way feminist actors usually understand agency’, Tamang women have created, the author writes, real ‘structural social changes in their places of origin, regarding gendered roles, family relations, marriage practices, mortuary rituals and religious practices, and inheritance rights’ (p202).

2Åsman’s work presents an in-depth examination of the Tamang domestic world and the history of prostitution among Tamang women in Nepal and post-colonial India. She recalls the role of the British administration in establishing a white slave trade and a prostitution network for ‘safe heterosexual relations’ (p19). Tamang women are described, to begin with, as unconditional mistresses of ‘houses’, who, although initially forced by the men of their villages to migrate to destinations unknown to them to engage in ‘easy work’ (p18) of which they often did not know the exact nature, managed to acquire, after years of toiling, a new subjectivity and identity: namely both recognition of their self-determination to earn money by renting out their bodies for sex and full use of the benefits of this new economic wealth acquired in the form of money, which is subsequently invested in new businesses, that is new brothels. They sometimes became landowners and were therefore able to provide for their offspring and, according to the anthropologist, became heroines of female emancipation in Nepal. If these women have achieved iconic status, Åsman explains, it is partly thanks to the enormous source of wealth, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of owners of brothels where ‘“everyone was going” and almost every household had a relative in Mumbai’ (p17). Women have been able to gradually shed the yoke of male oppression and to free themselves of the initial debt they ran up in setting up a brothel, with the work there primarily going towards reimbursing the initial costs (p122), though the anthropologist provides only hints of how this mechanism of bonded labour due to the debts that many migrant workers incur actually works. This shows how Tamang women have an innate capacity to gradually take their destiny into their own hands mainly by holding out against foreign endeavours to rehabilitate and socially integrate them, which have been undertaken by anti-trafficking NGOs that have plagued the country since the 1970s and 1980s. These real industries in Nepal, with a growing presence from 1990 onwards, were meant to prevent and prohibit women from engaging in what the Western world considers to be outright sexual trafficking. Women’s long and repeated absences, their abandonment of their kin, of their men back in their village and of rural work, their refusal to marry or the growing trend towards a free choice of marriage on their return are a sign, in Åsman’s eyes, that these Tamang women stand out as an accomplished model of success and of the conquest of subjectivity, a textbook case for women’s progress in gender debates. The author engages in a critical examination of both the dominant developmentalist discourse on sexual trafficking and the discourse of the Tamang associations (‘the Club’) created in the village during this movement. The broader Nepalese sociocultural context is addressed to fuel a general theoretical debate around the feminist issue of ‘agency’ in sexual work. Regardless of the many forms of oppression that have overwhelmed Tamang women individually and collectively, and even though they have been largely encouraged by their relatives – their brothers and fathers, and even their mothers –, to embark on prostitution, Åsman does not say that Tamang society at large is a society of pimps, nor that Tamang women still find themselves in a mutually accepted power relationship (Dousset 2017). Her rigorous, generous and empathetic investigation steers away from stereotypes associated with prostitution to find the true origins of the wonderful physical and symbolic emancipation of Tamang women. Had Åsman not talked about structural conditions, we might have followed her on many points. Unfortunately, the arguments on which her examples are based are tainted with contradictions which the anthropologist in her enthusiasm and empirical experience overlooks. Let’s pick up on the main points developed here.

