Performances by the famous dancing girls of the Pakistani city of Lahore have come to an end because of deteriorating security. Many now face an uncertain future, with some turning to prostitution, reports the BBC’s Haroon Rashid.
The colourful musical anklets of the dancing girls in Lahore’s ancient Shahi Mohallah area are now silent and up for sale.
This old neighbourhood of crumbling buildings is no more a place for men to stray from their arranged marriages and spend time with beautiful women trained in the arts of song, dance and seduction.
Just a few days ago, the women of this area, popularly known as Heera Mandi, used to attract men by wearing these anklets.
The vast majority of dancers did exactly as their name suggest – dance for a male clientele. Only a handful worked in the sex trade.
Dr Mubarak AliLahore historian
In the 1950s, dancing girls were even legitimised as “artists” by a High Court order which permitted them to perform for three hours in the evening.
Over the years, men from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds used to walk up and down this small street in search of dance, beauty, music and, in some cases, sexual favours.
The small, narrow street slumbered during daytime but awoke at night.
In the darkness, music used to ooze out of more than 300 small houses. But the bomb blasts near the bazaar have forced the women to close their businesses and move out for good.
Lahore police spokesman Shahzad Asif Khan says that officers were unable to provide the women with adequate security.
“This was a centuries-old culture,” he said.
“But unfortunately, over a period of time – and especially in the last seven or eight years – extremism has grown.
“In the last 10 months alone, there have been cracker blasts forcing the few remaining women to leave. The dancing girls’ culture is almost non-existent now.”
ActionAid researcher Daud Saqlain fears the future will not bode well for former dancing girls, some of whom have been forced into prostitution because hardliners objected to them performing relatively innocuous dances in public.
“Over the last decade we have seen the unfortunate growth of home-based sex work.
“Because of poverty and limited opportunities, some women have had no choice but to switch from dancing to sex work.
“This is very disturbing, and dangerous overall for our society.”
While some women have moved to other areas of the city, others have headed to far-off places such as Britain and the United Arab Emirates.
Dr Saqlain says that he is concerned about their predicament in such unfamiliar places.
“If they indulge in sex work illegally there, they have absolutely no rights.”
Sanaa, 21, is a former dancer and, like many of her contemporaries, is reluctant to talk in detail about her existence.
She told the BBC she had been to the UK three times and had made many visits to Dubai.
“For us, it does not matter where we perform just as long as we get the work,” she said.
The departure of the dancing girls has meant that the dilapidated buildings in the Shahi Mohallah area are now full of music shops, advertising the skills of musicians who used to perform for the dancing girls but now are offering their services at weddings and parties.
“By playing music at weddings and parties, we can hardly make ends meet. Earlier, the work associated with dancing girls meant a lot of money,” one performer told the BBC.
‘Buzz has gone’
Many former dancers have not turned to prostitution but have adjusted to the security threat by setting up their own websites to attract affluent customers to privately owned houses in middle-class areas.
Aid workers say this, too, presents dangers, because the women were much easier to protect when they were located in one specific area.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the BBC that one reason performances by dancing girls came to an end was because “the security agencies have their apprehensions about late-night activities”.
“But if a mutual convenient timing can be achieved, we can think of allowing it again.”
In the meantime, business has suffered at nearby restaurants in the Shahi Mohallah area.
“Yes, the closure has hit us hard. Our customer levels are now half of what they used to be. All the buzz around here has sadly gone,” says Shahzada Pervaiz, owner of a well-known 60-year-old restaurant called Phajja.
Members of the public on the streets of the area seem to be in two minds over the demise of the dancing girls.
While some said they were “morally corrupt”, others said it was sad that a tradition that had lasted for centuries should disappear in the wink of an eye.
Historian Dr Mubarak Ali told the BBC that the end of the dancing girls tradition was another nail in the coffin of Lahore’s artistic and cultural heritage, which had been “whittled away by radicalisation” since the 1970s.
“Lahore before partition was a very cosmopolitan city,” he said.
“Women rode bikes and no-one objected to it. But the winds of change started blowing because of the support given by former dictator Gen Zia ul-Haq to religious groups.
“All Pakistani music festivals, theatre performances and other events have stopped being hosted here because of the fear of terrorism.”