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A 150-year-old Bangladesh brothel fights closure

Published Aug 01, 2012 03:46am


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A Bangladeshi sex worker looks on at a brothel, in existence for at least a century, in Madaripur. — AFP Photo
A Bangladeshi sex worker looks on at a brothel, in existence for at least a century, in Madaripur. — AFP Photo

MADARIPUR: Tara Das says she is the fifth generation of her family to work at the same brothel in Bangladesh, but now she is fighting against Muslim protesters who want her business to close.

The red light district in Madaripur city is thought to have been in operation for at least 150 years, and the sex workers believe the sudden wave of protests are orchestrated by developers trying to take over the valuable land.

Last month, about 10,000 people led by a new Muslim group called Islahe Kaom Parishad (the National Reform Council) rallied outside the rambling complex to call for it to be shut down and the 500 sex workers evicted.

“Ever since they held that huge rally, I could not sleep properly. Tell me where I shall go?” Das told AFP. “This is my home and this is the only job I knew from my childhood. Please save us from these religious leaders.”

The brothel, founded for native jute traders during the British colonial era, is a cluster of moss-stained three-storey brick houses and tin sheds in the middle of Madaripur, 60 kilometres from Dhaka.

It is legal as it dates back to before Bangladesh's independence in 1971, but is now being targeted by hardline activists from Parishad.

The group has held a series of angry demonstrations and is lobbying city authorities on the grounds that the brothel corrupts the town's young men and must be razed.

Sex workers believe the activists are organised by businessmen linked to local politicians, and they report a campaign of intimidation including an explosive device found recently on the site and two attempted arson attacks.

“We told the authorities that we won't leave the place. Our job is lawful.

We also don't have any underage sex workers here,” said Momo Rani Karmakar, head of the Madaripur sex workers' union.

“We've inherited the place from our grandmothers, some of them are still alive. We are like a family here. It's a conspiracy to grab our land worth crores of taka,” she said, adding that 110 children living in the brothel settlement go to school every day.

They want to keep us hungry

Since the protests started, police now patrol the area while government officials say any final decision on redevelopment is still pending.

A committee, led by the regional deputy administrator, has been set up and has tried to open talks to encourage rehabilitation of the sex workers.

“Muslims and local elites don't want this centuries-old brothel in the town anymore. They said it might have served some purposes decades back, but it's not needed,” Siddiqur Rahman, the committee head, told AFP.

Rahman said the authorities would start the rehabilitation process by conducting a survey to determine the number of under-aged sex workers.

“Adult sex workers will be motivated to take up other jobs,” he said. “It will be done strictly on voluntary basis. A local charity will be involved.”

But the sex workers told AFP that they don't want to leave or switch to other jobs. Many told how they previously left the trade but had been hounded out of other communities.

“If I don't have clients, how can I feed my five children and maintain their education,” said Jhumur, 45, who uses only one name.

“They want to keep us hungry and force us out so that they can take our land. Our clients are worried that they might be publicly humiliated. Clients have already got the impression that the brothel is on the verge of closure.”

Many sex workers allege that the real reason behind the protests is the ambitions of a prominent Muslim family who are already erecting a multi-storied building next to the brothel.

The Parishad group deny such claims and say they are acting to protect Islamic morals.

“The brothel is the main source of criminal activity in the region,” group secretary Ali Ahmed Chowdhury told AFP. “It runs illegal wine shops. Under-aged girls are bought and sold and it's a big source of the drug trade.

“It's shameful work. It is not a profession.”

Battle against the brothels

The battle against long-established brothels in Bangladesh — a conservative Muslim-majority nation — is spreading, with at least four red light districts closed in the last decade.

The country's largest brothel, Tanbazaar, situated on the outskirts of Dhaka, was shut down largely due to pressure from a ruling party lawmaker.

Tanbazaar, established in 1888, was converted into a market and many of the 2,600 sex workers ended up on the streets.

