From clearing crap to modeling fashion

Former Indian sanitation workers hit a New York runway.

Published July 11, 2008 7:50PM (EDT)

This BBC headline sure made my eyes bulge: "From Clearing Excrement to New York Modeling." But it is actually a beautifully (also, devastatingly) boiled down version of the article: 36 Indian women -- who formerly worked as "scavengers" cleaning up other people's crap, sometimes by hand -- recently strutted a runway alongside professional models during a conference marking the United Nations' International Year of Sanitation.

The event was meant to showcase the stunning transformation NGOs can offer to India's "untouchables" (or Dalit): Sulabh International Social Service Organization provided these women with vocational training and they eventually were able to find less demeaning work. (The NGO has also designed and distributed more than 1 million affordable modern toilets throughout India.) It is, as the headline suggests, a Cinderella story: They went from sneaking out of their homes in the dark of night to avoid being recognized as "scavengers" to walking a runway under the glare of high-power lights and camera flashes. To add to the fairy-tale design of the event: One of the women was crowned the "princess of sanitation workers."

At first, the event didn't sit right with me at all. (After all, princess of sanitation workers -- really?) It felt a bit like one of those talk shows where a beleaguered single mother of five, who works two jobs just to make ends meet, is plucked out of poverty, given a spa day and makeover and asked to make a teary-eyed appearance before a live studio audience. Then it's back to the reality of home: debt, diapers and dinner! Thankfully in this case, which the BBC article does not make clear, these women have actually escaped sanitation work; it is a relative fairy tale (although they certainly are still living in poverty). I doubt, though, that a runway show is the best way to communicate the plight of the estimated 340,000 scavengers.

These women's actual stories would certainly convey the extent of their life change better than watching them strut on a runway. (What a joy kill: Down with the fashion show, bring on the educational panel, please!) Of course, realistically, the best way to attract the media spotlight is through the glitz and glamour of a New York fashion show that simply and symbolically illustrates their transformation.

(Thanks to Feministing for the link.)

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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