Sex workers have always been an integral part of society
We all know that, in licensed brothels of Kandapara in Tangail and Dauladia, sex workers usually prefer to stay within their quarters and, though these establishments date back to the colonial period, the women who work here still face a wide variety of prejudice in society.
So, when a sex worker called Hamida died and was given a funeral prayer, it became news because so far, deceased sex workers were denied such last rites because their work was considered immoral.
The hypocrisy towards the women who are sex workers is too glaring to neglect. While they work and live in an acknowledged area, playing a crucial role in maintaining social order, they are mainly treated as women of the night, facing stigma and ostracization during the day.
Hence, the oft repeated Bengali saying: raat hoile kaache ashe, din hoile chene na! (people get intimate at night, but pretend to be strangers during daylight!). Without doubt, anyone talking to a sex worker during normal hours will attract raised eyebrows.
Our association with sex workers speaks of the ultimate hypocrisy -- their services are used when needed, especially at night, but they are shunned during the daytime.
An analogy can be made with the habit of going to a bar. Most drinkers coming out of the bar after a few drinks will try to appear as unobtrusive as possible (read: Furtive), trying to mingle with the public to ensure that no one notices from where he has come out.
The inherent shame is always there; even the regular drinker does not want many to know about the drinking habit.
That sex workers never received any religious service after death may surprise a lot of people but these women who operate in the shadows and serve society carry the label “kharap meye” or “tainted woman.”
Kharap, which can mean both bad and blemished, is how sex workers have been perceived for centuries and, to be downright honest, many women in the flesh trade often become mercenary and predatory because the profession demands it.
By the time a girl has spent five years in a brothel, she realizes that her body and her livelihood are intertwined. Thus, the disillusionment sets it, leading to the development of a cynical nature devoid of frivolous fantasy.
Yet, in death, they need to be laid to rest not as outcasts but as people who ventured into the dark to keep society’s morals alive.
Shedding the blinkers on sex workers
As for the funeral of Hamida, the credit goes to a police officer and the local sex workers who demanded a proper burial for her. Moulanas did not administer the funeral prayers on the grounds that the work is deemed immoral in religion though no one could answer if standing for a funeral prayer for a deceased sex worker would be right or not.
Without any intention of defaming any religion, the fact remains that the profession of a sex worker goes back to the beginning of time and may live till the end of civilization as we know it. This means there is a role for sex workers in society.
Of course, it would be desirable to have a community without such a service where a woman has to use her body to earn a living but the truth remains, in the real world, this is a necessary vice which helps in keeping social order.
In the wake of so many rapes in recent times, I heard many senior people lamenting the current decadence and rhapsodizing about the 70s and 80s when violations were much low.
What they forget to mention is that in the 70s and 80s there were two major brothels in Dhaka and Narayanganj -- English Road and Taanbazar.
Men who needed physical relief visited these areas discreetly.
Sadly, when the so-called puritans foam at the mouth talking about preserving moral values they never mention the role brothels played in lowering rape and molestation.
The truth remains, sex work is regarded as “kharap kaaj” and the women engaged in it are the “kharap meye.”
This belief has been harboured for too long and can only change when religious clerics and scholars try to look at the profession from a practical rather than a naïve and theological one.
Every society has vices along with options for rehabilitation. Lives of sex workers will become better when there is activism for their health, skill training, and the education of their children.
Giving the ‘tainted girl a chance to come back
Again, one has to be realistic here. Among 100 sex workers, maybe 10 will want to come back to normal life. And that can only be possible when degrading these women stop.
Let’s admit it: Most women in red light districts are made to live at the edge of social conscience where they move and operate stealthily.
Obviously, in such cloak and dagger situations, exploitation proliferates.
One sex worker was given funeral prayers but this has to be made a rule because in life as prostitutes play a crucial social role.
We have seen one police officer take a move though there have to be other efforts which will ensure that children born in brothels are given education plus skills development at seminary schools.
To be frank, sex work will always be there, irrespective of our fervent attempts to put up a puritanical veneer. The least we can do is to make the lives of the women in brothels better.
Shedding centuries-old taboo plus preconceived notions is the first move. The bad girl can be given a decent life and a respectable farewell after death. It’s the least we can do for her.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.