“Anti-vice” groups have also threatened to close other brothels across the country, according the charity ActionAid which provides some advocacy services to those affected.

In Madaripur, the sex workers are determined to avoid such a fate.

“We have told them that unless you shoot us down, you can't throw us out of here,” said Morzina, who lost her husband two years ago and was forced to return to the brothel to make a living.

"We will raid the houses of the Muslim leaders if they come here to evict us," she said.


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Comments (27) Closed

KKRoberts Aug 01, 2012 06:20am
Very poor observation.A sex worker does not have a religion.Children of lesser god.
illawarrior Aug 01, 2012 06:18am
There is a VERY simple way to put a brothel out of business ... the men can simply stop using its services. Why is it that this rarely happens? It is not these women corrupting the men - if the men were virtuous enough not to want these services, the brothel would not exist! Put the blame where it belongs - with the paying customer!
shahid Aug 01, 2012 02:54pm
As long as there are no underage workers or customers leave them alone.It is all to grab thier land.
Sana01 Aug 01, 2012 12:28pm
Dont use Women only as this. They should be educated. Its west and hindu religion which treats woman as public property. they are human beings and they deserve all the high class jobs as well. This mentality of Dasi's came from hindu religion and Western modernism.
Surryia Mahmood Aug 01, 2012 11:06am
what is lesser god?
Surryia Mahmood Aug 01, 2012 11:03am
These people should not be thrown out of their homes.its cruelty. They must be provided alternate jobs. The job opportunities for men and women must be provided such as opening industries, adults literacy centres for traing for different skills. They have not learnt to do any other work. As Muslims it's duty of the state to provide money and education and skills to live decently among their own community until rehabilitation.otherwise you will spread this profession throughout the cities. Untill they are taught anything else and educated and have skill to live with other communities who will not not let them have equality you can't grap their lands and homes. These are their homes and properties the religious leaders should be sensible and read and understand what Quran says.
Imran Aug 02, 2012 11:23am
Completely agree.
Raja imran Dhruggi Aug 03, 2012 10:10am
Very strange,150 yrs age of this tribe. Mullahs and civil society woke up very late.It is obvious there are some vested interests behind this move.With great excuse this is not new in an any Islamic country.It is easy to high light issue but so difficult to provide solution.we find brothel houses around the world irrespective of developed or underdeveloped countries.we cant close our eyes from this bare fact.But fortunately,most of the countries have solved this matter through proper channel rather than raiding them to satisfy the so called Mullahs.This is mere an eye wash.This is a fact we cant eradicate this evil.If you dislocate them from their native place it means you are spreading this evil in each and every Mullah and town.It is the responsibility of the govt to frame long lasting policy to solve this issue,No doubt its great sin but we to solve it amicably rather than threatening them or dislocating them.we should not hate and disgrace them openly because it is not the solution of problem.
Indusonian Aug 01, 2012 05:41am
Dear Zoro, I think you have a biased mentality. Do you know the religion of this writer ? Do you know the religion of Jhumur ? There are many surnames in the Subcontinent that penetrate religious boundaries e.g., Panday, Khanna, Chaudhry, Jaswal, Patel, Chaudhay etc just to name a few.
Shubs Aug 01, 2012 12:40pm
Of course this is about the property! 'Islamic morals' are just a means to that end, as we know so well in so many other fields of life in South East Asia!! It is just sad that in this impoverished overpopulated corner of the world, all you need to do is to invoke the name of Islam to make people lose all their powers of observation, logic and rational thinking.
zoro Aug 01, 2012 05:01am
It shows the religious bias by showing a typical Hindu woman as a prostitute.
Ayaz Aug 01, 2012 05:24am
repeating ANANDI a short story by Ghulam Abas
Leftist Aug 01, 2012 06:37am
Mullas at their usual !!
zoro Aug 01, 2012 07:16am
It wud have been better to show a faceless woman than a woman with a typical red bindi on her forehead... If U dont know.... it is dorn by typically Hindus ... Its more of the knowledge than a observation ...
