It’s another evening in one of the red light districts of Pakistan. It never seems to be quiet here except for the very early morning hours when the customers are home with their families or at work. The rickshaw drivers pound impatiently on their piercing horns, people shout at one another in Urdu or Punjabi, while stray, emaciated dogs bark and Bollywood music blares from the mujra dance halls. The humidity is relentless even though the sun has set several hours ago.
I have been coming to this area since February of 2005 when prostitution in Pakistan was still little reported on. Gaining the prostitutes and madam’s trust is a complicated task and so I continued to return to the area over the coming years. These women live stigmatized and shunned from a society where prostitution is illegal and hardly acknowledged, except for a few media reports in the local English newspapers. My fixer, a Pakistani human rights activist, cannot tell his family that he is working with me on this project for fear they will feel that he has dishonored them by entering into this ostracized community. The women also risk being arrested or subjected to high bribes by local police if they are found to be talking to a stranger like myself.
Over time I gain these women’s trust and I begin to deepen my understanding of the lives of prostitutes and the inner workings of the sex trade in Pakistan. Unlike anywhere else in the world (except for other countries with a conservative Muslim majority) modesty is practiced according to Islam – even among the prostitutes and inside the brothels. At first it’s strange for me to witness a language of seduction we have long since lost in the West. It’s subtle and discreet compared to what I am accustomed to to, but it’s important for me to attempt to see beyond this modesty – what are the women’s lives like beneath the head scarves and the covering of their chests?
“When I’m sent to private homes or hotels, there is sometimes more than one client waiting for me – sometimes five or six. There isn’t much I can do but obey. If I don’t, they beat me bloody and break my bones.” explains Samsara,* a prostitute in her early twenties who I am visiting. Her scars are a sign she has attempted to fight back but quickly learned her “lesson.” She sits on a bed she shares with another prostitute. The room is part of a rundown flat on the 3rd floor of one of many dilapidated buildings where brothels are found. There is no running water or bathrooms except for the toilet in the courtyard below that the all the tenants share. In a corner a rickety fan blows air providing momentary relief from the heavy heat, except for during the frequent power interruptions. Her madam is an older, seemingly friendly lady who chews her paan and to my surprise leaves us in peace to talk.
Samsara is one of approximately 4,000 prostitutes living in this particular area. She came here from a small village with a distant relative in the hopes of becoming a dancer but was soon entrapped and sold to a madam. She can’t return home; her family would no longer accept her since they have heard she is now involved in the sex trade. Samsara has resigned herself to this “vocation.” Her life, like those of her roommates, is a sordid mix of violence, sex and rape. While visiting the brothels, I observe that many of these young women have scars of self-mutilation covering their arms, offering an overt glimpse into their deep suffering and unresolved internal struggles.
Here, unlike in the rest of the country, the birth of a daughter, rather than that of a son, is cause for celebration. The baby will be the future breadwinner for the extended family. Until April of 2005 the children of the prostitutes did not have access to education since the discipline required to attend school was not part of their upbringing. The general school administrators shrank from the idea of integrating these stigmatized kids with the rest of their students, leaving the children of the brothels without hope of breaking free from the relentless cycle of illiteracy and poverty. Since 2005 a small organization called the Sheed Society has established two schools providing non-formal education to these forgotten children, allowing them to eventually transfer to the standard government run schools. The Sheed Society’s schools also serve as a refuge, keeping these children from roaming the streets, where they are easy prey for drug dealers and pedophiles, while their mothers earn their paltry income.
Despite their noble mission, funding for Sheed’s schools remains a struggle since many NGO’s are not willing to support programs in brothels – places that remain shameful, unacknowledged parts of society. Thankfully donations through Giveology, a powerful organization that partners with grassroots groups to sponsor education grants and innovative education related projects, have been a great help in paying Sheed’s teachers’ salaries. The children yearn for school uniforms but there are more urgent items on the list, like regular school lunches for the children who go without or a small library where the students can borrow books that would promote reading during their free time. But all this will have to wait; salaries, rent, electricity and school books are a priority.
Sheed Society was founded by Lubna Tayyab a rotund, pretty women with an infectious laugh and an unyielding determination to improve her own community.
Lubna and I quickly became friends even though she initially saw no possibility of me entering the brothels, let alone photographing the women. There was simply too much risk involved for the women to consent to being captured on camera. The women agreed however, and over the past five years, a bond developed between Lubna and myself. Though we belong to radically different backgrounds, our worlds intersect at a common point — a deep desire to create a healthier future for the children of Pakistan’s prostitutes.
All names have been changed. The women have courageously given me their consent to show their faces in my photographs. Their consent is a reflection of their hope that if they are seen and thus heard, their children will have a better future.
Kate Orne is a photographer and author who has been chronicling the lives of Pakistani sex workers for the last several years. Proceeds from her work support two schools for the children of prostitutes as well as a health care clinic. Read more about her work at mayyouneverbeuncovered.org.