On June 11, I wrote about my initial introduction to the sex trade in Pakistan in Feb. of 2005.
A number of comments raised a concern about the risk I subject the victims to by exposing their faces in my photographs. Fellow photographer Jonathan Torgovnik whom is currently exhibiting at Fovea gallery encountered a similar internal battle we photographers face when documenting victims of abuse. Jonathan, like myself, discussed at length with the women, explaining the risks involved by partaking in the project. The women have given their consent, which only reflects their courage and hope to be heard as well as a deep wish for better future for their children. All names have been changed in attempt to further protect them.
Prior to entering that first brothel I had my visual expectation -- mostly based on images shot Mary Ellen Mark in India in the 70th. I had yet to see Zana Briski film Born in the Brothels since at the time the film had only a had limited theatrical release in the US. These bodies of works, among many others, have provided us with a deeper insight into prostitution and the suffering. But despite these efforts, against women and children continues, and is growing at a rapid rate.
It's true the issue of prostitution and violence against women or children is not exclusive to Pakistan, far from it. But prostitution in Pakistan remains deeply stigmatized even though the Internet and cell phones are only making it more accessible and known through the media in the past couple of years.
What takes me somewhat by surprise when entering the brothels is that none of the prostitutes are scantly dressed in tight revealing outfits. They wear the traditional shalwar kameez which cover most of the body except for ankles and arms. At night some of them dress in saris, exposing their midriffs at the most. There is no exposed deep cleavages or exposed legs in any of the 250+ brothels I have since entered in this area. I come to realize here a hint a bra strap or a suggestion of a cleavage is considered vulgar -- even among the prostitutes. The ladies I encounter are living according to Islam that calls for a woman to cover her chest among other things -- regardless if they work inside of a brothel. I also witness a common thread among many of the women as they visit Lubna's office -- a sense of pride carried in their posture and eyes which is also somewhat surprising. Living under these hard conditions, subjected to violence, rape, stigmatization and being shunned from society hardly promotes a high self-esteem. Over time I learn the pride stems from their belief and religion, which I find to be a beautiful aspect among these women. Unfortunately, unless the extremists gain complete power over the country, the modesty practiced among the prostitutes will change over time as the competition increases and clientele demand additional "value" for their money -- they want the women to appear more like the entertainers on the English speaking TV channels -- another influence of the West.
Roaming the streets while their mothers earn their meager income, the children are easy targets to abuse, drugs and crime. Cheap glue is available through the local shoe factory, an easy high for many of the kids. Looking into their glassy distant eyes I witness myself at age 12 doing the same back in Sweden.
Some of the kids are runaways, or disposed by parents who are too poor care for them. Sleeping in dirty rat infested alleys, selling sexual favors to survive. None were ever taught how to defend themselves from greedy predators bribing them with sweets or a few rupees to spend some time on the lap of a stranger or a familiar neighbor. Since April 2005, the children if permitted by their parents, can enroll in one of the two little schools run by Sheed Society. The schools, beyond providing much needed education and regularity in the children's lives, act as well as a refugee for the students where they are free to be just kids -- away from their homes -- the brothels where clients come and go, at times beating the mothers senseless.
I become more aware of the abuse the kids suffer through an art project by children. The assignment is to express what makes one happy or sad. Some of the drawings came back with illustrations of the abuse they are exposed to: a little boy being beaten by his older brother with a stick wrapped in barbwire. A young girl illustrating her fears fetching milk from the store since the shop owner touches her in places that make her cry. Clearly this abuse is not a reflection on Islam or Muslims, assuming so is ignorant. Abuse happens everywhere in the world no matter of economics, cultures or religion. I don't blame the parents -- they are often victims themselves and merely doing their best to provide for their children.
In my next post the women will share in their own words their experiences.