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“There is always a trickster in the game, a joker in the deck to prevent the rules from becoming oppression.” – Lee Siegel. 

Hidden within the intricate records of the subcontinent’s history exists a clandestine figure; in Pakistan, we have many names for her, most used in a derogatory way, including randigashtifahash, chinal, and the more respectful variation, sex worker. Much like Siegel’s ‘trickster’ figure, she embodies the raw, uninhibited side of humanity that is often repressed. But despite the societal reproval, it is undeniable that she’s played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of South Asian culture.

Perhaps that’s why she’s survived not only the continued efforts to push her to the margins, to brush her to the furthest corners of social consciousness, but also persevered against the changing tides of time.

Today, we're witnessing an evolution in the landscape of Pakistan's sex trade. A palpable shift has occurred, with these women having relocated from their traditional spheres, from the dark alleys of red-light districts to the expansive digital domain. This migration, while offering a new vista of opportunities, brings with it an array of unique challenges. In a society like Pakistan, which is ruled by extremely conservative anti-sex work values, it becomes crucial to explore not just these challenges but also ask what prompted the sex workers’ move into the digital realm. What became of those who couldn't or chose not to make the transition because of various hurdles? And how has this shift to an online market altered the power equations within their community?

The only potent source of truth was in the intricate latticework of these women’s narratives, told in their own words. That’s where I decided to begin.

From Alleys to Algorithms

With the help of an activist friend, I was able to connect with Simra, a resilient woman from Lahore, who swiftly established her position in the sex-work industry within two years. Hailing from a well-to-do family, her life took a dramatic turn following an abusive marriage, the passing of her mother, and her father's remarriage, which led to her and her siblings being cast aside. In the face of adversity, Simra recognized the need for self-reliance; she told me, "Women must learn to fend for themselves, we cannot rely on men to care for us." When she lived with her husband, he never gave her a penny and would beat her when she asked for money to support her siblings. Today, even though she’d left her young siblings under the care of her maternal aunt, she had taken full responsibility for their education and her sister’s marriage. “Just because I didn’t get to build a family doesn’t mean my sister shouldn’t either,” she told me.

Besides, she had built a community for herself in this new world. Simra lived in a small apartment with a colleague she had befriended at an event; the two often attended parties together. She revealed that her roommate's name was Naima*, and these two had become sister-like in their time together. Naima had experienced her own share of misfortune. Before joining the industry, she had worked as a maid at the house of a big business tycoon in an elite neighbourhood of Lahore. There, she had been assaulted on several occasions and decided that she couldn’t put up with the abuse for much longer, so she moved out. The high rates of domestic violence against women in Pakistan are no secret; global statistics reveal that 24.5% of Pakistani women have experienced some form of domestic violence, and this percentage only represents the cases that go unreported; many women are terrified to speak up. These circumstances propel women to leave their households, if given the chance, and find other means of income. The digital sex work bazaar is one such avenue. 

Women like us have to take a leap of faith; manager saab (pimp) does background checks, but at the end of the day, he has a family to feed too, people would do anything to not go hungry, whether that means taking risks themselves or putting others at risk.

Simra revealed that their "manager saab" (pimp) connected them to clients through WhatsApp, allowing them to establish a rapport before arranging in-person meetings. This exemplified the intersection of digital spaces and the physical realm; digital wallets such as JazzCash and Easypaisa facilitated payments, streamlining transactions and making them more convenient. At the same time, communities of these women sought clients via WhatsApp and Facebook group chats, often overseen by one or two regulating pimps (managers). Simra also told me that a few of her friends had recently shifted to the UAE at the request of clients who had connected with them on Facebook. She mentioned that the clients had offered to take care of the transportation costs and pay them 2 lakhs (~727 USD) for a single ‘event.’ When I asked her if there was any way of verifying if these people could be trusted, she told me, “Women like us have to take a leap of faith; manager saab does background checks, but at the end of the day, he has a family to feed too, people would do anything to not go hungry, whether that means taking risks themselves or putting others at risk.” Then she went on to add that sometimes these women become very successful and come back richer than before, but more often than not, once you’re gone, you’re gone, never to be heard of again. 