3The recurrence of women’s return home from Bombay’s red-light district dates back a long way: ‘Almost every house, going back several generations, has a relative, a grand-mother, an auntie, a mother, or a sister who has worked or who is working in Mumbai’ (p3), Åsman announces at the outset. How could these relatively protected Tamang women working in palaces develop on their own this remote sex trade in India and succeed despite the dangers, infamy, discredit, diseases (AIDS, syphillis) and even death that are associated with sex work in general? This is indeed a paradox in Nepal, not only in the eyes of foreign observers but also of Nepalese Maoists, whom Åsman researched between 2005 and 2006, and of the members of the Tamang community itself. In fact, Tamang women are said to have enjoyed greater freedom well before the 1950s compared to their Indo-Nepalese counterparts who were subject to Hindu codes of behavior and to the rules of ritual purity and pre-marital chastity. Those who have returned (several times already) from Bombay’s red-light district, Åsman explains, have not only managed to maintain their family ties but have also freed themselves of quasi-compulsory marriage for women, while gaining prestige by participating in Buddhist religious activities most valued by the Tamang, such as funeral rites. What Åsman seems to ignore in this regard is that women have always played an active part in funeral rituals through their domestic work (Steinmann 1987). Money brought back from India allowed these Tamang women, who had become brothel owners in India, thus new mistresses of ‘houses’ in the village with a well-established reputation, to achieve emancipation and to make political headway: in short, role models for other women. From the start, the anthropologist bases her theory on the idea that the alleged ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘rescue’ (p7) of women by anti-trafficking organisations have merely masked all sorts of ambiguous Western mental images of sexual trafficking: images that have thrived especially around the questions of the huge profits made by pimps and the police in Nepal and India, and the basic idea that women are always considered victims, not agents, of this sex trade. This sociology presents itself as essentially anti-developmentalist and anti-feminist in a global sense, but a new form of feminism based on women’s agency and oriented away from the unilateral discourse of male domination held by some feminists. In this respect, Åsman also radically opposes those who reject the very idea of prostitution. It should be noted here that she uses the category of ‘sex work’ (Caviglia 2018) unilaterally in the feminine. Let’s go back to her main theoretical point.

