The Evolution of Sex Work in Lahore’s Heera Mandi

With exclusive investigations and interviews, we explore Lahore’s sex industry, looking at workers in Heera Mandi and if things have evolved.

The Evolution of Sex Work in Lahore's Heera Mandi

"A girl no longer needs a pimp to market her"

Located in the city of Lahore, Heera Mandi is Pakistan’s oldest red light district. This is where Heera Mandi sex workers have conducted their trade for centuries.

With a mix of erotic dancers, musicians, and prostitution, this area is a well-established hub for sexual activity in the city, albeit hidden from passers-by.

However, the way trade is conducted in the world’s oldest profession has changed for Heera Mandi sex workers with the advent of technology.

The once-traditional forms of acquainting yourself with beautiful Heera Mandi women by looking up at the balconies and visiting designated rooms are now gone.

They are now being replaced by online bookings through escort websites.

Whilst looking at how the new landscape of Pakistan’s secret district has changed in the modern world, it’s also important to understand why sex work is so prevalent here.

It’s no surprise that Pakistan banned porn and sexual content.

However, the sex industry is still one of the most sought-after attractions in the country – whether the government/public acknowledge it or not. 

So, through exclusive investigation and first-hand conversations with Heera Mandi workers, DESIblitz reveals the ins and outs of this famous area. 

A Lost Identity

The Evolution of Sex Work in Lahore's Heera Mandi

Sounds of music and the movements of dance performed by Heera Mandi prostitutes were commonly heard and seen.

But now, this tradition is under threat due to men finding ways to meet women using their smartphones.

The number of clients looking for Heera Mandi sex workers in the area is dropping, as more and more of the trade and demand moves online.

Prostitutes working in Heera Mandi have raised their concerns about the loss of tawaif traditions, a culture dating back to the Mughal era. 

It was then regulated later by the British in the 18th century after they took over Lahore in 1849.

Prior to it becoming an area known for prostitution, Heera Mandi actually got its name after Heera Singh.

He was the son of Raja Dhian Singh and set up a market to sell ‘ghalla’ foodstuffs in the early 18th century. Hence the name, Heera Mandi, where ‘Mandi’ means market.

Heera Mandi is also known as the ‘Diamond Market’ and some historians say this refers to the dancing girls and prostitutes being viewed as ‘diamonds’ which are available.

With the new wave of technology impacting the area, Heera Mandi sex workers are leaving the red-light district. 

One such prostitute, Reema Kanwal, says the business “runs in her blood”.

Generations of her family danced and pleased men in Heera Mandi, as her mother and grandmother were also prostitutes.

Remembering the “glorious” days, Reema says:

“People used to respect the prostitutes of Heera Mandi, we were called artists, but all has changed over the last decade.

“Now we don’t have any honour.”

Treating men is an art form when it came to the original prostitutes of Heera Mandi.

In the days of the Mughals, the wealthy even sent their sons to courtesans.

Performing mujra dances and ensuring the needs of clients were met were all part of this trade and tradition.

However, now, Reema expresses that the girls providing these services are not from the family heritage she is from.

And, she highlights these women have not been taught “how to treat people” in the way she has in the past.

These new girls are simply using mobile phones and social media to market their services.

Advertisements on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and using classified websites like Locanto or dedicated escort apps are all means to find clients easily and quickly.

Even the use of Skype to offer services for as little as Pakistani Rs. 300 (82 pence), is becoming common.

The growth of online services means in major cities like Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi, escorts take internet bookings to serve clients. 

The sites are even offering services abroad in countries like Singapore and Dubai.

Even though prostitution, and porn for that matter, is banned in Pakistan and pre-marital sex is a crime, these escort services are doing huge business.

One claims up to 50,000 customers on its database.

A Modern Sex Industry?

The Evolution of Sex Work in Lahore's Heera Mandi

With the old traditions falling by the wayside, girls also no longer need an entourage of musicians and teachers, say the music shop owners living in the remnants of the old Heera Mandi.

The intricate mujra dancing that was such a foundation of the red light district required years of teaching and live musicians.

Now, girls learn easy but provocative dance moves via YouTube. Soan Ali, the head of one music shop says:

“They take a USB or sometimes they don’t even need that, they have songs in their cellphones, they plug a cable and play the music.”

Like Reema, Ali’s family has also been in Heera Mandi for generations.

He proudly recalled his father’s “hospitality” as he attempted to lure clients for his mother.

Ali, taking a deep breath, admits: 

“We are having a lot of difficulties. Whoever is in this field is going through hard days.

“Heera Mandi is no more.”

For those who have migrated beyond Heera Mandi, however, the future is bright.

Mehak, who declined to give her full name, is a cosmetic surgeon by profession, a feminist by ideology, and by night one of Pakistan’s most elite madams.

Seven sleek Persian cats prowl among the expensive wooden furniture of her home, which doubles as a brothel for upper-class Pakistanis in a wealthy residential neighbourhood of Lahore.

Mehak, who is in her mid-50s, says she recruits most of her girls through elite parties but adds:

“This online thing has really changed the business.”

“A girl no longer needs a pimp to market her, she has Facebook, Twitter, etc. 

“Heera Mandi is no more… even if a girl is from Heera Mandi, she would never reveal it because the client would never risk sexually transmitted diseases and the bad image associated.”

