The Optimist Citizen

A young man’s incessant tussle to bring dignity for the sex workers of New Delhi

Amidst the hustling corners, fringes, and streets of New Delhi lies GB Road. The name fills in with any other street in the city, but in the societal cauldron of what’s right and what’s wrong, it has been only covertly talked about in hush voices – as if not to spill it’s ‘evil’ and ‘filth’ onto the higher social order. GB Road in New Delhi is the locality inhabited by the sex workers and their families. Now, the word sex has long been listed in the questionable section of our society’s vocabulary, but attaching this to a profession has taken the discrimination to a different tangent.

Sex work is not accepted as a profession to earn a livelihood. It is commonly seen as a field where the person lacks integrity and honor and is thus treated as an outcaste. This further results in distorted and pre-conceived notions about their identities, bypassing an understanding of their life stories or the place that they are coming from.

Tahir Hussain too found a new insight in and for this community, and answered many questions that he had been carrying within, with his work there. Tahir’s journey of engaging and expressing his sensitivity to social issues began at a young age however, what brought him to GB Road is a story within a story. As a young college graduate who was involved with NSS program called NSS Re-imagining representing his college Jamia Milia Islamia, Tahir got a chance to participate in the orientation camp organized by the Delhi based organization Pravah as a part of their Smile In-turn-ship programme.

In the orientation camp, Tahir learnt about understanding self and society in consonance. He then embarked on a journey where he further delved into community development. He worked with Him Vikas in Uttarakhand and helped villagers attain and understand the right value of their agricultural produce. This experience hooked Tahir to a sense of intrigue and how we as human beings can utilize our skills to help others.

Tahir came back to Delhi and decided to partake in a longer engagement and became a SMILE Fellow, the next step post the SMILE In-turn-ship that escalates your work in a period of 6 months, with deeper interaction with a community. It was here that he got the opportunity to facilitate a session about the life of sex workers at GB road along with his co-fellows. They organized a self to society day with the members of Kat Katha – an organization that working for the rights of sex workers in New Delhi – and provided them with a space to express themselves and share their experiences.

Little apprehension clouded Tahir’s thought, but he took the leap nevertheless. He went ahead in search of an answer for the many questions, stereotypes, and misconceptions that have dug its jaws into society’s conscience.
These misconceptions began to get shattered and demystified on his engagement with the people of the community. The more he interacted and got to know their stories at a personal level, the more compassion he felt for them.

This marked a turning point in Tahir’s life where he was coming out of his comfort zone, in exploration of something which was very, in many ways, different and unconventional. Nevertheless, he continued with his explorations and the task of spreading awareness on the same. Tahir and his co-fellows started looking for learning spaces for the sex workers where they could be accepted as human beings beyond the labels of society. As Tahir contends, “If we have a sex worker sitting next to us, it wouldn’t bother us until we got to know that she was a sex worker. So it is the society that has shaped our perceptions”. It is evident to note here that when we speak of society we speak of it as the ‘other’ or something outside of ourselves, whereas the society is made up of people like you and I, our perceptions and actions. These perceptions may be rigid or conservative but with consistent efforts can be changed, “Definitely it will change, I have seen it happen. I was once in a conversation with a guy and he kept using the word ‘randi’ (whore) – an unabashedly crude word referring to a sex worker. So I tried sharing my experience with him and opened the floor for a discussion. Later when we met he believed me that these people are just like us and have their own identity”.

It is imperative to make people aware about the life stories of the sex workers and enable them to feel accepted in spaces of mainstream. It is essential to get them an identity and voice of their own. As Tahir puts it “I have tried to use my personal findings and experiences to make people understand the life stories of sex workers. Like, there was one girl who was brought into this industry at the age of 16 unknowingly, kept as a servant till she turned 18 and later was forced to become a sex worker. More so, she was from Kashmir and did not understand Hindi. Another story is of a woman who was forced to stay hungry for five days because she was unable to fulfill their ‘targets’ because of her ill health”.

And Tahir has been working tirelessly to organize discussions, deliberation, and sessions with hundreds of members of the society – including college students, corporate workers, and public servants. He is trying to give an opinion on the part of sex workers, which has been largely unheeded till now.

Tahir gives credit to Pravah for enabling his personal growth through the journey of undertaking the Smile In-turn-ship to becoming a fellow and taking up work with kat-katha, he has grown in non-judgmental spaces and having gained a sense of self-awareness about himself and his relation with the society.

Before we go in the society or even attempt to understand its dynamics, it’s essential for us to understand our relationship with ourselves, our belief systems, our values and then see these as an extension in our relation with the society.

This story talks about the lives of sex workers as much as it talks about the journey undertaken by Tahir from understanding and exploring himself to becoming an agent of social change and inciting a new voice to the ignored opinions of sex workers.

To know more about Tahir’s work, you can get in touch with him here.  

Pravah SMILE In-turn-ship is a 3 – 6 week voluntary placement with an organisation/movement in any part of the country. SMILE encourages volunteers to turn the gaze inwards, and extend the understanding of their own selves to the society. It is thus referred to as “In-turn-ship”.  Pravah’sd SMILE Fellowship aims to create self and social impact by enabling youth to take up leadership roles and run social action projects for a period of 6 months.

To connect to the Pravah SMILE programme you can get in touch at 


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