A decade ago, accompanied by my two best friends, I ventured into the heart of Lahore, seeking inspiration for my debut novel. Listening to first-hand stories of how, in an era bygone, this marketplace of desires was akin to Montmartre with a Mughal spiral – filled with dancing girls and courtesans who dazzled the city’s wealthiest businessmen and bewitched its royalty – felt like time travel. It allowed us to descend past grimy tiles, sooty window panes and money-minded flesh peddlers into a world of well-preserved culture and etiquette.
Over the years, sex work has shifted from Heera Mandi’s alleys to private mansions, farmhouses, and seedy, rented apartment buildings, sprawled across the country. Despite the stigma attached to it, behind closed doors a large part of the elite entertainment industry in Pakistan relies on these women: dancing girls, escorts and prostitutes rolled into one. Now coronavirus has turned the sex industry into an adjunct of its past acclaim, excavating layers of inequality between clients and sex workers.
Self-isolation is a luxury that most sex workers simply cannot afford. Given business is already so dull, client attrition doesn’t just mean less work, it means less safe work. When an opportunity crops up, it shoves women into situations where they are forced to compromise boundaries, grabbing anything that comes their way. They are not in positions to negotiate rates or demand vetting of clients. Survival instinct eclipses the very real fear of contracting the virus.
Sex workers are not part of the formal economy in Pakistan, eliminating them from Covid-19 relief agendas; the taboo exacerbates their invisibility at times of such crisis. Few have savings or insurance plans to afford them healthcare or testing. Attempts to mobilise grassroots support for the community, such as through crowdfunding, invites tremendous criticism given the country’s religious culture.
Though sex workers are accustomed to the pendulum swinging between feast and famine, the uncertainty of how long this lockdown may last heightens their anxieties. Some women may turn to web cam work and other online services; however, digital access in Pakistan remains is now widespread, limiting their economic options further. Clients, too, are unlikely to settle for virtual interaction as a substitute for an in-person exchange.
Coronavirus is decimating the sex industry while also carrying out something of a social autopsy in economically fragile countries such as Pakistan: there is an incompatible dichotomy between hunger and disease. On the one hand, in the case of a complete lockdown, hordes of families – including the children and dependents of sex workers – will struggle for survival without money for basics such as food, shelter, utilities. If this situation persists indefinitely, the probability of a rebellion on the streets cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, looser quarantines and less austere measures are likely to produce wider, uncontrollable spread of contagion, especially in those nations with an already fledgling healthcare infrastructure.
No easy solutions present themselves, but government efforts are underway. An Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme – the largest social protection effort in the country’s history – was launched last week to pay close to $1bn dollars to those hardest hit by the financial slowdown. Yet, beneath the topsoil of this crisis, we remain mired deep in our own political dramas. Daily chastising taking aim at the government for failing to offer miraculous intervention and a definitive Covid-19 timetable swallow up copious amounts of television and social media airtime. At a moment of extraordinary global catastrophe, this political opportunism and point scoring erodes collective action and coalition-building; discord becomes ascendant, subsuming people with more despair.
A less superficial and implosive approach may help us weather the storm better; to spend energies devising ways of protecting daily wage earners and anticipating and preventing the next looming threat to their incomes – including those industries our culture would rather we pretended did not exist.
Covid-19 offers a timely warning to Pakistan: if we waste more time poking at differences within, it will be tantamount to tossing a lit match into a powder keg. Much like the jagged edges of Heera Mandi’s once regal buildings – their walls now scorched and crumbling, window panes shattered – our country too, will bear nothing but the ghastly silhouette of a discordant, avaricious and polarised past. What’s worse, we may not realise what a ballast it has been until it is game over.
Saba Karim Khan is an instructor in social sciences based at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus
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