within darker boundaries

March 13, 2008

As I walked through a narrow alley of one of the shady areas in Dhaka, I could hear the vague sounds of children singing aloud- Amra Korbo Joy ekdin (We shall win oneday). 

As the man, directed my colleague and I into the interiors of the locality, that bears very little sign of people or shops, I felt the anticipation grow deeper within me.

I knew this might as well be one of the most powerful stories I have ever done in my career, but more than anything else, I knew this would be an experience very few people get to have.

So, we turned to a new road, that led to a less shady and broader view. My colleague, who is very new in this profession and at our news paper office, was unusually quite, and kept staring at me. 

I figured it was a new and daunting experience for her aswell and decided to let her see it for herself.

 We finally reached the centre, which is about a few houses away from this small brothel based in this locality. The sound of children singing and dancing to the tune of harmonica became only more clear. We were asked to leave our shoes outside and step in the almost dilapidated houselike centre.

The moment we walked in, children of age two to ten, stopped and stared at us in awe- as though we come from an alien world, as though they had never seen people like us. The truth is they haven’t seen a world beyond this tiny house and this locality, until late at night.

As they stared at me and examined my bangles, with their big brown eyes, and tiny little hands, I wondered how they can be differentiated with any other child, how they can be denied of education and the minimum basic right of being able to live like any other child- a fearless, carefree life?

But, they are different. constantly singled out- they do not have a father’s name- a tag that is a prerequisite for a respectful living in our country and the rest of the world.

According to norms, their mothers are not mothers, or women, or human, rather they are ‘whores’ – commodities that are social outcastes.

The centre where we were seated has been set up by one such ‘whore’- a woman named Hazera, who wants to build a world for these fatherless children.

In a few minutes, we were asked to go to her office. She sat before a computer, trying to type something.

I must admit, I was shocked beyond my imagination! not only because she was using a computer but also by her appearance. She was a beautiful woman, wrapped in a blue saree. What awed me the most were her eyes- big, black, doe-shaped eyes- that more than anything else spoke of so much experience and inexplicable sadness.

As she smiled at me and asked us to sit, I wondered, if that was her fake smile. I wondered what she was thinking, knowing that I am here for a story on sex worker’s and their movement. I wondered if she would actually tell me about her life, about her dreams- does she have one? why did she ever come into this dark world? I wondered to myself.

So, I started my job, took out my note book and got ready to jot down stuff, right when she stopped me and smiled excitedly- and told me I should take her visiting card- and read out her title- vice president, Child Care Centre. This, she tells me her biggest achievement- the only thing she has recieved some form of respect.

She spent a few more minutes giving us her newly printed brochures and posters that they made on the occassion of ‘Sex Worker’s rights week’.

As we chatted about these children and how difficult it is for her to get these children admitted to schools, I shifted to a different question, ‘tell me about you, your life?’

She looked straight into my eyes, now her voice sounded deeper, huskier and less lively. ‘I am a sex worker, termed by people as a ‘prostitute’. What’s with my life- I grew up on the streets, was raped at 8, forced into a brothel, locked up and forced to “entertain” clients, spent months crying and denying to be one of “those” women and in the process became one.’

I was shocked, not by the story of her life, but rather, by the blank expression in her eyes, by the stern voice in which she spoke, as though it did not matter even if she was raped, hurt, beaten or treated the way she is. I realised she had the power to just utter absolute truths, absolute realities- without shedding a single drop of tear.

‘At the brothel, you have to be ready by early morning before dawn and stand at the door, so that men can come and take their pick. And when they pick you, they are your commodity for that time. Sometime, you would have to entertain three men a day, sometimes ten and sometimes none. But, I felt suffocated at the brothel- I had no freedom,’ she told me.

‘the masters took away the money we earnt and moreover, there is no break- nothing. Even when my tummy hurts, even when I have my periods, or have fever or anything, there no option. the rules are rules- and the first rule is no emotion because after all you are not a woman, you are not a human’.’

As I stared at her silently, trying to absorb each of the powerful words she told me, she looked at me and smiled softly, and I saw a woman lurking from behind that mask of rough exterior.

‘So, I ran away from that brothel after years of torture and suffocation- and became a floating sex worker- and I found freedom.’

‘Freedom ?’ I ask her.

‘Yes. freedom,’ she said laughing. ‘ freedom to run away and say no when you don’t want to entertain anyone. the freedom not to have a man sleep over you, as you lay awake all night wanting to be alone, wanting to be away from this world, just for a night. The brothel had walls that I could never get out of, but as a free sex worker, I chose not to have sex for a day!’

