Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

The torment of the flesh trade
Asiaweek July 1999
A Bangladeshi photographer documents the flesh trade

A woman lying exhausted on a tiny bed could be any suburban housewife resting after a long day. A couple embracing could be newly weds. And a child standing at the gate of her house could simply be waiting for her father to return from work. But none of these scenes is what it appears to be. They were photographed in Dhaka’s notorious Kandupatti brothel— and it is their very ordinariness that makes them so disturbing.

“I wanted to show that these women are just normal, ordinary people, even if their activities are abnormal,” says Bangladeshi photographer Shehzad Noorani. Noorani, 32, has spent nearly a decade photographing brothels in his home country, as well as in Bombay and Manila. The result: “The Daughters of Darkness,” an exhibition on display in Bangkok during March.

In one striking image, a woman is seen attempting to drag a reluctant man into her ramshackle hut as other prostitutes try to lure him away. In another photograph, a woman stands bleeding after a flight with a customer who refused to pay. At a paltry 41 cents to $1 per client, it takes 20 or so customers a day for these wretched women to make ends meet, and competition is fierce. The young are not spared the torment. “No matter how hard you try, you won’t even come close to understanding our grief,” says Najma, a 14-year-old girl. She fled Dhaka’s red-light district with her boyfriend, only to return disillusioned to her old ways after he stole her savings and tried to sell her to another brothel.

Noorani is no stranger to life on the streets. As a child, he scavenged for food and toiled in a garment mill after his parents’ business collapsed and he was catapulted into poverty. “Still, every time I went back (to Kandupatti), it took all my courage,” he says. Customers have beaten him up, and suspicious police officers—who usually extract protection money from the brothels—twice threatened to arrest him.

“Initially, the women would come and hold my hand, thinking I was a potential customer,” he says. “Later, when they knew I was not interested in sex, they began calling me bhaiya (brother) and opening up to me.” For all the women’s honesty, he says it is impossible to completely understand the brothel world. “I am on friendly terms with them, but I can never really be their friend.” Once, when he offered a prostitute a job as a servant in his own home, she refused contemptuously. “If I work for you, you will abuse me. And when you are not there, your father will abuse me.”

Many of Noorani’s shots are posed; others are “hip shots” snapped hastily without looking through the viewfinder. “I am against masking my subjects’ faces or eyes because it makes them look like criminals and takes away their right to speak,” the photographer says. “In many cases, the women themselves have asked me to take their pictures because they want their voices heard and their faces seen.”

Noorani hopes his images will reach “those who can make a difference” – international aid groups, social workers and journalists. His exhibition is sponsored by the Save the Children Fund, Action Aid and Unicef. Noorani plans to continue working with such organizations to draw attention to the plight of brothel residents. “For society, these people do not exist,” he says, “For example, if there is an immunization drive or education program for people in a specific area [of Dhaka], those in the brothels are always excluded.”

Noorani is keen on taking the exhibition to India, Pakistan and Nepal, where he plans to add photos of the local red-light areas and work with groups fighting human trafficking. But he is wary of exhibiting in his home country after having some photos defaced and drawing threats for concentrating on the “negative side” of Dhaka.

The Kandupatti brothel was demolished recently as part of an anti-AIDS drive. “One of its women put it best,” says Noorani. “She said, ‘You people are trying to clean up your bhadrasamaj (civilized society), but you have left a heap of garbage at the back door. That garbage is us.’