Painting prostitutes, Pakistani brushes off religious hard-liners

By Ivan Watson

It’s hot and sweaty in a rat-infested room in Lahore’s historic red light district, a neighborhood of narrow alleyways lined with brothels.

A barefoot, long-haired woman is gyrating and twirling on the carpet, to the beat of a four-man band whose drummer sweats profusely as he pounds out a furious rhythm.

The dancer, who only gives her first name, Beenish, is performing a kind of Pakistani belly-dance called the mujra.

Her harmonium player, a skinny bald man who squints through coke-bottle glasses, has been performing like this for the past 50 years. But he says the art form is dying out.

“That spark, the way it was in the past, is no more,” said Ghulam Sarwar.

Last fall, a judge in Lahore’s high court declared the mujra dance “vulgar” and banned it from being performed on stage.

Some here say the government is cracking down on easy, “immoral” targets in an attempt to appease religious hard-liners like the Taliban. Islamist militants are believed to be responsible for a recent wave of bomb attacks in Lahore, targeting cinemas, theaters and cafes where young men and women fraternize together.

“It is a gesture of good will to pacify the mullahs and the Taliban,” said Samia Amjad, a lawmaker in the provincial assembly. Though she is a member of an opposition political party, she said she supported the crackdown on vulgarity. “I see it as an essential part of Islam.”

Dancers aren’t the only targets of the court censors.

In late March, the Lahore high court banned two female singers from recording new albums after ruling that they sang sexually explicit lyrics.

“If the current circumstances persist in Pakistan,” said Noora Lal, one of the banned singers, “then singing will die out in this country.”

Pakistan is a deeply conservative Muslim nation, where the punishment for blasphemy is the death sentence.

But there is one person in Lahore who openly mocks the conservative establishment: painter and restaurant owner Iqbal Hussain.

Though he said he has received multiple death threats from Islamist fundamentalists, Hussain continues to be Pakistan’s most vocal defender of prostitutes. All of the models portrayed in his paintings are sex workers.

“I portray them on canvas, portray them as human beings,” Hussain said, “They feel pain. They want their children to be educated.”

Hussain knows the industry intimately. He was born to a family of sex workers. His mother, a former prostitute, passed away last month at the age of 98.

The small, soft-spoken painter has turned the house he grew up in, an old four-story building with ornate wooden balconies, into a popular restaurant for tourists and wealthy Pakistanis. On one side of the house there is a brothel, on the other side, the 17th century Badshahi Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world.

In his subversive paintings, which Hussain said sell for more than $10,000 each, he highlights the overlap between Lahore’s sex industry and its religious community. In one canvas, hundreds of worshippers are depicted prostrating themselves around the mosque, while in the foreground, two women apply lipstick and makeup on a balcony.

Hussain explained that the prostitutes in the painting were preparing to receive new customers as soon as the prayers in the mosque were over. VideoWatch the dance being called “immoral” in Pakistan »

The painter claimed that on religious festivals, the brothels and dance halls in his neighborhood overflow with customers.

“They come from the northern areas with their turbans,” Iqbal said, laughing. “All coming to this area. They’re not going to the mosque … but to the brothels!”

Nevertheless, the rising tide of the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan has some residents of Lahore’s red light district worried.

“May Allah keep us safe from them,” said Beenish, the mujra dancer. “We are poor, humble people. They should not target this place.”

Photography by CNN’s Farhad Shadravan.

19 responses to “Painting prostitutes, Pakistani brushes off religious hard-liners

  1. There’s no difference between a prostitute and an actress/actor. Whether they are male or female, they sell their body for something that was considered illegal and sin in old times. Now it’s so common that while we’re watching a movie in reality we are looking at a prostitute. But these people bought respect with money and started calling themselves actresses, they do the same thing that a prostitute does in a brothel, dancing and singing. Prostitutes in old times were known for their acting and heart alluring acts that can attract men to them. Actresses around the world do the same thing. They expose themselves so much to alure a man to watch their movies. Sexy actresses are more popular because of men. sexy actors are popular because woman like them and watch their movies most. We’re all fans of these so-called actors and actresses.
    So why are these people neglected who live in lahore, hera mandi? I think they should get the same rights as any other actor or actress. Reema pakistani actress used to dance like this beenish woman, and then she got a chance to perform in film and of course to show the world they have to act innocent but bold and strong too.
    There is no end to this issue. Mujra destroyed Mughals. They got drunk and made themselves busy in watching these prostitutes who were hindu. Their dance made Mughals forget about their hold over the land. Just like the muslims of today. we have forgotten our life as a muslim and we watch movies and listen to songs, we can forget to pray but can never forget to watch the latest movie.

