The Red Light
By Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq
March 01, 2013
Nestled amidst the great mosque and the fortress, near the tomb of the poet of the east and Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi, lie the narrow streets crowded with people, smelling of aromatic foods, open sewage and urine at the same time, of what is known as the ‘Heera Mandi’ or the red light area.
My first visit to this side of town was over 26 years ago. I was getting engaged and needed a Dholki (drum) for all my tune-and-tone-less friends and cousins to sing with. I was informed that I would find a good quality one here. With my heart pounding and knees shaking, I stepped out of the car into the market, fully expecting dressed-and-dolled-up women, the likes of Pakeeza and Umrao Jan Ada to be dancing in their elaborate balconies, singing Tharay rahiyo, but there was no one there. All I saw was an ordinary bazaar, shops with various musical instruments and food, the grocer, the Paanwala (betel leaf vendor). Very ordinary, indeed.
Many years passed until my next visit, this time to a restaurant, which is now extremely popular with the locals and tourists both. Intrigued by the bazaar behind, I insisted on seeing it again, this time during the evening. I was again vastly disappointed, as my perception of how it should have been did not match the reality. One could walk the entire length of the streets without finding anything ‘morally’ shocking — just an ordinary bazaar with music playing in the shops and a few seedy-looking men lurking around. What disturbed me in particular were the large numbers of street children present there, wearing soiled, tattered clothes, faces and bodies unwashed, sniffing glue, huddled in corners or clinging to the waiting cars. They begged and cajoled the visitors, with mumbling mouths and vacant eyes.
The Heera Mandi was once known for its performances of dance and singing. There was a time when the area would come to life at night, the atmosphere resounding with the beats of the Tabla (drum) and the ringing of the anklet bells of the dancers. As time passed, government allowed three hours of dance and singing at night; the performers would return to their old abodes in the Mandi to entertain the visitors every evening. Due to economic prosperity, it is estimated that nearly 70 percent of the performers shifted to other localities of Lahore; the ones who are still left are the ones who are economically marginalised. Because of the total wipe-out of what was once a rich and cultural heritage, the artists who played the instruments that accompanied the dancers are now either unemployed or forming themselves into small musical bands that perform at weddings, etc.
Prostitution is an ancient profession and should not be confused with the ‘performing arts’ of dance and singing. There are laws against prostitution; all kinds of prostitution and soliciting is illegal and buying and selling of women and girls for prostitution is a criminal offence. But dancing and singing is legal and regulated, though the quality of the profession has suffered a great deal and some performances now veer towards the obscene, jeopardising and stigmatising the beautiful, classical performances that have become rare.
A few years ago, I was collaborating with a health consultancy on AIDS prevention as part of a government project. In addition to spreading awareness about the disease, the work involved extending legal aid to female sex workers living in the slums. Honestly speaking, I was expecting women to come to me with problems like harassment and abuse by the police but instead their problems were the same as that of the general population: monetary matters, property disputes and how to get men to divorce their first wives. Some of these women were married, most had children. I was horrified to discover that the worth of a woman’s body was Rs 30, out of which 10 went to the pimp, another 10 went as rent for the charpoy (stringed bed), leaving her with a grand total of Rs 10. Compare this to the high end escorts functioning in our cities nowadays. At a dinner once, as no stags were invited, someone brought along a ‘friend’. She was pretty, well groomed, educated, and we were to discover later, charged Rs. 35,000 for the evening!
Apparently, a considerable part of prostitution is no longer about poverty nor is it a forced profession; it is about quick access to huge amounts of money. With a young generation that is experimenting with drugs, Pakistan is facing more than a moral and legal dilemma. Young girls are reportedly selling their services for a snort of cocaine or a spree of shopping. While the law enforcement agencies, looking for an easy buck, raid motels and inns in impoverished areas, no one wants to acknowledge what transpires inside posh hotels and dens. Sitting in the car outside an ice-cream parlour in an extremely posh locality once, we noticed a group of girls sitting next to the window. Moments later, a Land Cruiser pulled up next to our parked car, and after a few minutes of deliberation between the men sitting inside, a laser light was pointed towards one of the girls, who got up, walked outside, got into the car and drove off.
Women in the west are taking to prostitution in order to pay off debts and student loans: girls calling themselves ‘sugar babes’ look for ‘sugar daddies’ who can pay their college fees in return for services. Apart from this category, women are forced into the sex industry due to poverty and abuse worldwide, making it impossible for them to break away, sometimes due to trafficking, or the physical and emotional hold exercised by pimps, or because of drug dependence, substance abuse, or lack of housing and abject poverty.
A bank in Bihar, India, made the news recently by extending loans to prostitutes. In 2011, eight prostitutes approached the local rural bank to obtain a loan to start a business. The bank, in a move unheard of, extended them a micro-finance loan of 20,000 Indian rupees, with which they set up a bangles shop and a tailoring business. The main problem that faces women from the sex industry is the lack of collateral and guarantors who are willing to accept liability. The bank in Bihar extended the loan under a scheme called the ‘Joint Liability Group’. All members of the group accept collective liability. Satisfied with the women’s performance, last year the bank extended their loan limit to Rs 50,000. While acknowledging that this might not be an instant answer to ending prostitution, it is hoped that at least the children of these prostitutes might be spared the profession.
A famous painter based in Heera Mandi depicts the women of the area; there is nothing glamorous there. All I can see is the suffering and the hard circumstances, the dejected faces, the stooped shoulders and the vacant eyes. It is easy to pass moral judgements, more difficult to accept and help. Women and children of the red light areas existing in many parts of our country are citizens of Pakistan. They need education, healthcare, housing and a decent standard of living. They need banks like the one in Bihar to give them options in their option-less lives, to have hope in their vacant eyes. Do we stop at the red light or change it to green?
Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq is an advocate of the High Court