Thursday, April 15

Tangail's Brothel and Sex Work: The "At Least" Sydrome

Black and red smeared eyes peered out between the curtains of their rooms. Some women’s faces were painted white as a Geisha, dressed in vibrant, sparkly skirts. We didn’t know if their make-up was to appear more enticing to customers, or to disguise who they are under a mask.

Despite all the color and glamour, this was a dark place.

Diya and I took a trip through Bangladesh’s oldest brothel in Tangail. Walking through the small alleys, it was similar to a dirty, slum. The ground is the wastebasket and everything reeks of various human fluids. Houses (single room shacks) are practically on top of one another, sharing walls as apartment buildings. There’s no privacy with curtains for doors and outdoor bathrooms. The narrow alleys are filled with sex workers waiting for clients—and clients just dawdling, chatting with shopkeepers selling soda and chips, watching with televisions. It’s own self-sustaining community with food, shelter and water pumps. People could stay inside for weeks without needing to go outside the brothel. Diya turned to me at one point: “This is the strangest place I’ve ever been.”

It was only so uncomfortable knowing what goes on behind these billowing curtains. Shirtless men peered out from the beds, staring at us foreigners unashamed. Honestly, I couldn’t even look at the men. To the women, I tried to smile but I felt intrusive walking in on their work and home space. I didn't take photos for that reasons. And it was mid-day.

It was additionally heartbreaking after hearing the personal stories of the women. I don’t want to sensationalize their lives in this blog, but I do want to create awareness. Some women cried to us during their interviews, sharing how their parents abandoned them or they were sold into the brothel. One woman was so small, ten years old, that she wasn’t even menstruating when she was forced to have sex. Her body was so young and fragile her hip broke when one man was penetrating her. Some girls look (and are) so young that some madams (women pimps) inject hormones used to fatten cows. (Thanks for the link, Neelofer!)

Often, young girls and women are chukri, bonded prostitutes. A relative or the trafficker have a large debt that is endowed to the young woman. They work under a madam until it is paid. With extremely high and unfair interest, women have no other livelihood or skill by the time the debt is settled. Some continue with sex work or become madam, continuing the cycle. Often times, they make more money selling sex than any other job, but the cost of living in this brothel is much higher than living outside of it. Their earnings rarely stay in their hands.

We learned that most of the violence doesn’t come from customers, but from police and shopkeepers. Sex workers are constantly chastised and beaten when they step outside the brothel. Clearly these men don’t think that it’s their brother or neighbor who is buying sex services, perpetuating the demand for female sex workers.

The organization we went with gives trainings to the women on how to not appear like a prostitute outside the brothel. Their explanation was: “Sex workers are treated as their work all the time. A businessman can leave his business and be a father or brother. Sex workers are beaten when they aren’t working because people can tell what their work is by the way they walk and dress. We give them training on how look more respectable in the public eye.”

At first, I was disappointed by this training’s approach. The problem lies in the idea that men think that women’s bodies are dangerous and must be hidden. Telling sex workers to change their appearance is reiterating that sex work is immoral and should be kept out of the public view. But violence is occurring—what can be done to stop it now? By helping these women change their dress, they can at least be safe on the street.

“At least”—that term was ringing in our heads throughout the entire trip. So much violence is happening: physical, emotional, structural. There’s no way to change every thing at once. With small steps, though not perfect, women “at least” are moving forward on the long road to equality and empowerment. “At least” it’s better, not perfect, but better.

We witnessed the NGO workers holding hands and gossiping with some sex workers as if they are normal women (because, shocker, they are normal women). The staff was really sweet and non-judgmental. Diya asked the women about the organization’s work and it’s impact on the brothel community. Women responded that it was truly helpful. They are helping release bonded prostitutes from their debts and instructing condom use. The organization has this really innovative approach to providing services to women who are traumatized: a workbook that uses symbols for women to draw their experiences and express their needs (see left).

One woman responded that if the organization wasn’t there supporting the sex workers, some company would have torn down the brothel and built a factory. Without this community and space, sex work would be much more difficult, and dangerous.

I still toss around my opinion on legalizing sex work. One of the world’s oldest professions, it’s not disappearing. It’s impossible, and unsafe, to try to erase it. People will find a way so we should 'at least' protect them. But legalization does not suddenly transform how most sex workers don’t necessarily have much of a choice in picking that profession; nor does it erase the bullshit patriarchal notions behind sex work: that a man has such ‘unruly’ hormones that he can’t control his sex drive and need to use a woman’s body to fulfill this uncontrollable desire. Therefore, she is turned into a slut, something worthless. I will accept it’s legalization with maybe the following conditions: sex work is consented by the worker and client together, there are scholarships and services for workers who want to leave the profession, psycho-social therapy services as well as amazing health care (like athletes), anti-discrimination laws... and there are just as many male sex workers as female with just as many females clients as male. And let’s forget heteronormative sex. It’s confining and boring.

UPDATE: Thought-provoking article on laws against sex work in the UK.

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