‘don’t ask me anymore about my clients! stop already now. I know you think I bad anyway and I will be one- all my life. so why ask?’

When I ask her if she would get out of this trade, if she had a chance, she laughs aloud and tells me, there is no way out. i have a chance now, I run an organization and do so much for sex worker’s rights, but is there a way out for me? Will the society, which has pushed me into this fate, take me back? will anyone marry me? will my child have a name? will my country grant me my due recognition?’

The answer is no. and that is a reality these women live with everyday. ‘No woman wants to entertain so many man. no woman wants to be a commodity- but we have accepted it as a way of life and we will continue to demand for our rights.’

It’s ironical, how they keep asking for rights every year. how they keep struggling for recognitions. but wasn’t right something no one can take away from you? Isn’t all the things they keep seeking, taken forgranted by others- citizenship and basic rights?

She tells me how they could not issue for ID cards- for citizenship and voting rights this year- ‘because we dnt have a permanent address, because we dnt have a father or husband’s name. was it not the duty of the state to ensure that we, some 100,000 women get that right. Are we not the citizen of our own country.’

I sat there before this woman with doe shaped eyes and beautiful smile and scars that will remain forever, and found myself pondering the meaning of rights and how easily rights can be snatched away.

She abruptly ends her conversation and talks about her work with children and how brilliant they are. She takes us to the centre where some of the floating sex workers live- a home about three blocks away and that has been funded by an organisation a few years back.

As we walk inside the dark room, with a tiny little dim lights, I see these women- the young and old, the rough looking ones and the ones that still seem to be lost, still trying to accept the brutality of life.

 Towhida, who was sitting on a table with her legs wrapped around carelessly, was chewing a gum, seems to be disturbed by my arrival.

‘What do you want? You want to make a shitty film or write crap about us?’

Our friend, who works with this funding oranization and works with HIV related projects with these women, explain to her that we are doing a “positive” story and that he gurantees we will not use her details in any offensive ways.

She comes towards me and stares at me for a while, and asks me the most random question ever! ‘How come you have such a beautiful skin?’

I can’t help but smile and thank her. She tells me she is a mother- she was a mother even when she was not a sex worker. ‘My husband left me and my 12 month daughter, I had no money, no where to go. So I worked at shops cooking for little money, with which I could feed my duaghter. And then, one day, I was working in the kitchen of the shop cooking rice, when the master’s son, grabbed me from behind and took me behind the storage. I was so scared, I could not talk. he raped me and handed me a fifty taka note in my hands and walked away. That night as I ran back, in fear and pain, I decided not to go back. But I had no money, so my neighbour’s husband, an old man said he can get me a job and asked me to leave my baby with my mother and go with him.

 I trusted him and went with him to this building. I was confused- I saw these women, and rows of room and the atmosphere scared me so much. 

The woman, in charge of that “office” asked me to go to a room and freshen up and get some sleep. Late night, I woke up to a loud knock on the door and I opened it to see a drunk man, behind whom stood that woman who told him I am his treat for that night. I screamed and cried, and begged him not to touch me, but he hit me and dragged me to bed.. I cried all night and my screams never reached out of that building. and I spent days, and months crying and pleading to spared but there was no way out.

I would be locked in a room and often, I would lay unconcious after each of those men walked out with pleasure. They told me they had sent money to my baby, but I just needed to see her once.

After months, I finally managed to run away and go home and my mother told me, there was no coming back for me. I had already lost my honor, I needed to stay away and just send money so that my daughter can grow up properly. ‘

Towhida’s daughter is now ten and has no idea what her mother goes through each day. She knows her mom is always busy, an office that needs her always- often at a nightshifts. She tells me if her daughter ever got to know about her, like others, she would hate her. ‘But atleast, I did not leave my daughter to die like her father did. At least she would know that her mother tried.. till the very end. atleast, she would know, how much I endured just to make sure she is fine.’ 

I talked to some more women- about their pain and their struggle. About standing on their own feet, about finding freedom within the boundries of this dark world, about finding joys in little things, about sitting back and knowing there is no way out and moreover about their fight, for decades, to get a recognition for a trade that is made by the people in this very society, that has denied them and snatched away their human rights.

So, I walked away, with a notebook full of stories, with a ton of things write about. and the writing will be great, I hope and it will be printed on the cover. and forgotten a week or even a day later.. but what will remain with me is perhaps those moments when I saw strength, like never before and so much more…


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