Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where prostitution is legal. The Kandapara brothel in the district of Tangail is the oldest and second-largest in the country—it has existed for some 200 years. It was demolished in 2014 but has been established again with the help of local NGOs.
After all, many of the women were born there, grew up there and didn’t know where else to go when it disappeared. Supporters of the brothel believe that sex work is also work—and that these women don’t want to do something else. The women themselves demonstrated for their rights as workers, and so at the end of 2014, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association convinced the High Court that the eviction of the sex workers was an illegal act. The sex workers quickly returned to their homes.
Today, the area’s “brothel district” is surrounded by a two-meter wall. In the narrow streets, there are food stalls, tea shops and street vendors. The brothel is a place with its own rules and hierarchies of power which are completely different from mainstream society.
For example, inside the brothels, the women are weak but also powerful. The most vulnerable stage is when a young sex worker enters the brothel—she is called a bonded girl. Bonded girls are usually 12 to 14 years old. These girls come from poor families and are often victims of trafficking. They have no freedom or rights. They belong to a madam, have debts and are not allowed to go outside or keep their money. When they have paid all their debts, which takes somewhere between 1 to 5 years, they become independent sex workers. Then, they can refuse customers and keep their own money. From the moment that a woman has paid her debts, she is free to leave the brothel. But these women are socially stigmatized outside their “homes” and thus often choose to stay and continue supporting their families with their earnings.
Regardless of how they got there, many women find some measure of strength in their profession. For example, some women arrive there by choice, fleeing their controlling husbands and needing to find a way to secure their livelihood. One resident has turned down the marriage proposals of her most faithful client because she doesn’t trust that he will let her keep her money. She’d rather maintain her independence as a sex worker. She is just 17. Officially, sex workers must be 18 years old, but most are underage.
Their customers are policemen, politicians, farmers, fishermen, factory workers, groups of teenage boys. Some of these men are looking just for sex, but others for love and the company of a woman.
In Bangladesh, a young man has no chance to holds hands with his girlfriend in a public area and cannot have sex before marriage. If he goes to a brothel, there he will find a moral-free environment. Indeed, I saw many men going to the brothel just to drink tea with the women who live there. Normally, in the public areas of Bangladesh, it would never be possible for a man to invite a strange woman for a tea. Similarly, many of the clients enjoy drinking alcohol, which is forbidden outside for Muslims. The women inside never wear the hijab. Only when they step out, back into the real world…