Someone once said that Heera Mandi was the least hypocritical place in Pakistan, as if they were referring to a taskforce or a think tank. Everyone has an opinion on Heera Mandi, the red light district of Lahore, and lately politicians too have brought the word to our living rooms through prime time television. As many as these opinions are, only a few are formulated on a clear understanding of what really transpires in Heera Mandi. The judgements say more about the person spewing them than it does about the place. It is a real tragedy that ignorance is not punishable.
It started off with Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM, being offended by the PTI and referring to the party’s jalsas (rallies) as Heera Mandi. Imran Khan responded by saying that the women of Heera Mandi are more respectable than Altaf Hussain. There can be no confusion about the ghastliness of both comments, though varying in scale, because they both start with the premise that the honour of women who prostitute themselves is determined by these men and their opinions, be they high or low.
Even the biggest proponents of consensual sex cannot ignore the fact that institutionalised prostitution rarely has consent. When money is exchanged for sex, the act is bought by the man and therefore the service must be delivered. This is not just oppressive; it is criminal. Most research suggests that prostitution is a result of sexual slavery, human trafficking and is often associated with abuse and violence. It is among the most patriarchal aspects of human society, forcing some nations to outlaw it, like Sweden and Norway. It supports the notion that a man’s voracious sexual appetite is uncontainable so it is better that unchaste women have it acted out on them than chase women. The undeniable question remains: if it is not such a tragic thing then why is it confined to those with the least means? This is a highly lower class based phenomenon.
Given that these women are oppressed financially and legally, it only makes sense that prostitution carry such heavy consequences and social stigma. The fact that the majority of them are in their early years is a symptom of the fact that girls and women of this age range are among the most financially dependent demographic. The psychological effects of prostitution are numerous. These women usually suffer from PTSD, depression and mild to acute anxiety. The health implications need an entire book to do justice to them. Fawzia Saeed’s book, Taboo, can be a good start. HIV and other STDs are among the most prevalent in Heera Mandi. However, more importantly, this is perhaps the most hypocritical place because the men who visit are often the first to confine their wives and daughters to the four walls of their houses.
No one has a right to pass judgement on the hand that these women of Heera Mandi have been dealt. Philosophically, any woman, with the cosmic chance that they had been born there, would have been one. This, by extension, means any man’s mother or daughter. So, to unabashedly use Heera Mandi as a take-down on a political opponent that you despise is perhaps the most dehumanising thing to do, and is indicative of the depraved depths of our political discourse.
The point is that Heera Mandi is not fair game. It is a serious social condition in our nation that needs attention from the government, NGOs and civil society. It needs the kind of attention that does not punish those women in the bid to reform that society but that it provides them an alternative life to one they already are leading through economic and educational empowerment programmes. One fear is that with all this talk of Heera Mandi, the religious right, which is always hungry for cadavers, will rush to devour this area and bring down the morality judgement on it. The last thing these women need is for more of the world to banish it and look down on it, most of all those whose moral calling is to serve the oppressed.
Simone De Beauvoir, in her classic feminist text, The Second Sex, talks about how prostitution is based on the Aristotelian understanding of female nature being afflicted with a natural defectiveness. She refers to a woman’s otherness when trying to survive in the profession. Until our politicians can legally and economically provide rights to sex workers in Heera Mandi and elsewhere, they should not throw the words around to score points and chest thump. It is high time that we dismiss the need to drag women and their honour into public discourse. A woman’s honour is not transferable. It is purely her own domain based on her own private social and material conditions.