  2. If men really run to brothels after prayers then there is no hope for us at all. This article gives the impression that this practice is routine, but that is very much open to question.

    BTW, why the slew of articles depicting Lahore’s moral bankruptcy? I’d like to see someone write about the decent people in Lahore for a change.

  3. I have seen a new phenomenon lately in lahore while travelling around in the posh areas. I have seen girls (usually 2) standing at the roadside with an old lady (patron ? )and seems waiting for their customers. You can see them between 8 to 10 pm on the roads leading to Jinnah Hospital hospital from garden town side and from township side.
    Seems these sex workers are fed up of their pimps and want to be independent by direct contact with the clients as these pimps eat up lot of their earnings in the shape of commission.
    Anyway, it is an eye-opener for our civil society activsts who are dying for the rights of all the members of society.

  4. appreciation for good work is dying and so is the goodness. Now we appreciate acting, dancing and singer of their talent that’s why young generation gets motivated to do that.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with singing and dancing as long as they are genuine expressions of human emotion. And acting is not the same as prostitution. As for human rights, no, prostitution is not a “human right”–it’s the worst form of oppression. The concern of human rights activists is to ensure that the women who are forced to make objects of themselves can get out of this degradation and find an honorable way to make a living.

  6. I don’t consider prostitution to be wrong, it is no business of anyone what two consenting adults do behind close doors. It is a person’s right to sell his or her body. All religious people (both Christians and Muslims) try to present prostitution as something that would damage society deeply but there is no proof of that, there are many countries with legal prostitution and society isn’t disintegrating.
    To me marriage is a form of prostitution (only difference is you get to have sex with 1 person or up to 4 persons if you are rich or powerful Muslim male) which all religions promote. In Pakistan most people have not even talked to each other 5 times (some have never talked to their life slave or master) before their marriage.

    If anyone still thinks prostitution is wrong (because it is written in some old book or some religious leader who has not read anything other than few propaganda books) then don’t go to prostitutes, it is not like someone will come and force you to have sex with a prostitute (Oh no, how can you resist this temptation, it must be the fault of prostitute that you are tempted to go to a brothel because you are a good religious person who can’t do something so wrong unless Devil (prostitute) forces you.).

  7. Marriage is a blessing and has dignity. No muslim man can marry more than once, there are limits. First priority is first wife’s decision to let his husband marry another woman. Most men in Pakistan misuse this authority and use force to marry another women. Most of

    Pakistan’s men have illegal affairs, extra marital affairs and that’s not called men prostition! women who are forced into this profession are called prostitutes. Who knows how they were brought there and what was their misery that made them sluts. Women are not given respect in Pakistan. Women are tortured behind closed doors in each home of Pakistan.

    I have seen it with my own eyes, aunties getting hurt by their mother-in-laws, their husbands don’t care if they are being abused. Many girls escape or think that they can escape this slavery. But there’s no way out for women. They are being used by men no matter where they go.

    If a woman who gets married is educated, she must work for her husband! If a woman is uneducated she must pay her fortune watching her husband getting married to another woman!
    If a woman’s parents don’t get dowry arranged, the woman is left behind in parents home to serve others as maid!

    There’s a lack of knowledge and education in our system. I dislike maulwi’s which speak arabic Quran’s surah, but in the night sleep with sluts. There’s a surah about this kind of people, and they are called Munafiq. They say they are muslims yet when they go their own people they say they were just kidding with their Prophet.

  8. Mr. Naveed has written a great thing, that’s correct.

  9. What of the exploitation of women in the prostitution and trafficking of women? Are prostitution and such-like really a form of women’s agency??

  10. To Mr.Usman.
    I think you have not ever recited Holy Quran because if you have ever recited it, your thinking would have been far more different. Im amazed after reading your comments!! May Allah have mercy on you!

  11. Seriously, what is wrong with these writers? Since when are we supposed to be proud of prostitutes? It’s strange how people validate things in the name of culture. And that’s the strange thing about these blogs set up , no doubt, by the elite class of Pakistan. You claim to be speaking of, and for, Lahore, but you are too removed from the normal middle-class to know what it really means to be a Lahori. Suddenly we are supposed to care for prostitutes, because really it’s the elite class that ‘benefits’ from their presence. The fact that you apologists to the West are hypocrites is quite evident. You talk of Sufism and yet you have no morals. How can people like you make a change, when you dont stand for or believe in anything?

