The Crying Quarter
Wasfia Nazreen examines the forgotten lives of sex workers
For an average sex-worker in Bangladesh, there is never any lovemaking. There is no comfort zone, physical or mental. All life is but a rape. There is absolutely no guarantee that tomorrow's rape will be less painful than today's.
In 2000, prostitution was formally legalised in the country, which set the ground for Bangladesh to be one of the few Islamic countries that do not "officially" ban prostitution.
The decision to legalise prostitution by the High Court was met with anger from some Islamic groups who argued that prostitution was subject to banishment in most Muslim countries. But, in its ruling, the High Court concluded: "The right to livelihood of sex workers is enforceable as a fundamental right."
Sex-workers in Bangladesh's registered brothels are officially regulated through a system of "licensing" involving magistrates or notary publics and registration with the local police.
Even then, and like any other bordello, a wide variety of illegal and illicit activities flourish in the brothel community -- notably trafficking, underage sex, gambling, selling of liquor and taking of various drugs, including injecting hormones and cattle steroids.
On the banks of the Jamuna, where in the olden days shawdagars docked their ships and often wandered lonely is where today flourishes Kandapara, a brothel founded circa 1860-1880. The twenty years of disputed existence still remains unresolved amongst current inhabitants. This is the most ancient brothel of our country, after Tanbazar, which exists no more following its closure in 1998.
Kandapara is situated in the heart of Tangail district town, one hundred kilometres north of Dhaka city. About 855 female sex-workers thrive in the brothel, even though the total population is about 2,000 -- that includes sex-workers, their children, some parents, babus (fixed lovers/permanent clients), pimps, and landlady/landlord.
These fifty-four homesteads situated on five acres of land are more or less entirely ruled by the pimps, i.e. shordarnis or madams, who are not only the main leaders of the bordello but the decision-makers in the lives of these women.
Perhaps life could be made more beautiful with intoxication in these ancient crying alleys (Kandapara literally translates to crying ward/quarter) and thus to cater to a haze of forgotten lives there is ample availability of liquor or drugs, both conventional and unconventional.
For example, the once banned Indian product jambak (headache relieving balm) is widely taken by mouth as well as jutar glue (shoe-adhesive) or burnt house-lizard tail ground up and mixed with tobacco.
Then there is the extensively popularised zhaka naka -- a cocktail of cough syrup, jambak, alcohol, heroin, and sleeping pills in liquid form. Zhaka naka is a super-hit amongst younger workers.
However, the worst is yet to come. Oradexon or "cow-fattening" steroids (yes, you read that correctly), is used to fatten cattle, and is widely used by shordarnis to embellish the age of young prostitutes so they may avoid police scrutiny about their legal age.
Oradexon has the power to grow flesh, breasts and hips before the body's own natural course. At the same time it is highly addictive, and causes withdrawal symptoms including headaches, stomach pain, and severe skin rashes.
The dependency Oradexon creates can enforce one to abuse it in such a way that one can get hooked on it for years -- only to realise in the process the severity of its dark side: radical swellings and lumps, high blood pressure, impaired kidneys, fluctuating hormone productions, to name a few.
Ironically, most workers embark on this thinking it would make them more beautiful (or thasha, as they put it), as they've been told, but in reality, after months of use, their bodies transform into a shadow of themselves. We have all kinds of anti-drug campaigns running nationwide but not many talk about these women.
Another rape committed, but again not held guilty or accountable for -- how a sex-worker's life lives and dies at the cruel mercy or manipulation of her shordarni. Typical costs of living in Kandapara can be as follows (all rates in taka):
Rent: 150/day; 4500/month, electricity: 1600/month, mattress/pillows: 50/day, blanket: 20/day, TV: 300, dish antenna/cable: 250, DVD player: 120, shower: 20/client, water supply for toilet usage: 10/client.
Of course, food and other bilashita vary from person to person. The day's payments need to be cleared by the end of the same evening, thus forcing the sex-workers to take at least twelve to fifteen customers per day despite their physical condition. If for any reason, she fails to pay her dues, it is customary for the shordarni to lock up her living quarters and/or resort to physical and verbal torture.
Tortures vary, according to the nature of "the offense," ranging from putting out lit cigarettes on vaginas to inserting bottles of boiling water through the same path -- but all of them guarantee using the fear-technique that once the body is bruised, she'll receive fewer customers and thus less money for her survival.
Shordarnis’ rates from their chukris are also subject to increase when local police authorities demand a higher chanda, which, in the case of Kandapara often equals around Tk 4 lakhs on average.
As far as brothel-based sex-workers are concerned, the worst form of violence perpetrated against them is abasthol nirjaton. It's equivalent to when our deepest insecurities are sometimes taken advantage of by an abusive partner of ours for personal gain.
In a similar manner, the living environment of sex-workers is constantly threatened and abused by their selfish cohorts to gain money, pleasure, or control. Sure, you must have heard of times of natural disasters when aid did not reach sex-workers, not because of lack of logistics but because of a clear-cut discrimination towards their profession.
But, these random acts of nature and their after-effects are a side story to the fact that land which belongs to these workers and their fore-bears for over a century gets threatened with being taken over whenever and however many times it is convenient.
