Finding the Gaps in Stories of Sex Workers in Pakistan

The country's sex workers struggle to find dignified representation in their national pop culture

Finding the Gaps in Stories of Sex Workers in Pakistan
An aspiring Pakistani dancer practicing her Bollywood dance moves in an academy in Lahore. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)

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A white sari-clad madam, who runs a brothel in Mumbai’s Kamathipura neighborhood, gives a speech to a park full of people. She is greeted with rounds of applause. Except this didn’t happen in real life: It’s a scene from “Gangubai Kathiawadi,” Indian cinema’s big hit last year, which follows the story of Gangubai, a sex worker turned brothel madam in the 1960s and ’70s in India, who hailed from the region of Kathiawad. While the film is inspired by her life, Gangubai hardly received a similar response in reality, despite playing a seminal role in creating awareness about sex work in India. Until the film took over Pakistan via Netflix, Gangubai’s story was limited to a few pages in the Indian author-journalist Hussain Zaidi’s 2011 book “Mafia Queens of Mumbai,” and sex work had not become a subject of public discourse in the country. 

Born into an affluent family, Ganga, aspiring to become an actor, elopes with her boyfriend to Mumbai at the age of 16, after he promises her a film career. However, he sells her to a brothel owned by his aunt, where she is forced into sex work. She changes her name to Gangu, and eventually becomes the madam in charge of the brothel. In this role, she also fights for the equal rights of the women, the right to education for their children, and for legalizing sex work in India.  

Despite the ban on Indian films in Pakistani cinema halls, the movie was available to watch on the Netflix streaming platform, where it ranked among the most-viewed features for several weeks in the country. People could relate to it given the shared history of the two nations that has trickled down in many ways within its feminist movements. However, what has not been common is the growth of the rights movement for sex workers. Political Islam, coupled with generations of gender oppression, led to silencing and segregation of sex workers in the country. Gangubai’s story might be half a century old but it rings true for Pakistani sex workers even today, as little has changed on the ground. 

A filmmaker and women’s rights activist currently working on a documentary on Pakistani sex workers, who requested anonymity, told New Lines that she is yet to truly understand cinema’s impact on real life, but a recent comment by a sex worker she had interviewed intrigued her. “[She] quoted Gangubai to me and said, ‘Have you seen “Gangubai”? I feel like that is my own story,’” she said. 

Calling it an industry is an exaggeration, given how unregulated sex work is. Despite strict cultural and religious controls, there isn’t actually a nationwide law that limits sex work. Instead, it is termed illegal under the zina, or adultery, provision of the Hudood Ordinances, enacted in 1979 as part of the military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s “Islamization” process, which added new criminal offenses for adultery. According to a 2017 UNAIDS report, there are over 229,441 sex workers in Pakistan. Yet, due to lack of regulation, the true figure may be much higher. Sex workers in Pakistan used to be concentrated in the famous, or rather infamous, red light districts of Lahore’s Heera Mandi and Karachi’s Napier Road, but they spread out across cities following crackdowns during Zia’s regime. 

In Pakistan, there are differences between the reality and portrayal of the lives of sex workers. In pop culture, one of the ways sex work was sanitized was through telling stories of the tawaif, or courtesan. The Urdu word has been abused to such an extent that it now refers to a sex worker. However, in the old days, when Mughal rule was at its zenith, courtesans were also patrons of arts and culture, and the elite turned to them to learn etiquette. Several adaptations of the 1899 novel “Umrao Jaan Ada,” by the poet-writer Mirza Hadi Ruswa, became popular in the subcontinent, including a 2003 TV drama on Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s biggest channels. The adaptations humanized Umrao Jaan but also condemned her for being a “fallen woman.” 

Set in 19th-century Lucknow, in present-day India, the story follows Umrao Jaan’s journey from being sold to a brothel to atoning for her sins. Even Hasan Shah’s “Nishtar” and Premchand’s “Bazaar-e-Husn” followed stories of tawaifs labeled as “fallen women,” while alluding to the fame of the dancing girls and courtesans before they were vilified and marginalized during British rule. Oblivious of traditions and the cultural milieu of South Asia, the British diminished courtesans to prostitutes and kothas — where they sang, danced and lived — to brothels.

