By Zeeba T Hashmi
October 02, 2015
Marred with negative connotations and considered to be outside the domains of ‘respectability’ in a society, prostitution is as old as human societies when they first started taking shape in history, even before the advent of moral dos and don’ts that organised religions introduced. Many anthropologists believe prostitution to be an inevitable part of society. It is, in fact, the world’s oldest trade. Prostitution, as generally believed, started off as a sacred practice. The temple prostitutes in ancient Greek history, for example, were symbols of sanctimony for many. In matriarchal societies, prostitutes were fiercely independent women who enjoyed high social status while their business was socially, politically and religiously acceptable. Besides its sacredness in history, prostitution also became an important tool during wartime, especially when it came to spying on the enemy side. Having easy access because of their trade, information portals relied on prostitutes who provided firsthand accounts on the positions of the enemy line. Prostitution and spying is a very useful tool even in modern times, a common practice for spy agencies around the world to use their services.
Prostitution was degraded and dehumanised generally with the advent of organised religions, which considered prostitution to be unholy in society. The concept of free women was easily diminished when women were tied to the possession of property, and hence were taken as material and sex objects more than humans. They lost their say in matters pertaining to themselves and were subjugated under the concept of male guardianship. This brought a radical change in society, shifting from its pre-existing matriarchal values to the less compromising and authoritarian patriarchal norms. With the degradation of prostitution, the status and acceptability prostitutes once enjoyed was robbed from them and they were accorded banal levels of the class structure. Another reason for the contempt against prostitution was that it was, and still is, considered an affront to the institution of traditional marriage where a wife’s value is the total worth of wealth and property acquired through matrimony in a household from which she cannot break free easily, unlike a prostitute who is not bound by property.
With the successions of Muslim rule in India came a hybrid version of sexual services influenced by the maintenance of harems in the Muslim world and the sacred devdasis, the Hindu temple prostitutes who had rich experiences in arts and culture. The courtesans in the harem were given lessons in literature and performing arts; they were the masters in poetry and songs, and also became well known tutors for the children of noblemen who would send them to be trained in rich Urdu. The tawaif, or a concubine, was in fact a woman of higher rank. She was highly credited for her knowledge and was very polished in her mannerisms. What was most remarkable about a tawaif was that she would mainly choose the suitors herself and was not coerced into sex.
The tawaif culture saw a decline with the fall of the Muslim dynasty, and many women of high nobility were branded as low class prostitutes and sent away from the protected walls of harems into society where they suffered exploitation and insults. However, they managed to maintain their significance in their participatory role towards arts and literature, and their successive generations inherited this legacy from their elders. However, with religious and political transformations in both Pakistan and India, the role of the tawaif changed to mere commercial sex, especially in the times when General Ziaul Haq, who attempted to Islamise society, stalling the progress of art. This limited prostitution to just flesh selling and its role in rich Urdu literature and performing arts died out easily. With the breakdown of the traditional structure of the courtesan community here, middlemen, or pimps, took hold of the reigns of the trade. Because there are no laws that can protect and regulate red light activities, pimps freely exploit the prostitutes who cannot register complaints against rape crimes for the fear of getting legally prosecuted themselves. A lack of regulation is perhaps the main reason why child trafficking and forced prostitution are rampant today.
It has existed in many forms, where it may have been justified in religion by giving it different names, as we notice in the concept of contract marriages (mu’tah and misyar), which according to most scholars is permitted in Islam. Even in strict religious societies, such as Saudi Arabia, prostitution and sex slavery are not something surprising despite the sermons about piety given by men of faith around the globe. The hypocrisy of society, which lives off it and condemns it at the same time, gives us a reality check of the extent of exploitation prostitutes feel in the absence of social security and recognition. Because of the moral attitudes and condemnation coming from religious and societal precedents the stigma of prostitution will follow a woman wherever she goes. She lacks the opportunity to live a free, independent life. Nor is it easy for her to find another way of living, as society does not let her chose for herself and throws her back to where she exited.
Because of the sheer dehumanisation of prostitutes, they remain devoid of the basic rights that can ensure their safety and security against rape and sexual exploitation. There is a dire need to recognise their needs, which include a legal cover, proper counselling on self-defence, health and safe sex. Unless a sex worker is treated like an independent worker, as is the nature of a worker in any other business, her exploitation will not end. Misogyny against women, whether a free woman, a prostitute or a wife, must end and their misery must be seen in realistic terms, and not moralistic ideals.
The main essence is freedom for woman to choose for herself without any compulsion by religion, adverse circumstances or male authoritarianism. If a woman wants to work freely as a prostitute, she should not be criminalised for it and if she wants to exit this profession, then she should be facilitated to find other means to support herself. This can only be ensured if prostitution is recognised as a legal entity. There is no other way.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org