Although, outside of the Diamond Market, she says, business is good:

“Medical students and MBAs have the highest rates, they get Rs. 100,000 (£272) for one night.

Now, Mehak plans to expand and offer male prostitutes:

“Girls from the elite class come to me and beg for boys.

“They say they are ready to pay, but they need strong boys.”

Why Sex Work in Heera Mandi?

The Evolution of Sex Work in Lahore's Heera Mandi

Due to technology having such a large impact on Heera Mandi, will this mean more women (and men), turn to other professions? 

In order to find the answer, it’s vital to recognise if this type of work is sustainable and why people choose it in the first place. 

Prostitution in Heera Mandi is considered an evil hidden culture within society, yet the Diamond Market continually provides cheap sex.

Despite the overwhelming pressure to be decent in Pakistan, everyone is quite aware of the presence of prostitution.

But why is nothing being done about it, especially as it is an illegal open secret in the city?

Why are individuals not being educated and provided with gainful employment to close this chapter of the dark trade?

And above all why does work need to be sex for the majority of people who are engaged in such activities?

In a daring undercover mission, we discovered that things such as poverty, hereditary positions, and financial burdens were key reasons for becoming a sex worker in Heera Mandi.

While walking temporarily along the main streets of Heera Mandi, outsiders and westerners like us could instantly observe the looks and the whispers that our presence attracted.

During the daytime, very few pimps are out on the streets.

Hence following a short ride through the bazaar, an auto-rickshaw driver who had first-hand knowledge of the industry eventually escorted us to a pimp (dalal) named Amjad Hussain.

Hussain, whose own mother was a sex worker, described his job as similar to that of a fishmonger, trying to market his products and services.

Having grown up in this area, 50-year-old Hussain admitted that this is the only profession he knows and can do proficiently to make a living:

“I can earn up to 40 – 50% from each deal I manage to secure.”

According to Hussain, many women in the Royal Neigbourhood work under the shadow of Kanjars (powerful pimps supported by the prostitute).

These Kanjars pay women a fixed amount of money every month and ensure that they have police protection apart and are covered for daily expenses.

Throughout this interesting rendezvous, Hussain referred to Heera Mandi as a place where men could enjoy women, music, and dance.

Surrounded by the rundown wooden archways, the crafty pimp said:

“I think the boss is interested in seeing nude dances.

“Once you enter the room, whether you want to see a dance or do something else, it’s your choice.”

Even after smelling something fishy with Hussain, DESIblitz dangerously accompanied him to see a Kanjar at his sex salon, which was cleverly disguised as a video shop.

Shakeel, the owner of Butt Video Centre arranged for a prostitute/call girl to meet us outside of the Shahi Mohalla after a price was mutually fixed.

First-Hand Experience

The Evolution of Sex Work in Lahore's Heera Mandi

In the presence of a goon with a gun to our faces, DESIblitz met and interviewed the sex worker inside a car on the main Data Darbar Road.

In spite of not wanting to reveal her identity, Yasmin confided that she found herself abandoned after the death of her husband.

Yasmin told us she did not enjoy her job, but circumstances compel her to continue being a sex worker.

Widows like Yasmin are forced to join the profession because they have mouths to feed, and thus find prostitution as a way out of their desperate situation.

Yasmin expressed that she always needed quick money within a short period of time.

Justifying her reasons, the 32-year-old exclusively told DESIblitz:

“I have kids, a house on rent. If I work in someone’s house, then I will earn Rs. 3000 – 4000 (£8 – £10).

“But I am already paying Rs. 4000 (£10) just for the rent of my house.

“I have to educate my children, feed them and there are some good and sad moments.”

“How else can I provide for them?”

Yasmin’s story is no different from the many other sex workers in the country.

In a 2013 study by Mohsin Saeed Khan, titled “Poverty of Opportunity and Women in Prostitution: A Pakistan Qualitative Study”, some interesting results were uncovered.

It was discovered that poverty, restricted prospects, limited knowledge, and material desires push girls and married women in Lahore into prostitution.

Khan’s research revealed that women engage in the profession of prostitution for the money and benefits they derive from it.

A prostitute can make around Rs. 2000 – Rs. 3000 (£5 – £8) in just one day.

In contrast, a domestic staff or labourer only makes Rs. 2500 (£6) per month.

Someone forced into being a sex worker is not an uncommon phenomenon in Pakistan.

Without a social welfare system, many people have been exploited during hard times by being pushed into the sex trade.

From generation to generation, one of the most pressing issues is the hereditary position people occupy.

In the case of Yasmin, the biggest question is will her daughter also become a prostitute one day?

Poverty and economic conditions are key factors that drive people into such activities.

Although, there are many sex workers who do not charge a single penny to fulfill their sexual desires as they belong to rich families.

Therefore besides individual circumstances, have values become twisted in a society that is increasingly becoming materialistic?

On the whole, prostitution in Heera Mandi has increased in operational value, especially as men and women continue to create demand and supply for sexual activities.

Working towards positive interventions is really important.

All major stakeholders should deliver special programmes to sex workers, highlighting key issues related to social stigma, health, and drug addiction.

Individuals connected with Heera Mandi should not be isolated and if they decide to leave this profession, they must be supported.

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

Images courtesy of Instagram.

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