LAHORE - Almost all businesses have been facing a crisis-like situation for the past several years. A variety of reasons, including power and gas shortages, can be attributed to the decline. The sluggish economic activity has also hit the evil business in the red-light district of the provincial metropolis and those involved in it are 'running into loss'. However, since the government doesn't have to spend anything from the taxpayers' money, it will not be affected by the privatisation plan, which is to be implemented in the months and years ahead.
The total 'bankruptcy' of this business will mean a healthy change in the collective thinking of society. As of now, the red-light area is no longer what it used to be. At present, as you enter the area, foul smell welcomes visitors of the historic Heera Mandi while addicts are seen lying in the narrow alleys of the area. Several prostitution dens are still operating in the old and shabby structures which are also joined by eunuch sex workers.
“The dancing queens have either relocated to Dubai where the business is good enough or they moved to posh localities across Lahore,” says a 45-year-old pimp who agreed to speak on the condition that only his second name, Kala, be published. Prostitutes who are still active here are actually struggling to survive. Now, the red-light business here is on the verge of collapse, he said with serious concern. Before being asked why, he himself replied, “We don’t see reasonable clients coming here since prostitutes spread across hotels in Lahore.”
Most of the musicians and artists have formed their own bands and they work on mobile phones though some of them are running shops in the bazaar. They are booked for wedding parties and sometime invited for other functions and festivities. The musicians who once thrived on commissions from dancing girls are grappling with shrinking wallets. Some landlords are having a hard time renting out an apartment, as prostitutes leave the red-light district or decide to settle in the posh neighbourhoods.
Located next to Badshahi Masjid, Heera Mandi is much like other bazaars during the day with several shops of Khussa (traditional footwear), variety of food, and stores for musical instruments.
Official sources revealed that the government is trying to remove sex workers associated with Heera Mandi with a heritage tourism project. Under the Walled City of Lahore Authority project, the provincial authorities are speedily working to turn the four streets of Heera Mandi into a touristy place with Mughal facades, restaurants, and art galleries. The government is planning to set up a dance school to perpetuate dancing traditions as well. “It is our mission to attract tourism and revitalize the Walled City into a culturally rich, socially cohesive, environmentally safe, and economically vibrant locality of metropolitan Lahore,” according to an official of the WCLA.
Some prostitutes say the police are part of the problem. They complained that the police not only harass their clients but also extract money from them. “No one can operate a brothel here if the police are not taken on board. Our clients are blackmailed by patrolling police,” says 50-year-old Madam Shazia (not her real name). She lives in a small apartment on the second floor of a tall building with three other young women amid extreme unhygienic conditions.
Prostitution was formalised for the first time in the Indian subcontinent by the British government in the mid-18th century. The British colonialists enacted special laws, created red-light areas and assigned the task of protecting women sex workers. Municipalities overlooking the sex districts were given the responsibility of collecting taxes and providing health and sanitation services to the brothels. “Those born in the Heera Mandi and trained in Kothas are no more here. They operate under the management of their mother or another older female relative in the residential areas,” Shazia said. “Some of them are renowned stage-drama dancers and stars,” she said with a little smile on her face.
In the Mughal era, Heera Mandi was famous for dancing and music. The well-off people used to go there for entertainment. Beautiful girls used to sit in stall shaped balconies, called kothas, and ply their trade, the oldest profession of the world. The place was perhaps even more famous for singing and dancing.
According to a recent study, major cities like Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, and Multan have large population of sex workers. Many sex workers in these cities operate from hotels or homes. Some cities have red-light districts but due to illegal status of prostitution, many sex workers prefer working in homes and other private facilities.
According to a sex worker, only some frustrated youth, labourers, and addicts visit the Heera Mandi. They are not interested in music or art.
Decades ago, the historic Heera Mandi of Lahore was well-developed and attracted both wealthy clients and those looking for singers and actresses. The Mandi produced many actresses for the local film industry.
Because of low rates, eunuchs and transgender are hired easily. Many of the apartments are occupied by eunuchs who share rooms and live with each other.
In the corridors, where once dancing girls used to lure their clines, are now occupied by transgender. “For the eunuchs, this is the best place to live freely,” says Aashi Butt, President She-Male Foundation, a non-profit organisation registered in Lahore. A private driver says that since most of the city’s hotels have turn into prostitution dens, well-off people don’t need to visit the Heera Mandi, the site considered as the most notorious place in this religious society.
Many guesthouses located in the posh areas also offer dancing girls apart from call girls. “Who will not prefer visiting guesthouses? They also offer alcohol and girls to drink with,” says the driver, who introduced himself as Khan.