4In the introduction, a key paragraph entitled ‘Houses, homes and brothels’ lays the foundations for the author’s reasoning and analysis. It is based mainly on the analytic concept of ‘house’, which she defines using numerous references to Anglo-Saxon, American and French anthropological theories. The house would be the heart of ‘interrelated processes of creating relatedness and becoming related, between house as social category and house as building’ (p11), linking the cosmological, architectural and symbolic aspects of the house. The definition of the concept ‘house’ is presented as ‘not only a theoretical and analytical category but also a category of significance for the Tamang when it comes to their sense of belonging and as a place where relatedness is created in everyday interaction’ (p11). Later on, she relies on Lévi-Strauss’s work to define this concept analytically: ‘rather than looking at kinship through theories of fixed categories, we should instead be looking at indigenous concepts and ways of creating kinship’ and consider the house ‘in what he defined as “house-based societies” as such an indigenous concept’ (p12). An important debate surrounded this notion of ‘house-based societies’ in Lévi-Strauss’ anthropology, a notion that was called into question in the 1980s (Lévi-Strauss, Lamaison 1987). However, what Lévi-Strauss calls ‘house-based societies’ has nothing to do with the ‘Tamang house’ taken up by Åsman in her descriptions of women’s sociability. According to Lévi-Strauss, the house is above all a legal entity, in possession of a domain composed of material and immaterial assets: it is not clear how such a legal entity would exist in an essentially patrilineal clan society where the house as a building and the adjoining land are not individual property but belong to a male lineage, thus, a fortiori, unrelated to women! We are not in Tibetan houses here. On the other hand, while Åsman also relies on Bourdieu’s analytical sociology, it is regrettable that she does not cite the work of the sociologist (Bourdieu 1998) who radically challenges the mere possibility of individual exercise of any subjectivity by women who are collectively dominated by men. Men and women are conditioned by their habitus that governs sexual domination. Does the assertion that the Tamang women of this district achieved a form of social recognition thanks to the money brought back after many years of sex trafficking dispense the author from recognising the fundamental contradictions this sexual work presents? Certainly not, at least as far as the authors quoted (even Michel Foucault, who is also cited) are concerned. The anthropologist describes in evolutionary terms a social, political and economic context in Nepal, which would have facilitated or prevented this work, but she never connects the destinies of men (brothers, husbands, sons) to those of women: they sell each other and the souls that have been sold somehow redeem their sellers after decades of sexual slavery. Does ‘sex worker’ denote more prestige than ‘salaried worker’? The liberal ideology and positivism at work behind this survey completely ignore the global sexual economy, which initially prevails in these hot ‘Tamang houses’. It is based, in fact, on the preconception of men’s unbridled sexuality, which would explain their enthusiasm in selling women abroad. Research would need to be carried out into the meaning of ‘economy’ and ‘work’ during the period 1960s–1980s in rural societies in Nepal. What did it mean to ‘work in the fields’, to live according to a quasi-subsistence economy where money only began to arrive thanks to men’s mass emigration, in the form of daily or monthly wages? Indeed, bringing Indian rupees home from 1980 onwards might have allowed you to buy back small plots of land, but without their ‘workers’, and with derelict houses and consumer goods, which were totally useless in a rural setting (Steinmann 1986). Women have been openly and collectively drawn into these profitable enterprises abroad precisely because of the mirage this ready, easy money has proved to be due to the total absence of a local money market and of waged work; it is the close control of a community that encouraged women and their daughters to sell their bodies to prevent themselves from starving. In all the examples of migrant life courses and the journeying back and forth from Nepal to Bombay as decribed by Åsman, it would seem that Tamang women, from the very first pioneers to those who run successful brothels today using other Tamang women, have a long and remarkable history of resistance. They are all said to have a natural ability to manage from afar their warm, cosy households with which they maintain a vital link. The book gives little detailed information about the real nature and needs of Indian clients and their behavior towards Nepali women. Whatever the case, it appears to be a heterosexual demand on the part of Indian men who are not rich enough to find a wife for themselves. The collateral damage caused in Nepal by this sex trade, the networks of clan brother pimps and the connivance between the Nepali and Indian police are rather chastely ignored. According to Åsman, Western definitions of processes of building intimate domestic ties overlook the importance of ‘small transformative acts of lived everyday practices (…) the emotional and other aspects of sleeping together and sharing the intimacy of space in the house, sharing resources, cooking, eating and sharing substances’ (p12), all elements that would have been forgotten or diminished in gender studies. In this process ‘the sharing of hearth’ is important and ‘the heat of the hearth is central in making raw or persons different from each other, into “cooked” and “mixed” people’ (p13). Although this expression partly translates the Tamang metaphor of suro phuro that we explain further, in fact, the basic domestic unit for these Tamangs is no more a private house than the brothels where women operate in Bombay, which could also be regarded as private places and even be recreated as such by the Tamang women. Everything the anthropologist describes resembles a rather shabby structure of simple rooms in brothels where Tamang women crowd together with relatives and passing visitors, and do their work behind a simple curtain drawn across to hide the only bed: ‘the brothel and home was mostly the size of one small room’ (p106). Even a cursory review of world literature about brothels might have been useful here to show the diversity and hierarchies between the world’s middle-class and proletarian brothels.

