Subverting the Powers

[Giving Up Violence for Lent]

Guest Post: Beth Waterman

Beth continues our series in giving up violence for lent, reflecting on her own inclinations to hate her friends’ oppressors, and her subversive acts that turn society on its head.

If I’m honest, nonviolence is easier for me to talk and theorize about than choose in real life. My imagination still entertains ideas of the revenge I would divvy out to those who oppress and abuse the ones I love. Even as I write this I find myself accusing, “Why are you writing an article on non-violent resistance Beth?”  I am still mid-process in this journey of becoming a woman of peace. I ache to become a person of activism in my daily life. I want to choose nonviolence at my core, in thought and motive and deed.

For the last 7 years, I have worked alongside a social business called Sari Bari, helping women find alternative employment from the sex industry in Kolkata, India. My primary role was working as Sari Bari’s Social Welfare Director, and I wore many hats on a daily basis. Brothel visitation, coordinating medical and HIV doctor’s visits, attending to the mental wellness of our women, and responding to emergency and crisis situations were a few most often worn through the years. What I have found during my time working within the red light area is that the sex industry by its very nature is violent. It is based on a system of power, lust, and violence. My grandiose ideals of nonviolent resistance withered and caved in the face of such horrific abuses of power. I wanted to see oppressors pay, I wanted to see the weak and vulnerable rise up, I wanted justice, ashamedly at any cost. Through the years, a battle raged within me, but we are faced with the choice of how to handle the situations around us, and with each step away from violence in my own heart my rage was defied and I began to realize that I could resist the violence around me by subtle and not so subtle choices within. I could fight the systems instead of entertaining my thoughts of hateful revenge towards people.

subvertingPowersLast August, I made the difficult decision to leave Kolkata and pursue graduate studies in trauma counseling and social work. The Sari Bari community commissioned me towards this new season with a beautiful show of love even amidst their own sorrow of losing a fellow sister and friend. They threw me a goodbye party, and it was beautiful in every way! A local wedding house was rented and caterers were booked to make pounds and pounds of rice and delicious chicken curry (a staple for any successful Indian party!). There were streamers and music and the most unlikely group of attendants. Of course the Sari Bari women were there in full force, decked out in their most beautiful and blingy saris. My neighbors, my landlord, my expat friends, even the US Consulate General made an appearance, complete with his bodyguard and police escorts! There were sons and husbands of the women I have grown to love. Trailing yet behind them were women I’ve known since my arrival to India in 2004. Many of them still working in the brothels and holding a special bond of friendship with me that only years of visitations can build. There were even some powerful (and might I add corrupt) brothel owners in attendance.

Without saying a word, there was an unspoken hierarchy in the banquet hall that day. Everyone had come to say goodbye to Puja Di (me), but there were strong assumptions about who was the most distinguished guest. In India there are not always enough tables for every guest to sit down and eat at the same time, which was the case at my party. Because of this, the most honored guests are seated and fed first at parties and gatherings and often there is a grand show of displaying who is the highest rank in the social ladder while guests are seated. Societal norms would have everyone assuming the US Consulate General, the powerful brothel owners, and all the foreigners in the room should eat first. So, guess who I sat last!! With a skip in my step and a secret thrill at my own form of nonviolent resistance I sat my sisters from the brothels, followed close behind by each and every Sari Bari woman, then my neighbors who live under the stairs of my flat, and trailing at the last those with the “power”. In my own act of nonviolent demonstration, I seated “Mr. Brothel Owner” after the women he takes advantage of. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Christ’s own words to us that “the first will be last and the last will be first.”  What a picture of how the Kingdom of God turns society’s assumptions upside down and allows a redefining of how we can be a voice for those who are told they have none.



Beth Waterman spent the last 7 years working for Sari Bari in Kolkata, India as the Social Welfare Director. The women of Sari Bari have taught her many things, from how to cook the perfect fish curry to how NOT to tie a sari. But most importantly they demonstrated the power of resilience, transformation, and community in the face of despair. Beth has recently moved back to the US where she is pursuing graduate studies in Trauma Psychology and Social Work and has taken on the role of Sari Bari’s US Advocacy Coordinator.


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