I was initially drawn to exploring the prevalence of prostitution under Islam in 2001 after encountering impoverished Afghan widows in the refugee camps of the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan. It was shortly after 2001 when I had been invited by The Brooke to join in their efforts to document the Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan across the Hindu Kush mountain range, frequently carried on the backs of their horses and donkeys. After 9/11 happened, as a fellow New Yorker, I became determined to deepen my understanding of the Muslim world and its culture. The only way to understand was to get my butt over there. If these women, who have no means to support their children, were forced to sell their bodies, how would they find clients if they were not allowed to walk outside alone and without being covered in Burkas? I was told repeatedly that prostitution did not exist in Islamic countries such as Pakistan.
It took four years of research before I was finally introduced to Ms. Lubna Tayyab, the founder of SHEED Society -- at the time a very small, community-based organization. Lubna, a beautiful round woman with an infectious laugh and eyes that sparked of life, was born and raised in the community. She initially told me that entering the brothels would be impossible for a photographer. The women would never agree to be photographed, since in addition to being shunned by society, they risk being arrested and severely punished for their actions. Lubna also had my personal security in mind. But she agreed to introduce me to Madams and prostitutes passing by the office where she has provided women with free condoms and HIV/AIDS/STI education since 1995. I felt I would at least be able to interview some of them to get a better sense of who they were, what their lives were like, and learn how prostitution works in this deeply conservative, Muslim society.
What followed was three weeks of twelve to fifteen hour days of tea-drinking, waiting for the women to pass by. They would arrive either with their children or accompanied by a Madam. They would never come alone since women should not venture outdoors unaccompanied. Since so few foreigners are seen in this area, especially foreign females, some of the women appeared very hesitant upon seeing me sitting on Lubna's vinyl couch. But others found me to be like an attraction at the zoo. They curiously complimented my blue eyes, long blonde hair, fair skin -- all attributes that would be great assets in their trade. Some arrived stoned. All of them where covered according to the culture where anything above the ankle or a hint of a bra strap is considered vulgar and unacceptable, even among prostitutes.
The streets have no sign of the sex trade; there are no females waiting for customers on street corners -- unless one knows where to look. The wheeling and dealings takes place behind closed doors, while cell phones and Internet has only recently made prostitution in Pakistan more extensive. The stench that hits those not used to it is a mix of sweat, feces, cooking oil, rotten food, the penetrating exhaust from rickshaws, and, at times, sex. The area has a couple of streets lined with food and tea stalls, storefronts where one can hire musicians or entertainers, and shoe shops of all things. Many of the tea stalls also function as mini cinemas where kids left unattended while their mothers work and male adults watch TV while sipping milk tea and passing the long hours of boredom that unemployment creates. The rest is a complicated labyrinth of dark alleys where one easily gets lost and strangers rarely enter without the guidance of a local pimp.
At night, the dancing halls open for a few hours, providing customers with the entertainment of diluted traditional mujra and Bollywood dances for a few rupees. The more accomplished a girl is, the more money she is paid. But hovering in corners are owners who take most of the earnings. In 2008, a judge in Lahore's high court declared the mujra dance vulgar and banned it from stages in a gesture of good will to pacify the mullahs and the Taliban.
Late one night, Pino, a Madam, wags her finger in a sign to follow her. I quickly cover my head in my hijab, the commonly used headscarf, and conceal my camera underneath. There is a certain rush mixed with fear and confusion. I am not sure where she is taking me. A few minutes later, after being hurried through dark alleys, we enter a doorway. I follow as fast as I can, struggling up the stairs toward the second floor through complete blackness, feeling a rat brushing against my leg. A moment later, I enter a room where a TV is blaring and smoke from joints hangs heavy in the air.
A woman, surrounded by children, sits on her bed. Pino gestures for me to hurry. There is a young man, assigned by Lubna as a bodyguard and "translator." Even though his English vocabulary is extremely limited, I am glad to have him there. He tells me in a tense voice, "Picture quick, police come!" I am inside a brothel.