Like the shordarnis, we give sex-workers absolutely no voice or ground to fight for their rights. This introduces the question many of us wish to ignore, or feel powerless to change: like us, people of mainstream society, do they not have a right to healthy living, education, and medicine? Do their children not deserve the right to safe living and education?
The problem lies in the complexity of how our outdated constitution is currently shaped.
Even though prostitution is legal, the Bangladesh constitution holds that the "State shall endeavor to prevent gambling and prostitution."
Various provisions of different laws prohibit child prostitution and forced prostitution, such as Section 366A: "Whoever, by any means whatsoever, induces any minor girl under the age of eighteen years to go from any place or to do any act with the intent that such a girl may be or knowing that it is likely that she will be, forced or seduced to illicit intercourse with another person shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to 10 years and shall also be liable to fine."
When it comes to the rights of brothel children, in addition to the household work, they are very much involved in paid work from an early age -- and it's not surprising if that involves the sex trade. Selling and delivering food to clients, dancing for clients in brothel shops and sex work is completely contrary to Bangladeshi laws and ILO Convention 182.
On trafficking, which is a regular incident here, the penal code holds:
"Whoever, kidnaps or abducts any person under the age of ten, in order that such a person may be or subjected to slavery or to the lust of any person shall be punished with death or with imprisonment for life or for rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 14 years and may not be less than 7 years."
As evening approached, Habib started blasting out in full volume in the background. Smoke appeared in the air, the smell of ganja hovered, liquor served right to your hand.
As I watched from one of the highest rooftops in the brothel, sex-slaves took their positions through the alley along with lazy dogs, goats, and cats that slept unworried on passageways and tin-tops.
When one of them was going to be taken for the whole night, rates would vary depending on the customer's needs: regular charges range from Tk 50 to 200, but if you prefer without condom service, a good Tk 400-500 can get a client the pleasure of raw steaming sex, regardless of whether or not he wants the added stress of contracting HIV or other complications.
Pregnant women, if they are lucky, may be treated a little differently. Despite the occasional beating, they receive some compassion from customers. I was amazed to learn that there is quite a high demand for them so I curiously asked how the feeling was, the client exclaimed: "Bozleyn na apa, dim ala maach khetey bhalo lagey keno, odeyr shorir bhora thakey!" (Do you not understand, sister, why fishes with eggs are so tasty? Because their bodies are so full!)
Since the legalisation and intervention of NGOs in different sectors of these female sex-workers' lives, awareness and some conditions have surely improved. However, the fact remains that members of the brothel community are still ostracised by mainstream society and that sex-workers have minimum or no rights when it comes to protecting their basic needs. As put by some workers, and attested by many of us, life of being a sex-worker is nothing but "porotey porotey nirjaton ..."
This past decade of Bangladesh's "dhori maach na chui pani" ("trying to fish without getting hands wet") policy towards sex-workers has not been healthy because the lack of a solid framework in the law for a firm conviction on their rights as "humans" fails to adequately protect them from the severity of their complicated lives.
There needs to be a regulatory framework that can be implemented for sex-workers, in the brothels, hotels, and floating arena. A systematic and sympathetic engagement from the greater part of Bangladeshi society and the rest of the world, as well as additional resources, will further ensure various NGO program intervention success.
When it comes to NGO initiatives, we have to constantly be mindful of how many of these development initiatives with sex-workers' communities are centred around vocational trainings or providing alternate rehabilitations of their profession to those who consciously seek to get away.
Education, legal aid, and health sectors are no doubt crucial, but when a lot of these years-long half-baked and poorly designed programs end, due to shortage of funds or other reasons, it becomes problematic again.
At the same time, it is crucial to understand that we cannot just cut a portion of livelihood from society that's been in existence for centuries. Policy-makers may work in the fields where one can arrange for an alternate occupation, but only after giving recognition to the root of the problem.
We have to first recognise the human fact that the greater percentage of these women is subject to this profession to keep their stomachs happy. That may or may not make ourselves feel better of the privileges that we have been born into in this life, and we can debate about the morality behind this all day and night -- but if our moral selves deny freedom and justice to a group within our race and oppressed sex, based on our own pre-conceptions of how filthy their occupation must be (the beneficiaries of which are not ourselves at the end of the day), then from the same ethical ground we should embrace the fact that no one would choose to live in a state of constant terror, threat, and subjugation. We cannot cover up the srom that has been earned at the cost of vandalising one's most sacred temple.
If one is using her own labour to earn money and livelihood, without robbing others and creating a public nuisance -- then who are the guilty here? Human beings who have become trade goods for such inhuman occupation, or the common spectators of society who have not been able to contribute to their safekeeping?
A major problem exists in the great legal barrier against the recognition of this work in the first place, thus their rights are nearly impossible to ensure. On the greater question of women's rights, all women must ask ourselves if the denial of rights for these women is not a denial of basic women's rights?
And, even more to the point, is it OK to rape a sex worker because she is a sex worker? Or should we be reaffirming and ensuring right now that rape of all forms is absolutely not tolerable.
As the evening unfolded to midnight, I heard hundreds of suffocating screams hauntingly jamming my surrounding landscape, crisscrossing and scissoring the alleyways:
"Come enter my body, for your and my survival … I'll entertain you on my altar ..."
Wasfia Nazreen works for Care Bangladesh. The author's views are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.