Lahore’s red-light district, Heera Mandi is full of cultural and historical significance that dates back to the Mughal Empire. Today, prostitutes and sex workers are rife.
Heera Mandi (or the Diamond Market) is a well-known and blatantly ignored red-light zone residing in Lahore, Pakistan.
Here, women are paid to perform Mujras and other forms of sensual dances. The majority of women choose this type of lifestyle due to extreme poverty and being unable to provide for themselves, or for their families.
Before getting into the details of what it is like today, we first need to understand how it came into being.
Heera Mandi forms part of the old city of Lahore that goes all the way back to the time of the Mughal Empire.
During those times, women were mostly known to perform Mujras, these were much more reputable than how they are looked upon now.
Interestingly, Heera Mandi also goes by the alternative name of Shahi Mohalla (or the Royal Neighbourhood).
The old city of Lahore consists Roshnai Gate, Badshahi Masjid, Lahore Fort, and Hazuri Bagh.
While the rest of the city has modernised over the decades, the walled city remains a historical relic of the past.
It was more of a family tradition for most, and performances were seen for genuine entertainment for the South Asian elite. People who performed as well as watched did it mostly due to their sheer love for dance, music and poetry.
Currently, many people recognise the word tawaif as a substitute for ‘prostitute’. However, it was once a group consisting of elite female members, who went through strict training. Much like the well-known Japanese geishas (female entertainers, who are taught strict etiquette).
These women were hugely influential. They were responsible for popularising much of the Urdu and South Asian literature and dance that existed in that era. Pakistani journalist, Zohaib Saleem Butt explains:
“During the Mughal era, beautiful courtesans lived in this area, keeping the art of traditional singing and dancing alive.”
In fact, it is even said that young to-be emperors were taken care of by these tawaifs, and they were taught about their heritage and culture through them.
Whether there was prostitution going on at that time, by these women, is debatable. However, it is said that along with the weakening of the Mughal Empire and the strengthening of the British, these women were classified as prostitutes, and with time, their reputation was destroyed.
During the British Raj, brothel houses were set up for the recreation of British soldiers. And the place which was once the hub of traditional culture slowly lost its aesthetic charm and became a centre for prostitution
Many South-Asians patriots thought of this action by the British as a way of repressing their culture and sense of patriotism so that there was less resistance and rebellion.
t is ironic, however, that these women who once had such a dignified name, resorted to such actions and actually became prostitutes.
There are roughly two types of women in Heera Mandi, those who chose the lifestyle because it has been passed down in their family for generations and those who chose it because they don’t have any other way of making money.
Heera Mandi is right next to the Badshahi-Mosque, which is also quite an oxymoron, as actions of revealing too much of your body and pre-marital intercourse, is strictly against the religion majority that the country follows. Pakistan’s laws too, in fact, do not allow for such actions to take place.
There are women who only perform dances like Mujras. The majority of these women are ones who have this tradition passed on to them through their families. These women claim that they do not resort to prostitution.
In fact, they say they perform every night from 11-1 and then all their customers go home. These are the women that still seem to show some pride in their jobs and proudly call themselves tawaifs.
One proud female dancer said: “Women who only come here for prostitution are second class in my opinion.”
So there is a clear opposition of such acts from this group. A second group of women are most of those who chose their job because they need to support their families.
Nargis, a mother of three, tells her story; she was once an excellent dancer and performer at parties and events. After her marriage, she quit her work and became a full-time housewife.
However, her husband beat her, despite her working day and night at home. Eventually, she had no choice but to run away from her house with her children. She ended up in Heera Mandi, and now works as a prostitute.
She mentions that she has not taught her children religion or permit them to go to school. Her logic behind this is that she does not want them to dismiss her and lose respect for her once they gain knowledge about the reality of her job. However, it is that exact action that could lead her and her family out of poverty.
It is also sad that this might be the reasoning that the majority of women living here go by. Such is the stigma that they face by society.
If only people were to create more awareness and teach these women that their children do not have to follow in their footsteps, there would be an increase in their living standards and they would not earn money through such disrespectful ways, or even be ashamed by it.
Politicians and policemen, deliberately ignore this situation. Police mostly do because they too are poorly paid, and easily accept any form of bribery.
What is worse is that women are only paid around Rs. 200-400 for each encounter (approximately £1.20 and £2.40).
This is an unbelievably low price to pay for something so sacred. Furthermore, the lack of knowledge and education limits these women’s understanding of issues such as STDs and makes it all the more dangerous.
Heera Mandi is a place where men come for entertainment and to pay women to have intercourse with them. Why do these men (majority of whom are also low-income earners) have a need for such actions?
Why do these women have to do work that they hate, that makes them feel guilty about their lives; so much so that they are afraid of their own children rejecting them? What can Pakistani citizens and the government do to help these women?
These are all questions worth contemplating over. In the meantime, these women will continue the secret lives that they have created for themselves in Heera Mandi.