Despite the uncertainty that lay ahead, Simra, too, was looking for an opportunity like that herself. Her neighbours had made it very difficult for her and her colleague to stay there because of their frequent complaints to the landlords about strange men visiting at night. She had previously been forced to evacuate her older apartment because the neighbours had shown up to her gate with sticks and forced her to leave by saying, “This isn’t a place for randis (whores) like you.” She told me that restricting her work to social media or arranging client meetings in hotels was a safer bet because people would often pry otherwise, which could lead to more trouble than she asked for. So in this way, the rising digital sex work industry has made her life easier by making interactions safer.

Cyber-Mandi: A Closer Look At The Emerging Digital Sex Work Bazaar

Simra's revelations became a portal that whisked me away to an uncharted realm. She directed me to a website where her acquaintances often sought employment; here, her own journey had commenced before her encounter with the mysterious Manager Saab. Despite my curiosity, she remained tight-lipped about how she had stumbled upon the website, and I chose not to pry any further. It became evident that certain secrets needed to remain veiled for the smooth functioning of this market.

As I entered the website, I was greeted by a web of captivating images depicting women in alluring poses, enticing potential clients with a modern-day twist on the age-old allure of courtesans beckoning from their balconies. These images were accompanied by descriptive details, such as the women's ages, work aliases, the services they offered, and their contact numbers. It was a digital landscape where desire and commerce converged. 

I reached out to a few of them and asked if they would be willing to give an interview. A few of them told me they charge by the hour, so I’d have to pay 9000 PKR (32 USD). Finally, I managed to secure an interview with a young girl named 'Pinky.' Our conversation began, and she spoke with unwavering confidence in English. Her first words resonated deep within me. Pinky emphasised that she was not just a common "street whore,” and refused to be categorised as such. 

As Pinky opened up, I discovered a world of secrecy and discretion. The name she used was not her own, and she concealed her true identity from her family, fearing their judgement. She safeguarded herself further by refraining from sharing her actual photographs online, concerned that someone might recognize her. Her work remained confined to WhatsApp chats and phone calls. Video calls were an option she explored only with clients she knew and trusted or those with whom she had built a genuine professional connection over time. Sex work brought her extra income, allowing her to pursue her passions, pay for her education, and indulge in occasional self-care, which was buying clothes she couldn’t otherwise afford.

Yet, what struck me most about this conversation was the unveiling of an entirely new dimension within the digital market. These women were not merely defined by their roles as sex workers. They were students, professionals with day jobs, and individuals with families and aspirations. Many hailed from relatively privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, choosing sex work not solely out of desperation but as a conscious decision and a means to earn money, particularly for young students striving to make ends meet. Sex work constituted just one facet of their complex identities.

This stark contrasted sharply with the plight of those dwelling in traditional bazaars, where the stigma associated with their profession clung to them simply by existing in those spaces and neighbourhoods.

Many hailed from relatively privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, choosing sex work not solely out of desperation but as a conscious decision and a means to earn money, particularly for young students striving to make ends meet. Sex work constituted just one facet of their complex identities.

Yet, even with their layers of protection, the women within this industry were not impervious to the dark underbelly that lurked within. In my conversation with Pinky, she gave me a glimpse into the horrifying tales of violence these women endured. She spoke of her own cautiousness, emphasising that she was not as "stupid" as others and took necessary precautions in her work. However, not all women were as fortunate.

Pinky recounted the chilling story of a friend who had agreed to meet a man in a hotel room, only to vanish for two agonising days. When she finally reappeared, she bore the physical scars of her ordeal, with bruises and marks etched upon her body. It was a grim reminder of these women's vulnerability and the risk they took each time they engaged with a client. "When men pay for sex, they think they own your body," Pinky declared with a mix of defiance and resignation. "That's when their inner animal comes out. It would be foolish of me to become prey for these predators."

