Poverty Drives Pakistani Women to Prostitution

It’s midnight on the ninth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. In Karachi’s red light district hundreds of prostitutes and eunuchs are singing religious mourning poems or Nohas. Barefooted and wearing black dresses, they beat their chests.

Humera, a 25-year-old sex worker explains why. “During the first 10 days of the sacred month of Muharram, there is no singing or sex work here. All such activities are suspended during the sacred month. Prostitutes themselves refuse to do such things because they know what sacrifices were rendered by the martyrs of Islam. Instead, one can hear religious and mourning poems being played everywhere. Everyone respects this month,” says Humera.

The fact is that despite Pakistan’s growing reputation for Islamic conservatism, the country is teeming with sex workers. Karachi is believed to have up to 100,000 female sex workers alone, according to data gathered by Pakistan Society, a local NGO. Lahore is believed to have as many as 75,000, almost all of them driven into the profession by poverty. Prostitution and homosexuality are banned in Pakistan and sex workers are often called defamatory names such as ghashti, or whore.

Karachi’s red light district has been around since British colonial times. It was once famous for nurturing performing arts such as singing and dancing, but difficult economic times forced performers to switch to selling sex.

Babra, a young singer and sex worker is happily reciting religious poems at the gathering. “I’ve been reciting Nohas since my childhood. Every year we have a mourning procession. Everyone is in mourning. Some males will even take part in flagellation because we forget everything during the mourning of Hussain,” says Babra.

Karachi resident Mohammad Shafiq watches the procession uneasily from the other side of the road. “Our religion doesn’t permit prostitution. It is an unethical act. It must be stopped. Prostitutes are not forced to do this. If someone wants to help them, OK, give them financial support but don’t use their services,” he says.

A group of young people form a security ring around the participants to allay fears of an attack by a vigilante Islamic group. “If people hear me reciting a religious poem they might beat me,” says Baba, with fear visible on her pale face.

Akhtar Balouch, a journalist conducting research on male and female prostitutes, says Pakistani society has double standards. “Pakistanis don’t want to disclose having relations with sex workers or their tendencies toward sex (outside wedlock). But, it’s a fact that many people in our society have sexual relations,” he says.

Commercial sex in Pakistan was banned in the early 1970s by then Army dictator General Zia ul Haq. “Zia was a so-called Muslim who tried to convince people he was a rigid religious person,” Akhtar said. “That’s why he banned red light areas. But, what happened? Now, in each and every colony you can find prostitutes. Just make a call and it won’t be a problem to have a girl for sex.”

Mirza Aleem Baig, president of the Gender and Reproductive Health Forum, an organization that helps female and male prostitutes, says many Pakistanis become sex workers because they have very little choice.

“One type of is hereditary; a mother, then her daughter and then her daughter. Others are poverty stricken and don’t have enough to eat or drink. A father might unwillingly bring his daughters here and hand them over them to a pimp who will pay them US$400 to $500 a month. Some daughters also offer themselves for sale because their siblings are hungry. Many such girls financially support their families through prostitution,” says Baig, who calls the brothels a “market of miseries.”

“I don’t call it the bazaar of beauty but the bazaar of oppressed women, the bazaar of orphans and the bazaar of diseases. These women don’t love their clients. When a customer comes they ask them to do the work in a hurry. That’s only because this will light stoves in their houses,” she says.

The silent journey of faith by the sex workers ends when they reach Sangeet Mehal or the Music Palace. Fifty-year-old sex worker Hina says they hope this year will bring them blessings.

“It’s wrong that people say our prayers will not be answered and religion is the property of a single person. I’m firm in my belief that Allah responds to our prayers faster than other people because he knows we are helpless and vulnerable. Whenever I beg, he has honored my prayers,” says Hina.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org