Although the middle-class has grown in Pakistan, nearly one-quarter of the population is classified poor as of October 2006. The girl child faces greater risks to survival, is more subject to violence and abuse, and has less access to education, proper nutrition and health services. The low status of children and women is a manifestation of low literacy levels, wide gaps between legislation and enforcement, and limited participation in civil society.
This brings us to the taboo topic of prostitution. We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution (Victor Hugo). Who is a prostitute? According to the dictionary meaning, one who solicits and accepts payment for sex acts. A prostitute (tawaif, also called hooker, whore, hoe, street walker, sex worker or escort) is a person, most of the time a woman, who has sex with people for money.
Some countries have made prostitution illegal. Even still, some countries like Netherlands have made the same act legal and give licenses to people working under this profession.
Prostitution is sometimes called the “world’s oldest profession”. There have been stories of it in almost every culture and society. In the times of the British Raj, this act was considered respectable. The ‘tawaif’ of then was rich in etiquettes and principles. The focus was greatly on the singing and dancing. It was pure innocent entertainment. Rich nobles’ from all over the land would send their sons to these tawaifs, so they could learn manners and poise. Over the years, the innocent entertainment got side-tracked and a new generation of prostitutes emerged, who lacked the abilities to sing and dance and were only interested in making money for livelihood by selling their bodies.
After the partition in 1947, Pakistan inherited the historical red-light districts in Lahore and Multan including the infamous Hira Mandi and Shahi Mohalla area. These were well-developed areas and attracted both wealthy clients and those looking for singers and actresses. These set of people are very particular about their caste system. Those having knowledge and skills about the music and dance are called ‘mirasi’ and those who indulge in sexual activities are called ‘kanjars’. It is a great honor for a mirasi to marry in a pure mirasi family and a kanjar to marry in a pure blood of kanjars.
Pakistan is an Islamic country. Islam strictly prohibits the sex-trade due to the declaration of extramarital sex as an illegal activity. Prostitutes in the country, thus, operate underground and in spite of the legal difficulties, and contrary to popular belief, prostitution is thriving in the country. In Pakistan, prostitution was once associated with dark alleys and small red-light districts. Now, it is fast seeping into many neighbourhoods of the Muslim state’s urban centers’. It is time for all of us to admit that prostitution is doing a roaring trade within our own borders.
It is so common that girls are now auctioned. Some powerful men either arrange to marry the girl or just kidnap her and then sale her! Auctions of girls are arranged for three kinds of buyers: rich visiting Arabs (sheiks, businessmen, visitors, state-financed medical and university students), the rich local gentry, and rural farmers; all of whom get tired of their property soon and look for a new attraction.
The red light areas in big cities, specially Lahore became restricted, barren and were under continuous raids in the times of President Ayub Khan and then in the reign of President Zia-ul-Haq. In the beginning, this came as a ray of hope to eliminate prostitution from a pure land like Pakistan. But alas, the evil spread like fire from then onwards. The result was that these women just spread out in different parts of the city, making it harder to track them down. What did we achieve? A prostitute is no longer the one who lives in the slums such as the Shahi Mohalla. A girl who lives two streets from our house in DHA, Islamabad, is a prostitute. There is no criminal evidence against her, so you might as well mind your own business. There is no stopping to this business!
People consider it a disgrace to be associated to women like that and even then, we regularly find stories on how the most powerful people of our country travel all the way to such places to find the pleasure, they other wise would not be entitled to.
We have to understand that it’s not totally the prostitutes who are wrong. We are equally responsible for their ‘careers’ and conditions. They are not given any option, any chance to become one of us. They are not provided with equal opportunities. It’s not the liability of a child who is born in the house of a prostitute. Whether they like it or not, they have to do the same business. Why, because it’s ‘their’ societal pressure, it’s the only way they can earn a living, because it’s the wish of their mother and father (if they know him). They have to obey their folks and not complying with the wishes of your parents is considered as disregard. Those coming in our society will not be accepted and instead they will have to fall back on drying their stomachs till death.
The more talented tawaifs have their aim to enter into the film industry. Once they do get a break, they deny any relation to their original place of birth in the fear of not being accepted, regardless of their pious character. Officially it is illegal, but unofficially it is tolerated. Many times, when a righteous SSP is appointed, a customary raid is carried out to round up a few pimps and a few women, but they are released after a night or two and everything goes back to normal.
In a survey, I found out that ninety-five per cent of the teenage prostitutes in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore were sexually abused by their close relatives, friends and teachers before they adopted the profession of granting sexual favors for payment. In sharp contrast to the common assumption that prostitutes normally belong to the uneducated segment of society, the survey has also found that 74 per cent of them were undergraduates.
The prostitutes presented in the Bollywood and Lollywood films are actually quite opposite from the reality. There are some prostitutes who charge high and like to be referred as ‘call-girls’, the more modern term. But in the same society, there are prostitutes who work for Rs. 10-20. This is the level of illiteracy and poverty. The level of abortions for these women touches the sky as well. They do not indulge in any wooing activities and ‘get to the business’ immediately. This also increases the level of diseases. HIV aids and Syphilis are the most common diseases transmitted through sex. And there is no cure to it unless counselling and awareness is available.
Clause 6 of the millennium development goals (MDG’s) of the UN focuses on how to stop/ prevent the spread of HIV Aids. If any one of the clause in the MDG fails, the whole project is considered to be a failure. Recognizing the importance of this is the first step. Every possible effort should be made to re-enact a sense of humanity and ethics. Awareness should be created. If we can not eradicate it, at least we can try to subdue it.
On May 1998, a Pakistani woman was threatened by the Supreme Court to severe punishment, if she did not allow to her ex-husband to have sex with her, whenever he wanted. Although she was remarried then, the Court of Pakistan disbanded any respect to her happy married life. What right do we have to judge the prostitutes when the law makers of the country are being insensible on their decisions? Why should a woman have extramarital affair when it is clearly not allowed in Islam or anywhere else? Is it morally, socially and ethically correct?
The activity of song and dance, as practiced in the Shahi Muhallah and many other places for that matter, facilitates the act of prostitution. In the olden days, singing and dancing and the ‘entertainment’ must’ve have been the main focus for such activities. But there is no denial to the fact that all of these contribute in enticing a man to get him to pay more. From amongst these men, there is at least 50% ratio of those who pay even more to get the sexual pleasures. We have to understand that the prostitutes will continue to increase in number a long as they stay in business, as long as there are customers. The basic economic concept applies here: supply is equal to demand. I will end my article on the lines of Don Quixote:
“Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.”