The name of the district ‘Heera Mandi’ means ‘diamond market’, but as Kiran says, ‘There were never any diamonds here but us’.
The Heera Mandi lies in the shadow of the graceful Badshahi masjid, Lahore’s 16th century Mughal mosque. For centuries, it has been the legendary district of the dancing girls, the area where the Mughal emperors are supposed to have housed their courtesans. Some of Pakistan’s most accomplished singers, dancers, and film stars grew up in this neighbourhood. Contemporary residents such as Kiran are proud of this history, and of their own supposed descent from the liaisons of emperors.
These days, the cultural achievements of the Heera Mandi are neglected in favour of the commodity for which it has always been known: sex. Few of the men roaming its crowded streets are in search of a quick-witted accomplished classical dancer with an ability to quote Persian poetry. They seek to gratify more basic appetites.
But Kiran resists seeing her neighbourhood as just another squalid red-light district and certainly doesn’t see herself as a sex worker. She is a dancer; the ‘night business’, as she refers to the sex, is a necessary auxiliary service, but that doesn’t make her a prostitute.
And the Heera Mandi is an established entertainment district, its narrow alleyways home to dancing girls, musicians, transvestites, eunuchs and junkies, all overshadowed by the beautiful looming domes and minarets of the mosque. There are the offices of the musicians who perform at weddings throughout the city, the shops selling drums and ankle-bells, and some of the best food stalls in Lahore. There are also money stalls, a sideline to the dancing-girl business, selling garlands of paper money and changing large notes for huge piles of small denominations the customers are supposed to garland the girls with cash and fling great drifts of it at their feet.
But it is the ‘diamonds’, the dancing girls like Kiran, who are at the heart of the Heera Mandi. While many Pakistani families favour sons, in the Heera Mandi it is the birth of a daughter that is cause for celebration. Daughters bring in the cash.
We were visiting the home of Kiran’s friend, Neela. The front room of the house was Neela’s work room. It was dominated by a huge double bed, which didn’t leave much space for dancing. There was a shelf of tatty, sad soft toys, a couple of grubby film posters, and a huge sound system in the corner. The top end girls (Neela is apparently upper-middle) hire musicians, but Neela only uses live music at parties.
We sprawled across the enormous double bed, along with Neela’s mother and a string of younger sisters. Although theirs was a family of dancers, Neela’s mother had hoped that her daughters would have respectable marriages and not have to dance. They had managed to save the money for Neela’s dowry. She had been married at 17. But her husband was violent, and after a few months he wanted her to start dancing. Neela said if she was going to dance she would do it for her own benefit and that of her family, not for him. She had tried to find other jobs first, but her potential employers told her ‘come to dinner, come to my bed’. If she was expected to provide sex as part of her employment, better to do it in the Heera Mandi, where her mother would be present for the entire transaction, sitting in the corner of the room, mobile phone ready at the first sign of trouble. For Neela, dancing was the best chance of freedom.
Dancing girls, 1864. Image from here
Now she was 20-years-old, with artificially lightened skin, coloured contact lenses, too much make-up, and permed hair. In all the families of the Heera Mandi, there was a stark visual divide between the working girls and their younger sisters. The younger girls had a natural prettiness and sweetness, in their faded cotton shalwar kameez and with their hair in braids. Neela, dolled up for the customers, did not look nearly so attractive, to my mind. But her mother knew the market; she knew what sold.
Kiran, too, came from a long line of dancing girls. Her family had also hoped that their daughters wouldn’t have to dance, but their father had died, and at 15 and 16 she and her sister had been put into ‘the business’. Both Neela and Kiran took pride in being from traditional dancing girl families. These days, the Heera Mandi is crowded with desperate young women from outlying villages or Afghan refugee camps. Kiran regarded these upstarts with distain. They were common whores, not dancing girls. She and Neela expressed pride in their profession and were dismissive of anyone who might see it as shameful. Kiran had particular contempt for mullahs, who, she said, came to the district to ‘watch’ dirty acts, but not to participate in them. She was practically the only person I met in Pakistan to express support for George Bush the United States, she said, was the greatest country on earth. It was shameful to attack it.
Kiran and Neela described their work as enjoyable (‘the dancing, not the night-business’) and said that it provided them with independence. But it was more complex than that. Neela’s family were reliant on her income she was the sacrifice. She was working to save for dowries for her sisters, so they could afford good arranged marriages and not have to dance. After 10 years, when the younger girls were all married off, she planned to marry her pick of her customers. Kiran’s sister had done this, and was living as a second wife in Islamabad. Such marriages tended to lack social legitimacy they were generally secret, scandalous, and the dancing-girl wife was not treated as the equal of the first wife, as the Koran stipulates. But at least there was some stability.
Neither of them spoke of the other long-term economic safety-net for aging dancing girls: selling off one’s own daughters.
We tried to discuss sexual health. Neela said that she was on the pill. Discussing STDs proved more awkward. I did not know the Urdu word for ‘condom’, and they did not know (or affected not to know) the English. In an attempt to both illustrate my meaning, and to show that I didn’t think that condoms were only for ‘fallen’ women, I fished one out from my handbag. Neela and Kiran laughed, but they were also shocked and disapproving. The presence of the condom in my bag suggested that I intended to have sex whenever the mood took me, just for fun. While they sold sex, they did so in a strictly limited context that was endorsed by their community and necessary for their survival. Neela said moralistically that her customers were ‘clean’ and didn’t need to use condoms.
Then Neela offered to dance. She was not trained, because her family had not planned for her to work her dancing was purely ‘God’s gift’. She put on a CD of Indian pop music, and began to gyrate, self-consciously at first, then confidently. She smiled, her eyes filled with apparent longing. You could believe that she did enjoy the dancing element of her job.
Next, it was Kiran’s turn. She loosened her long hennaed hair, chose her CD, and was off. She was classically trained, and proud of it. She did not smile, as Neela had done. Her face was all determination. Her stout little body was flexible and graceful. She spun her loose hair, kicked her short little legs, undulated her breasts and belly, twitched her bottom. Her face was shiny with sweat. She accepted our applause as her due.
In Pakistan, women who transgress social boundaries are repeatedly told that people will think that they are prostitutes. I had naively thought that women who really did live by selling sex would at least be free of this threat. If you were already a ‘loose woman’, then surely you would be free to do some of the things that such women supposedly did, like walking the streets as you pleased.
But of course, her marginal social position made it all the more important for a woman like Kiran to keep up appearances. This became obvious after Kiran discovered that a female friend and I had visited the Heera Mandi without her. Kiran was incensed. She had introduced us to her friends, she had told people that we were respectable, and now she found that we had been roaming the streets like women with no morals! Kiran herself never left the house without her mother. By failing to keep to the same standards, we risked turning her name to mud.
While to most Pakistanis, Kiran epitomised the ‘loose woman’, the lowest level to which one could fall, she herself was rather prudish. She had no quarrel with the notion of social boundaries, although she was irritated by hypocrisy the mullahs who indulged in voyeurism, the cops who demanded bribes.
Most of the high-end dancing girls have moved out of the crumbling Heera Mandi to more salubrious districts, but Kiran felt safer where she was. No-one looked down on her there, because they were all in the same business and they knew her pedigree. Whatever outsiders might make of the ‘night-business’, Kiran knew that she was an artist.
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