Empowerment is often measured on the yardsticks of education, awareness and financial independence. But does empowerment mean only to be educated and earn a living? Can empowerment have a different definition based on the circumstances in a person’s life? The answer to this is in the story of the Mafia Queen, owner of a brothel and the exponent of the rights of sex workers, Gangubai Kathiawadi. Rightly differentiated as a woman of spirit from a victim of circumstances in Hussain Zaidi’s and Jane’s Mafia Queens Of Mumbai, Kathiawadi embodies the empowerment that comes from the will to brave any circumstance and simultaneously earn respect and wealth.
Gangubai’s life took a new turn as she made connections with underworld, police and other figures of power
A woman with dreams, aspirations and choices
Born in Kathiawadi, Gujarat, Gangubai Harjivandas belonged to an educated and well-settled family of lawyers. She was one of the privileged women who was encouraged to pursue her education and completed her studies in school. However, Gangubai was charmed by Bollywood and wanted to be a part of it. But life had a different plan for this aspiring young girl. At the age of 16, she fell in love with her father’s accountant and decided to elope with him, leaving behind her education and dreams. Could her life be different if she chose to continue her education and pursue her dreams to be an actress? This cannot be said but what can be affirmed is that despite disconnecting from education, considered to be the weapon of empowerment, Gangubai emerged as one of the empowered women in history. How did that happen?
Gangubai pushed into a brothel, what next?
Gangubai and her beloved fled to Mumbai and started a new life. But the start reached an abrupt end when her beloved betrayed her. He sold Gangubai at a brothel in Kamathipura for Rs 500 and changed her life forever. The aspiring young girl who dreamt to be on the screens of Bollywood and live a happy life with her beloved was pushed into a brothel. However, this heart-wrenching transition in her life marked the beginning of a new chapter that gave her the name ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’.
It took days of crying and suffering to get over the misery she was meted out. Once she rose above it, Gangubai understood that she had no other option but to stay at the brothel. Subsequently, she became one of the most prized prostitutes who earned a handsome amount from the seths. This was the first time when Gangubai braved the circumstances, rejecting the role-play of a victim. She was a spirited woman who knew how to not succumb to the situations and pave a way out of it, brave, empowered and independent. This was exactly how she tackled another major misfortune of her life and became what she is remembered as till date.
Gangubai Kathiawadi- one of the Mafia Queens of Mumbai
Gangubai was brutally raped and made invalid by a member of mafia don Karim Lala. In order to seek justice, she approached Karim Lala himself. Consequently, Lala not only beat her perpetrator but also made Gangubai his ‘rakhi sister’ and warned everyone against ill-treating her. From here Gangubai’s life took a new turn as she made connections with underworld, police and other figures of power. She became the owner of the brothel where she was once a victim. The brothel flourished with wealth and power due to its connection with the underworld. Gangubai became affluent enough to wear a saree with golden borders and blouse with buttons of gold. She was the only woman in the brothel to ride a black Bentley. Soon she was known as the Mafia Queen of Mumbai and the Queen of Kamathipura.
The empowerment that empowered others
What also made her journey of empowerment significant was her dedication to empowering other sex-workers. Gangubai had earned enough respect and power to champion the tabooed causes and rights of other sex-workers. She advocated that being a sex-worker does not give any man the right to violate her against her will. Besides, she never forced any woman inside a brothel against her will. The influence of her dedication towards a social cause was so much that she became rare sex-worker whose statue was erected in Kamathipura. She took part in a woman empowerment summit with the social workers and NGOs where her speech attracted appreciations from the then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. In her speech, she advocated the rights of prostitutes and the need to build prostitution belts in the cities. Impressed by her will to protect the red-light area and the sex-workers, PM Nehru asked her why doesn’t she marry if she is so good. Gangubai immediately asked if he was willing to marry her. Seeing the obvious blankness on his face, she said, “It is easy to preach than to practice.”
These words of Gangubai summarises her own life journey. Her empowerment did not follow the preached path that revolved around education. The definition of Gangubai’s empowerment moved from an aspiring young girl who made her own decisions to a spirited woman with respect, voice and power. Gangubai truly gives us a benchmark of empowerment that arises from the will to never give up and consolidates in empowering other women.