“Prostitution” is a taboo subject, never spoken about in public by those who consider themselves part of the elite class of society. It is seen as something that could harm the elite class’s dignity just through speaking about it, because the women who are subjected to such a life are considered ‘low lives’ and ‘sinful women’. Discussing such women is therefore a sin, as these women, according to the views of the dignified class, have lead men astray and made them commit sins. This gives those men, who themselves go as clients to these sex workers, an easy way out from being held accountable by society.
Prostitution (sex work), as the word has become known as, is considered to be the oldest industry in the world, although this is disputed by some feminists who claim midwifery to be the oldest. In the subcontinent however, prostitution traces its history back to the ancient rulers of Chandra Gupta Mauyra in 300 BC to the arrival of the Mughal rulers. The Mughal rulers are said to have given special patronage to sex workers until it was commercialised under British colonial rule. When Pakistan was created as an Islamic Republic, the prostitution business continued but under new restrictions, particularly after the enforcement of the Hudood Ordinance in 1979, which ordered the abolition of brothels across the country. Therefore neither law nor religion has ended the business in Pakistan, instead those who continue to support it have benefited from being tactical and discreet. Whilst those who are living from the means created by the prostitution business have found accessories and means to live outside the law.
Pakhtun society is no exception to that. Although Pakhtun society has such a strong notion of morality and honour that is tied up to women and their bodies, they still choose to look the other way when it comes to the prostitution business. Since some believe these traditions, social and religious values are imposed on them by elite rule. A definite state of denial prevails in Pakhtun society at large.
Below we have a conversation with a ‘working girl’ that contradicts this myth about Pakhtun honour and exposes the reality. Karima (not her real name) works on a street known for the ‘dancing girls’ and has been doing this work for most of her life. Here is what she tells us:
Me. How long have you worked here?
K. I don’t remember the exact number of years. I guess ten to twelve years.
Me. Ten to twelve years but you seem very young, are you in your early twenties?
K. I am twenty six.
Me. How do you feel about your work- Do you like it?
K. What would I feel about it? I was sold when I was only twelve years old. My step father sold me to a man for fifty thousand rupees. I spent two years at his place and after he passed away- his first wife sold me to this woman here. She is like my mother now.
Me. Do you pay this woman?
K. She pays me; she is the one who runs this place with her husband. They both bring customers and we get paid for our daily needs. She sometimes gives us money for shopping. But she is a nice woman. I told her I don’t want to serve more than five men in one night. Sometimes all the girls get upset, since our friend died of some infection. No one knows what had happened to her. She got sick and never got well.
Me. Does anything make you upset at work?
K. I know we all don’t have any other place to live but this house. No one wants to try to escape from here. Because we know we will end up somewhere like this or may be even worse. We, the girls discuss how these men treat us- that’s when we get upset. I know we are prostitutes, which means we don’t deserve respect but these men treat us like dogs. Some of them who get drunk physically abuse us.
It is obvious from this conversation with Karima that the industry thrives from being supported by women, like the one Karima describes as selling her off. These women, who are subjected to such a way of life, each have their own stories to tell and their own regrets. Whilst society sees these women as ‘vile’, one thing is certain, extreme poverty and being sold into the business is what drives prostitution in Pakistan. The common factor of extreme poverty can be seen from the areas that the business thrives in, such as the Shahi Muhallah of Lahore (known as Heeri Mandi), mini brothers of Hayatabad in Peshawar, or roads, public pick up points such as bus stops, parks and even hospital waiting rooms or Gulbahar city or Sadder area .
Research maintains that women, who engage in sex work independently, do so when they have no other options left to survive. Psychologist and anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley says that prostitution is nearly always coercive and lacking in full consent. In many areas where sex workers are found to be roaming freely, such as streets or markets, they are usually extorted by the police. Under Section 55/109 of the Pakistan Penal code; those who are a danger to society or under suspicion of being a danger to society must be arrested. However police in Pakistan use this as a way to extort money from these women, as these so called law enforcers know that they are sex workers. Therefore the sex workers who solicit their work independently are hounded by the police to extract their margin from the workers profit.
However those sex workers who stay in rented houses, salons or guest houses looking after the so called needs of the upper middle class of Hayatabad in the city are not harassed by the police for a margin, rather this job is left to an aunty or a pimp.
During the holy month of Ramazan, those men who use brothels or sex workers, lay low and so customers stay away since piety takes over them. But during this month you see these women begging near bakeries, for bread to break at the end of the days fast.
Peshawar has a fluid and diverse population and its oldest profession operates with discretion, bordering on the verge of invisibility. The arrival of destitute Afghan women or internally displaced refugees from other parts of Pakistan has not helped eradicate the business. Most of these women are now sole surviving heads of their families; some of them have paid the ultimate price of survival by selling their bodies. We have heard of stories that a girl sold her body for a piece of bread in a refugee camp.
The price of these survival sex workers to the ones sitting in brothels differs by a few hundred rupees or a few thousand, depending on their age, beauty and area of operation within the country. The brothels operating in Peshawar has girls from different provinces in Pakistan, mostly from areas where it is easy to obtain girls through monetary benefits by marrying them. These men who marry girls by buying them from their parents play the role of recruiters as they then further merchandise these young girls to pimps.
Pakhtun society that claims it has honour and morality tied to women and their bodies, with no hesitation sell their sisters and daughters under this notion of traditional marriage to men who turn these women and girls into sex workers. There is no law in Pakistan that stops the sale and purchase of women for the purpose of marriage, citing tradition and custom of the area as the reason why.
6. Taboo ,The hidden culture of a red light area Oxford publication forward by I.A REHMAN
7.Interview with a Civil Judge Peshawar .
9. Interview with a Sex-Worker Peshawar