5Indeed, it is regrettable that the author, who nevertheless grasps some peculiarities of Tamang hospitality, has not further investigated the ritual activities that demonstrate how marriages are performed in Nepal and how newly married women are allocated a new home in their husband’s quarters under the guardianship of a mother-in-law and of patrilineal and patriarchal rule. Åsman especially ignores the link between this mixed kinship she evokes and the nature of the rigorous selection of spouses in Tamang houses, the suro phuro that dictates whether they may or may not ‘eat in the same containers’ (Steinmann 1986) and who will therefore be designated as valid spouses or excluded from sexual reproduction. This theme adds to the one of the purity of the tripod (thi, thaps) in the home, which is carefully controlled by the lamas in charge of clan rituals (labon); the home, where a woman is always suspected of polluting and defiling the pure substances offered to the gods of the clans, whose altar is located at the top of the house: the reason why women are regularly driven away from this place, after which the hearth is entirely dismantled then, when cleansed of all physiological pollution, reassigned to her provided that she prepares the meals, serves all her relatives and keeps for herself only the leftovers when everyone else has been served. And let us not forget the rituals offered up to ancestors, which retell the myth of origins and incestuous errors attributed to women, always guilty of having introduced disorder into the alliance and pollution into the world. Their mythical counter-models, the Mamo, are the object of the most powerful exorcism rituals to counter the evil influences attributed to women and witches (Steinmann 2001). However, in 2005, the year in which the survey is situated, these ancient worlds had already undergone transformations: the use of female energy for lighting and maintaining a fireplace with corn stalks and embers borrowed from a neighbour’s lit fireplace – in order to save matches (in the 1960s to 1980s, this indicated that there were resources in cash to buy them at the market); the habit of using women’s saris as recipients for all sorts of spilt physiological fluids: babies’ urine and faeces, men’s semen, mentsrual blood; the laments of mothers left alone in the home (men were already widely employed in portage businesses in Nepal and therefore left the hard work in the fields to women and elders); these same mothers who left their young daughters in the care of their brothers to go to work faraway. During fieldwork in the Temal region in 1980, I was told by many women that cast an anxious look at this anthropologist from a faraway country, who was trying to obtain information or confirmation (Steinmann 2001), about the disappearance of their young daughters (maili, second daughter; saili, third daughter) and about men frequently having two homes, with one woman in the countryside and one in the city. In the 1990s, I witnessed the laments of women who, when faced with the mass departure of men, came over to this free and fanciful anthropologist with their urgent and timid requests for condoms so that they would not be burdened with additional offspring every time their men returned from a trek (families of twelve to fourteen children were not uncommon). All this must have forced women to become faithful guardians of intimate and compassionate relationships, while participating in the great international alienation of migrant labourers! The truth in this rhetoric is the equation between ‘woman’, ‘sex’ and ‘home’. Should it be said that ‘the house’ in the cases dealt with by Åsman is basically only the ‘generous matrix’ of Tamang women ready to put up with all the faeces of the world, to suffer all the frustrations, defections and misfortunes? In this sense, she rightly celebrates these wonderful women who, in turn, have finally figured out how to send others abroad to do the dirty work. However, despite this tremendous success, these Tamang women have not become lama or village leaders! On the other hand, they have maintained power over their youngest siblings and their children by continuing to send their daughters and sisters to Indian brothels, and their boys abroad for work purposes. No examples are given of how successful Tamang women might have invested in opening schools for women or in setting up businesses other than ones selling sexual favours (the only service they offer). The testimony of a young Tamang man, who was a social worker in Ichok at the time Åsman conducted her enquiry and who is a professional anthropologist today (Mukta Singh Tamang), offers illuminating insights into this:

6I am not sure if women would choose this job in this scale, if they had education and other economic options. I lived in Ichhok village for a year in 1989 when I was working as social worker with a volunteer organization. I was inexperienced and young but I could see high poverty, low education, heavy oppression and exploitation by valley Bahun Chhetris and Yolmo lamas in the upper ridges. I remember people who lived in very difficult situation, in hunger and poverty. They had little land of their own – almost all land belonged to Yolmo Lamas and they were tenants in their own land. Together with my team, I organized women’s adult literacy classes, worked with farmers introducing new vegetables, and helped families to start saving groups, etc. I talked to mothers and Bombay returnees as well, many of them had no clue of the kind of job they would be doing when their daughters were taken by brokers at their teens. Several men folks were part of trafficking team who often were blessed, at that time, by Pashupati Shamsher Rana. This Rana guy got elected from this area several tenures and became minister for 30 years of Panchayat, but he did not bother to open even a single high school in Tamangs village. I put villagers from Pating village working as ploughers for houses’ reconstructions in Melamchi, last summer; the situation seemed pretty much the same. (Personal communication by Mukta Singh Tamang, professeur ar Tribhuvan University)

