Foreign prostitutes go to work as Pakistan closes for Ramadan

Peter Popham
Sunday 10 January 1999 00:02
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IT IS RAMADAN in Islamabad: the restaurants are deserted all day, the mosques are crammed with the devout, and the populace are going about their tasks with a weary, hangdog, hungry air.

At the Restaurant Baiga in a market on the southwestern fringe of this planned and gridded capital of Pakistan, the sign says "Closed for Ramadan". But there are lights on behind the lace curtains upstairs, and if you brave the smell of stale curry you will find one outpost of a quite un- Islamic import that is doing unseasonably good business.

Catarina, Vera and Sonia (not their real names) have not shut up shop for the holy month. And although their colleagues have been arrested, held in squalid jails for months on end and then booted out, these girls are staying put. They are sure that prostitution has a rosy future in this stronghold of Islamic orthodoxy.

Catarina, wearing a black negligee, curls up in the rumpled bed under the harsh fluorescent light in the large, bare room and smokes a Marlboro; Vera, thin and frizzy-haired, disappears into the shower; Sonia, much older and beefy, with the charm of an Aeroflot stewardess, the minder and madam in this small establishment, screws up her mean mouth and prepares to talk numbers.

Catarina, who has a fair complexion, jet-black hair, large eyes and a prominent nose - a winning combination in these parts - says that she is a Turk from Ankara, and a Muslim. But it soon emerges that all three are Russians. They may be Orthodox Christians, too, but although my visit coincided with the Orthodox Church's Christmas Day, there were no signs of festivity.

The prostitutes from Russia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and other parts of central Asia first came to the Pakistani public's attention last October, when police raided several plush guesthouses and arrested more than a dozen women.

They were held in jail for two months on grounds of overstaying their visas. But their places were quickly taken by arrivals from places in the Gulf such as Abu Dhabi. The mobile phones were handed on to the next contingent like batons, with numbers unchanged.

The women have caused a stir in Islamabad, partly because it likes to be thought of as a centre of Islamic purity, but also because, despite being the nation's capital, it is about the size of Tunbridge Wells, and not much goes on. "Islamabad is small," said one of the policemen involved in the operation. "Everybody noticed these women and started talking about them."

The prostitutes are rotated in a circuit that includes several Gulf states, and until recently their Pakistani base was Karachi. With its heterogeneous population, Pakistan's biggest city and only port is more their natural habitat.

Russians and other Central Asians first trickled into Karachi under the protection of Soviet mafia and corrupt local police in the late 1980s, to buy second-hand Western-made clothes in bulk and lug them back to Russia. Later, the girls arrived under the same protection, and business flourished.

But in the past year Karachi has become too dangerous because of fighting between terrorists. Killings are a daily occurrence, many accompanied by gruesome mutilations. Three Americans travelling in a car were shot dead along with their Pakistani driver. One foreign prostitute was also murdered. It was then that the exodus of the girls began.

Until the arrests and expulsions, they were doing very nicely in Islamabad. And now the immediate fuss has died down, they are doing very nicely again. Above the Restaurant Baiga, Sonia demanded Rs10,000 (about pounds 140) for a night with Catarina and after extended haggling the price came down only to Rs7,000 before the Independent on Sunday made the traditional excuses and left.

Across town at the Diplomat Inn (next door to a United Nations agency), the price demanded for a night in the arms of a "Turkish 16-year-old" - actually another Russian - is Rs8,000. For a young Pakistani girl, on the other hand, the rate is only Rs6,000.

The women are doing well because the classical Central Asian look - fair skin, strong nose, glossy black hair - corresponds to the Pakistani ideal of female beauty. Pakistani men appear unmoved by the delicate, small noses and almond eyes of mongoloid peoples of Central Asia, such as the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks are happy for it to stay that way. "Our country has a strong religious background," said a spokesman for the Uzbek embassy, "and we do not indulge in such things."

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