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College of Arts and Sciences Newsroom

University of Dayton anthropologist awarded Asian studies fellowship

By Dave Larsen

The International Institute for Asian Studies awarded University of Dayton anthropologist Simanti Dasgupta a fellowship for the 2020-21 academic year at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Dasgupta, associate professor of anthropology, plans to complete a book manuscript about the sex workers’ labor movement in Kolkata, India.

From 2010 to 2019, Dasgupta conducted field work with the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a female sex workers’ collective founded in 1995 in Sonagachi, the iconic red-light district in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

Her work examines how the district’s women, stigmatized for centuries as “prostitutes,” came to occupy the more empowering position of “worker” and claim sex work rights, including safe access to preventative medical services. She argues that the Durbar labor movement resulted, rather inadvertently, from state surveillance programs to prevent both the spread of HIV/AIDS and trafficking in Sonagachi.

“You have to look at both the HIV and anti-trafficking, because this medical-legal intersection is very critical in the way that they have come to think of themselves as the worker,” Dasgupta said.

Highlighted by public health scholars as a globally replicable model based on addressing structural barriers such as stigma and poverty, the Durbar movement resonates with the Dutch model of decriminalized prostitution. Completing her book in the Netherlands will allow Dasgupta to speak with Dutch activists to see how they collectivize.

She plans to collaborate with the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, located in Amsterdam. She also plans to look at the larger issue of labor migration through resources in Geneva, Switzerland, that include the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Leiden University research initiatives including the Leiden Socio-Legal Series and the International Institute of Social Studies, in The Hague, will offer invaluable networks for her as well.

“Being a part of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), which gathers interdisciplinary scholars from around the world and focuses on innovative research, is sure to be a fruitful experience,” said Jeanne Holcomb, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work. “It's exciting to consider long-term implications, too, not just for Simanti, but also for the broader UD community, such as through future impacts on teaching and student experiences, research collaboration and with the International Studies program.”

Dasgupta, who joined the University of Dayton faculty in 2009, was appointed associate director of the International Studies program in fall 2019. Her 2015 book, BITS of Belonging: Information Technology, Water and Neoliberal Governance in India, explored how India’s middle class have benefitted from the country’s emergence as a global information technology power, while its urban poor have struggled to maintain access to the basic necessity of water.

Her new book project, tentatively titled Prophylactic Rights: Sex Work, HIV/AIDS and Anti-Trafficking in Sonagachi, India, will be the first book-length anthropological work on Sonagachi.

Dasgupta’s interest in Sonagachi started when she was a child in Kolkata. She recalled asking her elders about the women in bright makeup in the district, which is located on a main corridor in the middle of the city.

“I was really curious about who they are, but nobody would say anything,” she said. “There would be a complete silence. No one would say a word and that stayed with me.”

After she completed her first book, Dasgupta decided to explore the women’s lives.

“It has been quite an experience, actually, being there,” she said. “It is amazing. A movement like that, from very marginalized, mostly uneducated and mostly illiterate women doing this, it is quite amazing to see.”

Her research took years, in part because she can only do field work during the summer months, outside of the semester teaching schedules. But more importantly, it took time to develop a rapport with the women, so that she could collaborate with them.

“Ethnography is all about building trust,” Dasgupta said. “Now we are to the point, after a decade, they know I’m going to come to Kolkata. They anticipate my visit. We hang out a lot. The woman who was my primary contact person and collaborator is not doing very well, so part of my time there goes into making sure that she gets medical help. I’m setting up doctors’ appointments and stuff like that.”

Established in 1993 by the Dutch Ministry of Education as an inter-university institute, the International Institute for Asian Studies today is based at Leiden University. IIAS is a global humanities and social sciences research institute and knowledge exchange platform that supports programs which engage Asian and other international partners.

For more information, visit the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work website.

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