However, in Pakistani pop culture, Umrao Jaan became popular not because she represented sex workers; she was romanticized for being an icon of the old-world charm, glamor and way of life led by the nawabs, or the nobility of those times. This hangover of nostalgia endures to the present day. Aired in 2017 on Hum TV, the story of the popular Pakistani show, “Alif, Allah aur Insaan,” (A, Allah and human) revolved around a courtesan sheltering homeless girls at her brother’s home. It was criticized for glamorizing brothels and presenting tawaifs as awe-inspiring. Last month, it was announced that the Pakistani star Sajal Aly will lead another adaptation of “Umrao Jaan Ada.”

Earlier this month, it was announced that the Indian filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who directed “Gangubai,” will spotlight three generations of courtesans “who lived like queens,” in an eight-episode series titled “Heera Mandi” for Netflix. Living in the famous neighborhood of Lahore, in the pre-Partition era, the courtesans entertained the men in society, only to return afterwards to their dark worlds, said Bhansali. “Once her prime time is over, the courtesan is forgotten,” he said. The news once again brought up the dilemma of portraying a reality that is often ignored versus adding glamor to the pain and suffering of courtesans. 

The adaptations made it easy for society to consume these stories without feeling too close to the lives shown on screen. While “Umrao Jaan Ada” became a household name, the women whose stories were depicted were forced to live in the shadows. Zerka Tahir, a journalist and activist who works with children in red light districts in Lahore, told New Lines that during her time working with families of sex workers, she came across a woman who was sold off at the age of 11 for 50,000 rupees ($192). Her case was not unique: Tahir has come across several other such instances of trafficking. 

However, in the 1940s and ’50s, there was the Pakistani writer Sadat Hasan Manto, part of the Progressive Writers Movement, whose openness in writing about sex workers led to him facing multiple obscenity lawsuits. In fact, in a job interview with All India Radio, Manto pitched himself as a man who knew every prostitute and pimp in Bombay. Instead of adding morals and judgment to the stories, he simply let sex workers exist. Manto’s popular short story, “Das Rupay” (10 rupees), told the story of Sarita, a 15-year-old sex worker in Bombay, who returns her client’s 10 rupee note after a car ride as her desire for ordinariness held more value. 

In another short story by Manto, titled “Khushiya,” Kanta, a prostitute, opens the door fully naked when her pimp knocks. When questioned, she says, “When you said it was you, I thought, what’s the big deal? It’s only my Khushiya, I’ll let him in…” To make a character use her body to hurt the man’s ego and be aware of her agency was rare in Urdu literature. However, Manto was not spared criticism: He was called out for “objectifying women’s bodies.” But most of his fans point out that his stories acted as a mouthpiece for society. He gave the human body independence from social constructs and, therefore, sex workers often featured his stories. 

His writings have been called “obscene” for their focus on sex and sexuality. Yet similar obsessions drive Pakistani society to this day — from the use of sexual violence in curses to the idea of honor in a woman’s virginity. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” Manto once wrote. 

After Partition in 1947, Pakistan found itself under increasingly religious rule, which led to crackdowns on red light districts. Apart from stories of the courtesans, Pakistani fiction found itself limited to TV dramas and tales in Urdu digest magazines, which hardly went beyond domestic issues — much less venturing into the world of sex work. 

That would not happen until Shoaib Mansoor’s movie “Bol” (Speak) in 2011, which explored religion, trans identity and polygamy through the story of a family, and became one of the first Pakistani films to show a sex worker on the big screen. In an attempt to have a son after five daughters, the father enters into a contract marriage with a sex worker, hoping she will bear him a son. The contract is temporary to make the father feel he is not committing a sin but, to the woman, it feels no different than the business contracts she enters on a regular basis. 

There were further gaps in stories and representation but, in recent times, there have been attempts to regain the hold that controversial and jarring stories can have. Kashf Foundation, a microfinance initiative that produces TV dramas on social issues in Pakistan, was applauded for its 2021 TV production “Dil Na Umeed To Nahi” (The heart is not hopeless), with its bold portrayal of pedophilia rings, trafficking and brothels in Pakistan. It is interesting to note that while the foundation’s previous productions were picked up by major networks like GEO and Hum TV, this show aired on TVOne Pakistan, which has a comparatively small viewership. 