Pinky's account echoed the insights I gained from my interview with Memoona, a woman police officer who revealed the harsh reality that unfolded behind closed doors. She shared that, in many cases, customers would subject sex workers to violent attacks within hotel rooms. And when the victims dared to speak up and lodge complaints, the perpetrators would craft a twisted narrative of being defrauded. They claimed that the girls used misleading pictures online, appearing very different in person, and some would even “smell bad.” This was yet another way of discrediting victims and blaming them for their abuse. Memoona disclosed a staggering statistic that sent shivers down my spine—1469 such cases had been reported against sex workers in 2022 alone.

So, even amidst the digital transformation of the industry, one thing remained glaringly clear—the vulnerability of these women persisted, and the state's efforts to protect them fell short. To have a clearer picture of how things had changed, I ventured into Heera Mandi, the oldest red light district in Pakistan.

Heera Mandi: A Glimpse from Within

“This was the sewer of Lahore; if you clog the gutters, sh*t’s obviously going to spill everywhere else. You can only divert sh*t. You can’t ever get rid of it.”

Shabana Butt, a prominent resident of Heera Mandi, found solace in this neighbourhood after being forced out of her own home as a young transgender person. For her, Heera Mandi was not just a place but a sanctuary where outcasts like herself could find refuge and community. I sat with her, hoping she could give me some insight into this place and its history, and she was more than willing to share it.

She recounted its vibrant past as "Baag-e-Husn" or "The Garden of Beauty," a cultural hub during the Mughal era where courtesans imparted etiquette and artistry to young noble girls and where influential people often came looking for entertainment. After the arrival of the British in the 1800s, the place was reduced to a mere red-light district. That was the first blow to Heera Mandi. The second came under the regime of the Islamic dictator Zia Ul Haq in the 1970s, who eventually dismantled the bazaar and forced the women to evict. 

Even against all advice, I entered into the remains of ‘Gandi Gully’ (Dirty Street) to get a closer look at those who were left behind or lacked the resources to shift their work to a digital space. The gully was hidden in plain sight, folded between two houses, but it opened up into a smaller subsection of the neighbourhood. There were no women in sight, but I ran across several cobbler shops; all the men in those shops kept telling me, “There are only mochis (cobblers) here, no women.” The place seemed devoid of life, except for a few old women sitting on the footpath. The locals later told me that they were pimps and were in charge of safeguarding the remains of the bazaar. The mochis also revealed that almost everyone had shifted, but those who remain are the ones with no resources at all. These women are “desperate” and would be willing to work for 300-400 rupees (~1.4 USD). This was strikingly different from workers like Simra or the women on online platforms who charge 15-20,000 rupees (~ 72 USD) per night. 

“Those who could not leave are still here; where else would they go? I am here too, am I not?,” Shabana’s words rang in my ears.

"When men pay for sex, they think they own your body. That's when their inner animal comes out." - Pinky


“If you shut down one Heera Mandi, a thousand more will rise up,” Shabana said as I explored the colliding of the digital world with an age-old market. She was sure that “a prostitute could never be erased,” and her words rang true. Because the closure of the bazaar didn’t really dismantle sex work, it only caused it to disperse and become more obscure; the market seeped into Lahore’s affluent neighborhoods of DHA and Gulberg, behind the closed doors of the lavish rooms at Avari and Pearl Continental hotels, into the unsuspected corners of massage parlors and spas strewn across the country, and, most strikingly, onto the small screens we cradle in our palms. 

One thing was clear, Heera Mandi had become omnipresent, and its closure had only made it more accessible to clients and sex workers alike. They now had more protection, better pay, and the agency to exist in more than just one identity. So despite the reality that the transformation of the bazaar had resulted in the erosion of women-led communities and had played a role in further marginalizing the extreme underbelly of society, it had also opened room for greater opportunities for women all across the country. 

The digital age morphed the market into something no longer bounded by physical parameters but instead flowing through the veins of our digital networks.

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