7In the book, there is little or no evidence of class relations between Nepalese prostitutes of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, and Indian and Nepalese prostitutes in the Bombay district. By the time the anthropologist had completed her investigation, the streets where Tamang women used to work had been largely transformed and rebuilt. The good old family atmosphere created by Tamang women in Bombay had been destroyed by liberal economic enterprises of urban cosmetisation. Clear information is provided only about interethnic and inter-caste divisions in Nepal with regard to the social rules governing the ritual impurity of women during their menstrual periods and, in general, as food producers and keepers of close kinship links in the house. In conclusion, the author affirms that women would always have freely consented to selling their vagina, having continued to work in Indian brothels even after learning about the true nature of their work, about the AIDS epidemic and other diseases. It is therefore regrettable that the only evidence of this success – access to consumer goods in the village, their personal investment in religious matters, the possible purchase of husbands and the right to claim this activity as real work – is given only in opposition to their resistance to NGOs’ anti-trafficking industry. On the other hand, it is true that so-called development agencies have been of a fundamentally questionable nature and oriented towards anything other than the well-being of women and their emancipation. I would go even further by saying that the importance of anti-trafficking NGO campaigns is much more lucrative for its employees than sex work is for Tamang women in India! The substantial development of NGO networks since the 1980s has gone hand in hand with very strong resistance by Bombay-going women, including very young ones, to attempts at the border to arrest them immediately after the 2015 earthquake: very young girls left en masse by bus for India and fought against policemen who tried to snatch them from the vehicles to prevent them from leaving ‘the Nepal house’. One would agree with Åsman that Tamang women who continue to choose the Indian brothel over any other job are not only victims: after all, this work is preferable to the domestic situation described above. But why not also say that men who went to work for example in India, the Gulf countries, Malaysia and who often found themselves in a semi-bounded status, were as alienated as women who had no choice but to work by considering their vagina as an independent object, a work tool? The true paradigm of ‘the house’ would not, as the author argues, be at the root of any conquest of subjectivity (of women or men engaged in bounded work), but of a persistence of postcolonial state structures in India as well as in a Nepal which has gone, with few transitions, from overwhelming feudalism to socialist revolutions that have failed to transform society. In the end, this book presents itself as an important testimony to the generosity, openness and great self-giving of Nepal’s most oppressed populations. It is a very pleasant read and a very committed work. It makes a valuable statement about the gradual withdrawal of autonomy from migrant workers, whether men or women, faced with the growing control of foreign, Western and Asian, so-called development agencies that set out, from the 1960s onwards, to spread the global liberal doctrine, the one that governs international agreements facilitating the purchase by the rich countries of cheap workers throughout Southeast Asia.

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Bourdieu, P 1998. La domination masculine. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Caviglia, L 2018. Sex Work in Nepal: The Making and Unmaking of a Category. London and New-York: Routledge.

Dousset, L 2017. ‘Godelier et la pluralité des dominations.’ In C Lemieux, L Berger, M Macé, G Salmon, C Vidal (eds), Pour les sciences sociales (101 livres) Paris: EHESS, pp194–196.

Lévi-Strauss, C and Lamaison, P 1987. ‘La notion de maison. Entretien avec Claude Lévi‑Strauss par Pierre Lamaison’. Terrain. Anthropologie & Sciences humaines 9: 34–39.

Steinmann, B 2001. Les enfants du Singe et de la Démone. Mémoires des Tamangs, récits himalayens. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie.

Steinmann, B 1987. ‘La cérémonie funéraire chez les Tamang de l’Est’. Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 76: 217–280.

Steinmann, B 1986. Les Tamangs du Népal. Usages et religion, religion de l’usage. Paris: ADPF, collection Recherche sur les civilisations.

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Electronic reference

Brigitte Steinmann, « Bombay Going: Nepali Migrant Sex Workers in an Anti-Trafficking Era by Susanne Åsman », European Bulletin of Himalayan Research [Online], 56 | 2021, Online since 10 September 2021, connection on 27 October 2021. URL :

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About the author

Brigitte Steinmann

Brigitte Steinmann is emeritus professor at the Institute of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Lille I. Her last publication, with M. Singh Tamang and Thuden Gyalcen Lama: Exorcizing Ancestors, Conquering Heaven: Himalayan Rituals in Context (Vajra Publications, 2020).

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Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue European Bulletin of Himalayan Research sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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