  12. I personally think that prostitution is wrong. I wonder how it has been surviving till now? I mean it is because us (the so-called civilised people) who pay them and make their business a success. And let me clear somethings out… No girl on this earth wants to become a prostitute. Just like we are born Muslims and so we consider ourselves Muslims in the same way some of them are born prostitutes and they are meant to carry forward the tradintion. Some women are so oppressed by this male dominated society with men all the time lurking at women with their eyes full of lust that poor women are left with no other option. And they do it for their survival.

    Moreover, Islam considers such women as Haram. I have no doubt on this part.

    My point is that WE are the ones who are responsible for all this. The corruption rate is ever increasing. It’s more like ‘rich getting richer and poor getting poorer’. Male chouvenism doesn’t allow women to get promoted or on the first place go and work for themselves. Even if they start working, they are always looked as some sex material… They are always harrassed by their co-workers and guess what they are given promotions on the cost that they sleep with their boss!

    I think every woman is surely to become a prostitute and majority of us have actually become one. The words slut, whore and etc etc are so common in our daily lives that the business of prostitutes is surely meant to slow down since we the so-called ‘sharif’ people are making our own daughters, sisters and mothers a slut.

    I may be offending lots of people but let’s face it- this is the harsh reality of our morally corrupt nation.

    We need to deal with all this or else one day our country will be known as ‘The Pak land of whores’.

  13. Buhat achi post hai aur aap ne waqai aik talkh haqeeqat bayan ki hai humein is per sochna chaheye

  14. Shoot the capitalists, shoot the Jews, burn down the television studios and smash your tvs, install the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Pakistan, and you will see prostitution eradicated. Otherwise it is an inevitable reflex of urban society. If it happened at Mohenjo-daro, it will happen at Lahore.

  15. prostitution shall not be encourged in any kind. but at the time its the responsibility of the society to support them to over come from that hell.

  16. Asalam-o-Alecum:

    Seems we are loosing our hope with Islam, and it’s all due lack of knowledge and literacy. Whenever, Islam is discussed, we perceive it as Talibanization; we need to understand that Talibans are nothing just a planted breed of jweish lobby, to defame Islam and its rituals, and to extract out its desired exculpations to invade Muslim countries. Why don’t we think about Iran or the Hizbullah while considering Islam?

    No doubt, Islam offers a complete code of life; if we bound ourselves to the same, than it would get impossible to have such uncertainty and disbelief among us.
    Actually we think that Islam is all about Namaz, roza, hajj and Zakat; here I like to state that these obligations are nothing but mentoring exercises to keep our thoughts and action right on the Islamic track, throughout out the day, and to help us adopt the character which Islam reclaims; and If anyone is heading towards brothels after prayers (as mentioned above) than I am afraid that he is wasting his time with the namaz and other prayers.

    God has created humans with natural inclination towards opposite genders; but, in the mean time, HE has also set out legal means to satisfy our needs. The major problem with our society, why we are getting ourselves involved in such negative activities, is that we consider marriage too late in our lives; we keep on grieving about our career and money up till late 20’s or 30’s, though Allah has clearly assured us about our Rizq.

    Moreover, if someone is still not gets married beside all his will, than Quran has also asked us to be patient with the calamities and no doubt Allah is well aware of our conditions. This life is just like an examination hall, with a very little time in our hands, truly tell, does anyone remember how long it has taken to pass those 20 or 30 years (or whatever your age is)? I am sure nobody would regard it as a long span of time. Same phenomenon would also be applied with your remaining years, and soon we would get out of this examination hall; so try to be patient with your thoughts and acts as its just an exam; nobody is here to get any sort of reward or punishment; in fact a person with a miserable life has got a way easier paper than a person who has got all facilities as well as knowledge, in life.

    Hope I haven’t pottered an impression of a ridiculous mullah on your minds.

    Stay peacefull

    Fraz Rizvi

  17. Lots of peoples has commented on prositution. But no one has touched the subject, why these girls choose this kind of livings. If you ask them, evry one hate this kind of Work. Lets educate the people so that they can be productive member of the Society, especially thoes who are at edge to fall into this kind degrading work.

  18. Dear God gave Sexual feeling not only to men, but also women, How unfair Allah is he allowed men to have four wives offcourse with the permission from first wife, Even women should have right to marry 4 times offcourse with permission of her first husband and as whole pakistan know how men took permission to marry again from their wives allah should make special arrangement for women they can marry 2nd, 3rd and 4th time just by informing local mosque who should be made to support them as they will have great sex, this way men will be focus on thier wifes sexual feeling instead of going to brothels, So if Man goes to brothels he will not be able to give 100% in home bed always, So his wife can have fun with second husband

  19. prostitution is immoral act every where in this world, being muslim it is our moral duty to refrain away from sins and lead pure life, we need to study again teaching of islam, we should respect womens and their body,may allah keep us away from zina amin

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