Book Review: ‘PhD girl in Red Light area’
By Malik Siraj Akbar
Taboo is an unmatched book that provides an insight into the world of prostitution in Pakistan. At the end of the book, one becomes exceedingly nostalgic about many of the characters with whom Dr. Fouzia Saeed, the author, spent several years in order to gain their confidence, make them speak, closely visualize their living style and observe the hardships they face in their ‘affice time’ in order to accomplish her research.
When Dr. Saeed, a PhD in Education from University of Minnesota and a renowned Pakistani social worker, made up her mind to research on the state of prostitutes in Pakistan, she faced stiff resistance from her top male bosses at Lok Virsa. They believed touching such a sensitive topic that entailing ‘these dirty women’ could disrepute the prestigious state-funded institute for which Dr. Fouzia worked at that time.
However, threats, hardships and warnings could not prevent this courageous lady from venturing into the world of Pakistan’s prostitutes who are surrounded from all sides by dangerous gangsters, highly powerful politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats.
Initially, Dr. Fouzia, who traveled from her home in Islamabad to Lahore to meet the prostitutes, failed to make her interviewees speak up openly. Everyone she tried to speak declined that they ever indulged in ‘ganda kam’[dirty work]. Preliminary failures did not deter the researcher but compelled her to review her research approach. She did so by starting to speak to musicians at first rather than the prostitutes to build contacts among them before she could get to know the real world of Shahi Mohalla.
The book elegantly describes the patriarchal structure of the Pakistani society where, like many other contemporary societies, the prostitutes, also widely regarded as ‘sinful women’, are solely held responsible for promoting obscenity and vulgarity while the men who go to these prostitutes are never blamed for anything.
True, many girls inherently become prostitutes, not all of them do the job delightedly. Many of them are often forced into the profession by their own family members. They are beaten up by their mothers and brothers in case they fail to ‘attract’ customers. Shahi Mohalla, Lahore’s red light town where the book is focused, is perhaps the only place in Pakistan where the birth of a son is mourned and that of a girl is celebrated. Unlike the traditional rural parts of Pakistan, the people living in this bazaar rejoice the birth of a female child whom they view as a ‘bread-winner’ for them.
Shahi Mohalla has given birth to several prominent musicians of Pakistan. The author quotes a local politician saying that they had come under police harassment from time to time. The authorities in Pakistan do not value of arts and music. Ironically, every government tired to dismantle this center of music and dance by terming it as the breeding ground for ‘sin’ and ‘dirt’ in the society. Yet the president of Pakistan regularly awarded the Pride of Performance and several other coveted awards to many singers and musicians for their outstanding performances in spite of the fact that all of them began their careers from the same Shahi Mohalla.
The officially sanctioned hours for the “artists” in the red light are 23:00pm to 01:00am. The prostitutes complain that Shai Mohalla is the only place where every government desperately feels the need for imposition of Islamic values. According to one artist, the government forces them to shut the ‘danda’ (business) during the whole month of Ramadan and in the first ten days of the Moharam, the first month of the Islamic calendar. “Why are we expected to shut our businesses during Moharam when even the Shias opt for only two days of holiday during the holy month?” asks one such performer.
The days and nights in the red light area are divided into many parts. During the day time, it looks like a normal town where untidy children are seen playing and running all around. At night, it becomes more crowded as musical performances begin. After 01:00am, the police start forcing ‘everyone’ to leave the area. Ironically, this should not be confused with the professional commitment of the police but must be seen differently.
The reason for the police’s haste to compel the regular customers to run is because the next hours are exclusively reserved for highly powerful politicians, bureaucrats and influential people. These people treat the police just like than a dog, observers the researcher. The powerful people come to the red light town to drink wine, discuss mutual business and quench their sexual thirst till morning. In the morning, life in the shanty town once again returns to normal as kids return to their routine sports.
Among the prostitutes, some are wealthier than the others. Some live amid extremely poor conditions. A few of them sell their flash for as little amount of money as Rs. 100 or Rs. 10. Incredible but true. Some of them do not have their own “Khotas” or “Bhataks”. Hence, they have to rent someone else’s place for the night on hourly basis. In return, they pay something like 10% of the income to the owner of the place.
The last two chapters of the book are highly informative as they trace back the roots of prostitution in different societies of the world. Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world. It has never been viewed as a “descent profession” anywhere in the world but it has always existed almost everywhere because of its persistent demand. In many of the world armies, prostitutes were officially provided to the forces to have sex in the absence of their own families.
During her research, Dr. Fouzia develops intimate relations with the prostitutes and their families. They start treating her like their daughter. At one stage, she becomes so much obsessed with her work that she decides to rent an apartment in Shahi Mohalla and reside there to undertake more of an anthropological approach in her research. The book demonstrates the steadfastness of a Pakistani educated researcher who spends several years in a notorious place to see the childhood of the daughters of prostitutes, the growth of these girls and eventually their entry into the profession and their subsequent lives.
The author finds herself in a dilemma during the book when Shahid, the brother-turned-father of one little prostitute girl, Lila, offers her to work for them. Shahid informs the author that there is a great demand for English speaking girls in the profession. Hence, they offer the writer to build relations with them to bring them educated English-speaking girls from Lahore or Islamabad. She politely declines the offer saying that the purpose of her presence in the town is not to indulge in the profession but to research the lifestyle of the prostitutes.
According to the researcher, “since Vedic times (c. 1000BC), India was known to have had courtesans who were highly accomplished in music and dance. The Aryans had a tradition of providing these beautiful women as “pleasure gifts” to alien kings as a mark of affection and hospitality.”
Taboo rightly argues that it is hard to eliminate prostitution. Prostitutes are victims of all forms of repression and discrimination at the state-level as well as at the level of the society. Even if movements meant to eliminate prostitution are launched, they often result in adding to the miseries of the prostitutes by displacing them from their homes, discriminating them socially and depriving them of their livelihood. It is, therefore, important to hate prostitution but not the prostitutes. They are equal human beings who inherited this profession or were trapped in this business by varying circumstances. Only a right and civilized approach can bring an end to this menace in our society.
While it may be possible to forcefully dismantle prostitutes’ towns, like Shahi Mohalla in Lahore, and relocate them in a different monitored town but what about the men who go to these women? It is the men who encourage prostitution to a large extent. Hence, a change in the attitude of the men is also required if one desires to see reduction, if not a complete end, in the exploitation of women under the disguise of prostitution.
Book: Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area
Author: Dr. Fouzia Saeed
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Karachi
Price: Rs. 350