While the show made an attempt to portray the complexities of sex work in Pakistan, its lead actor Yumna Zaidi said in an interview that she initially thought she was playing the role of a prostitute, and only later realized that it was of a girl who was trafficked. This distinction indicated how ingrained the binaries of women’s roles are in society, particularly in the context of sex work. The society sympathizes only with a certain kind of character who they see as worthy of help and redemption. 

Zoya Sameen, an incoming teaching fellow at the University of Chicago, whose work focuses on the history of laws around prostitution in colonial India, talks about how segregation was used historically in the region to remove sex workers from “respectable” society. “You can understand why women say they have a right to sex work because they have very few spaces to go to once they’ve engaged (in it),” she says. 

Sameen was also referring to one of the most dominant debates around sex work — whether or not “sex work is work” at all. The idea is considered highly controversial in a country like Pakistan. Apart from the backlash from anti-sex work lobbies, the notion of sex work being work is often criticized for being too simplistic by activists because it fails to gauge the nuances of the sex work in the country. Sex workers in Pakistan often have to deal with police raids, bribes and social ostracization. “To remove the patriarchal concept that shapes every aspect of sex work is unfair. There is no aspect of sex work not shaped by patriarchy in South Asia,” she says. 

Apart from TV dramas, contemporary authors in Pakistan are also making attempts at exploring the complexities of sex work. Aysha Baqir’s “Beyond the Fields” (2019) follows the story of the twin sisters Zara and Tara. Set in a remote village in the early 1980s, against the backdrop of martial law and social turmoils, Tara is kidnapped and raped in the fields. In an effort to hide their “shame,” her parents accept the first marriage proposal that comes their way and marry off their “dishonored” daughter. When something seems amiss to Zara, she decides to follow her sister from the village to Lahore and unwillingly enters the hidden world of sex work in the city. 

A development consultant who has worked in some of the most impoverished and segregated regions of Pakistan, Baqir came across experiences and troubles of sex workers during her work. “The novel was deliberately set up under Zia’s regime because it was then the Hudood Ordinances come into play, and if it was any law that damaged women it was this one,” she told New Lines, referring to laws introduced under Zia’s regime that required women to present four witnesses to prove they were raped. 

Through Zara’s story, Baqir wanted to highlight questions of honor, shame and vulnerability that stemmed from her own observations. “I chose to write about it precisely because it is frowned upon. Honor is linked to a girl’s chastity and virginity — so if she’s assaulted, it’s assumed she’s lost her honor but also she’ll pull down the family with her,” Baqir says. 

The writer Awais Khan’s 2021 novel “No Honor,” which was well received both in Pakistan and internationally for its emotional telling, follows the story of Abida as she marries the man she loves with her father’s support, only to be sold off by her husband to a brothel in favor of money to buy drugs. “When hard hitting truth comes out they [people] can’t accept that. They don’t want to face the reality that this is happening to unsuspecting girls and women. There is a disconnect between people in Pakistan,” he tells New Lines. “I think the only way people will understand sex workers is when they actually see them. You don’t see them in public or roaming around, there’s always a veil over this trade.”

Despite multiple attempts in pop culture, it has been difficult to divorce the basic rights of sex workers from an inherent moral bias. Most stories in Pakistan, even when they are humanizing sex workers, do so under the narrative of young innocent girls being trafficked or facing violence, undoubtedly highlighting a huge problem in the society. Yet this narrative also limits the conversation, as it automatically boxes the kind of sex workers who society should have sympathy for. 

Tahir points out that trafficking and force are just some of the many ways in which sex workers enter the industry. Many are born to sex workers and this is the only way of life they know. Others choose it due to a lack of financial opportunities. There are also some who are conditioned to believe that it would lead to a glamorous lifestyle. Talking about children in particular, Tahir says that many have no choice, as they can never leave the community. “No one wants to talk about these situations because they’re not as dramatic, and don’t always have a sob story or climax that viewers could empathize with,” she said.

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