Asian dancers are lured into prostitution

Teenage exponents of 'mujra', a traditional dance form, are being brought to Britain from India and Pakistan and forced into the sex trade
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The Independent Online

Police are investigating the growth of illicit "mujra" clubs in London, Bradford and Leicester for which teenage dancers are imported from India and Pakistan in the service of a multimillion-pound sex industry.

Police are investigating the growth of illicit "mujra" clubs in London, Bradford and Leicester for which teenage dancers are imported from India and Pakistan in the service of a multimillion-pound sex industry.

Smuggled into Britain, the girls perform corrupted versions of traditional Asian dances to Bollywood soundtracks in bars and restaurants. But the performance is merely a showcase for the real business - prostitution. Promoters can earn more than £10,000 a night, while the girls are lucky to receive pocket money.

Until recently, most police officers, even those in Scotland Yard's Clubs and Vice Unit, had no idea of the existence of mujra. But the brutal murder of one of its leading promoters has changed that, leading detectives to call on British Asians to come forward with information about the clubs.

Tahir Butt was promoting a group of 16 young dancers from Pakistan, but in March last year he was found strangled, his corpse set alight. Mr Butt owned a successful restaurant in Wembley, north London, and had staged a show shortly before his murder.

A Scotland Yard spokesman confirmed: "Mujra is one of our lines of inquiry. It is an exotic form of dancing in the Asian community which in some cases is being used as a front for the sex industry. We believe that it also takes place in other areas with large Asian communities, such as Leicester, Bradford and Birmingham.

"It is not something that is talked about openly and we are hoping people from within the Asian community will come forward and help us."

Performances are given after normal closing hours in venues popular with Asian customers. The only advertising is by word of mouth or occasionally by discreet posters.

"The business is extremely lucrative and it is possible to make up to £10,000 a night," said an officer investigating Mr Butt's death. "The girls will charge between £5 and £10 for a personal dance and then more for a private arrangement later. The girls wear traditional dress and perform classical dances. There is great kudos if a particular girl dances for you personally, and you are more than happy to pay.

"The promoter pays to smuggle the girls into Britain, for their food and accommodation and gives them a small amount of pocket money. But the profits are huge."

Mujra girls are the topic of fierce debate in India and Pakistan. There, the police have responded to the concerns of religious groups by cracking down on the dancers, an action which, according to some, has pushed them to work abroad.

Abha Paya works with Jagori, a Delhi-based group that monitors sex workers across India: "The sex industry is growing phenomenally and it often hides behind traditional forms of music and dancing," she said. "We have evidence that mujra dancers are being trafficked from India to countries such as Britain and Canada.

"Young women are lured away from their homes with promises of fantastic jobs and a whole change in lifestyle. Many of these women are from poverty-stricken backgrounds and they are desperate. But they can find themselves virtual slaves.

"Networks that traffic women to the West are well organised. There is a chain of traffickers, from the lowliest sort working in the villages, who will make a few hundred rupees out of it, to businessmen in the big city who are growing fat on the trade.

"The women are mostly from northern and central areas such as Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. This is because dances like the mujra are still kept alive there. You'll find that a girl's mother was a mujra performer, and she becomes a sex worker. Prostitution often takes place behind a veneer of tradition."

Dr Uma Chakravarthi, a Delhi University historian and prominent feminist writer, says: "Indians abroad who patronise mujra dancing may feel that they are tapping into the culture of their homeland. It plays on their nostalgia for all things Indian. While in fact they are going along to these shows for sex, they explain it to themselves in terms of keeping traditional culture alive."