Sex workers are not part of the formal economy in Pakistan, removing them from the Covid-19 aid agenda. PHOTOS: REUTERS / FILE
Located in the charming city of Lahore, Heera Mandi (Diamond Market), the oldest red light district in Pakistan.
A decade ago, accompanied by two of my best friends, I went to the heart of Lahore, looking for inspiration for my debut novel. Hearing first-hand stories about how, in the past, this market of passion is similar to Montmartre’s Mughal spiral – filled with dancing girls and prostitutes who amaze the richest city entrepreneurs and bewitch their nobles – feels like a passage of time. That allows us to go down through dirty tiles, dirty window panels, and butchers who think of money into a world full of culture and etiquette.
Over the years, sex work has shifted from the Heera Mandi corridors to private, farm houses, and rented apartment buildings scattered throughout the country.
Despite the stigma attached to it, behind closed doors most of the elite entertainment industries in Pakistan depend on these women: dancing girls, escorts, and prostitutes are merged into one.
Now coronavirus has transformed the sex industry in addition to the recognition of its past, exploring the layers of inequality between clients and sex workers.
Seclusion is a luxury most sex workers cannot do. Since business is boring, client friction does not only mean less work, it means less secure work. When an opportunity arises, it pushes women into situations where they are forced to compromise with boundaries, grabbing whatever comes their way. They are not in a position to negotiate prices or request client checks. The survival instinct surpasses the very real fear of contracting the virus.
Sex workers are not part of the formal economy in Pakistan, removing them from the Covid-19 aid agenda; the taboo worsened their invisibility during such crises. Only a few have savings or insurance plans to pay for their care or health testing. Efforts to mobilize grassroots support for the community, such as through crowdfunding, invite extraordinary criticism given the country’s religious culture.
Although sex workers are accustomed to a pendulum swinging between party and hunger, uncertainty about how long this lock can last increases their anxiety. Some women can switch to web cam work and other online services; however, digital access in Pakistan remains widespread, limiting their economic choices further. Clients are also unlikely to be satisfied with virtual interactions instead of direct exchanges.
Coronavirus destroys the sex industry while carrying out social autopsies in economically vulnerable countries such as Pakistan: there is an incompatible dichotomy between hunger and disease. On the one hand, in the case of full closure, hordes of families – including children and dependents of sex workers – will struggle to survive without money for basics such as food, shelter, utilities. If this situation continues indefinitely, the possibility of rebellion on the streets cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, looser quarantine and less violent measures are likely to result in wider and uncontrolled spread of transmission, especially in countries with newly developed health infrastructure.
No easy solution has emerged, but government efforts are ongoing. The Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program – the largest social protection effort in the country’s history – was launched last week to pay nearly $ 1 billion dollars to those hard hit by the financial slowdown.
However, under the top layer of this crisis, we remain mired in our own political drama. Punish every day by aiming at the government for failing to offer miraculous interventions and the definitive Covid-19 schedule takes up a lot of time on television and social media. In the event of an extraordinary global disaster, opportunism and valuation of these numbers erode collective action and coalition building; disputes rise, making people more desperate.
A less superficial and impulsive approach can help us cope with storms better; to spend energy devising ways to protect daily wage earners and anticipate and prevent further looming threats to their incomes – including industries in which our culture would rather we pretend not to exist.
Covid-19 offers a timely warning to Pakistan: if we waste more time looking for differences in it, it is the same as throwing a burning match into a powder barrel. Just like the jagged edges of the once-majestic Heera Mandi building – the walls are now scorched and crumbling, the window glass is broken – our country, too, will produce nothing but the terrible silhouette of a discordant, greedy and polarized past. What’s worse, we might not realize how difficult that is until the match is over.
A piece of opinion originally appeared on Independent
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