Mundaa Aug 01, 2012 09:20pm
Let it be. Let them take out their frustrations. Or should we just reintroduce the age old Islamic concept of the "Kaneez"? Women bought and sold in the market to be used however and whenever required? I think the latter is better.
Asif Ansari Aug 01, 2012 10:45pm
I agree with Ayaz.
Muneer - Aug 01, 2012 11:21pm
why is it that whatever the subject may be.... religion is always dragged in especially in defence of the so. The woman pictured above was quickly identified to be Hindu.. as if muslim female prostitutes don't exist
talha Aug 01, 2012 11:32pm
This article could also have been written in an entirely different hue. The author has his/her own bias.
Shak_im Aug 02, 2012 03:03am
The administration should arrange alternative jobs for these women. And to fund that initiative they should take money from that Islamic outfit. As they are the one who have started this agitation, they should pay for the rehabilitation. Given the nature of these Islamic outfits, they generally agitate people with sermons and once you ask the mob to make monitory contribution they will melt away like ice cream in summer hit.
chak Aug 02, 2012 03:57am
If they close the 'official' one, then the 'unofficial' ones would open up. Where are you going to find them then? specifically for health and social related issues. its better to have them at a demarcated area rather than 'everywhere'. As for Hindu names, well come over to the 'Ladies bars' of Mumbai, most are from bangladesh, most have an adopted hindu name. Go figure. but even otherwise, the poorer strata of bangladesh has yet to adopt overtly arabic names, esp the women. maybe a point to work on for the mullah?
mariamirza Aug 02, 2012 04:19am
u apparently havent met enough bangladeshis. every single Muslim bangladeshi i have known wears sarees and a bindi. Apparently there is neither knowledge nor observation here, just plain bias.
Kamran Aug 02, 2012 04:51am
I think surryia is right in that if you want to protect Islamic Morals, you must fulfill the responsibility of protecting the people and educating them only then should they be expected to uphold the islamic morals. But here, the question is different, a crowd that is somehow preoccupied with an idea of morality, is harassing a peaceful community of weak and poor women. It is unacceptable and the state must discourage such moral policing. Otherwise Mullahs and Madressah students are bound to prevail on every sphere of the external social life. Pakistan paid a lot of price for Z.A.Bhutto's policy of appeasing the Islamists by putting shameful bans on minorities. In turn, he could neither escape from the generals nor managed to pocket the support of Islamists since Islam or the religion of minorities were not a problem for the Mullahs....there problem was Bhutto himself and his government. Bangladeshi government which is led by a democratically elected party that has taken some good steps to curb extremism, must not loose its composure in the face of pressure tactics of Islamists.
Ahmed Jumma Aug 02, 2012 04:51am
It is quite surprizing that in the name of Islam such cruelty is being done. First of all there should be a perfect plan for rehabilitation of the affectees with moral activities of arrangement of studying Islam then reforms should be carried out. Please mercy upon Islam and do not try to bring bad name upon it. The so-called black sheep Muslims are always playing their games and ruining the golden rules of Islam for their own sake.
Ahmed Jumma Aug 02, 2012 05:06am
First of all there should be a perfect plan for rehabilitation of the affectees with moral activities of arrangement of studying religion then reforms should be carried out in the field. If brothel is closed immediately the sex workers will spread over in the city which will adversely affect every neighborhood. There should not be ulterior motives of grabing land of any community. Justice must prevail. .
KKRoberts Aug 02, 2012 05:15am
I don't think it is that "SMIPLE'. This is an essential service used by both married and unmarried men.An atom bomb can be diffused, but 'THIS' can't be.An impossible possibility....
praveen Aug 02, 2012 05:43am
I don't see any red bindi. people like you take the real issue away and create religious hatred.You are seeing only what you want to see.
haris Aug 02, 2012 06:17pm
Bindi is traditional to many parts of Bangladesh. Some people wear it, while others choose not to - it has nothing to do with religion any more