Arduous lives inside India’s bordello

April 3, 2023
3 mins read
Photo: Mohammad Dawood

Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Pakistan’s prolific playwright and chronicler of the partition of British India, refers to sex work as?i?mat-far?sh?, which roughly translates to virtue selling. The use of ‘virtue’ is intentional because he mocks the concept it— saying, prostitute or not, even without their virtue women are likely to have more radiant hearts than those of dissolute men and with her virtue preserved, prostitute and woman, still takes the back seat because men control the system and are free to think of her as they will.

More than 70 years after Manto’s harrowing accounts of the realities of sex workers across the Indo-Pak subcontinent, not a lot has changed. The condition of sex workers in India is extremely poor with the industry facing several social and structural barriers. The national rehabilitation projects overstep the bodily autonomy of the workers— the state assumes the role of a moral discipliner, rendering the industry and its workers powerless and exposed to extreme forms of violence. The normative status of sex work remains deeply contested between abolitionists and sex work advocates, often drowning the agency of the sex workers. 

Many women are coerced into the work, with human trafficking forming the crux of the ‘business,’ disproportionately affecting women and children. However, assuming all sex workers have joined the profession against their volition disenfranchises those who voluntarily become part of the industry or are unable to tap into other job markets. 

India is signatory to most major human rights treaties and conventions, yet the country fails to recognize the marginalization, vulnerabilities, and human rights of sex workers. India’s anti-trafficking policies, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956, conflates trafficking and sex work making it insufficient in its capacity to protect trafficked people and causing a spike in violence against sex workers.  

India identifies eight hundred thousand female sex workers (FSW) who predominantly come from five southern states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Telangana. The capital, Delhi, houses fifty thousand FSWs. 

While private prostitution is legal in India, the stigma and oppression socio-historically associated with the profession have remained intact and primarily stem from women expressing their sexuality and corrupting ‘innocent’ segments of society to it. Public prostitution and owning a brothel remain illegal. Yet, massive brothels operate out of places like GB Road in the heart of the national capital Delhi, where the workers are not safeguarded by labor laws or trade unions. 

?At the crossroads of these multifaceted discourses, the portraits explore the story of sex work in old Delhi, centering on the life of sex workers.

Sex workers are faced with multifaceted social stigma, and therefore often are spatially isolated in areas like the GB Road in New Delhi. The red-light districts then become their inevitable homes in the cities.
Sex workers often take up prostitution as a means to support their families. Flower, 32 years old, a sex worker sitting by the window, hopes for a better life for her children. 
The brothels on GB Road, much like in the rest of the country, are extremely mismanaged and infrastructurally marginalized. They are a tangible manifestation of the industry itself— shattered dreams, broken windows, uncertainty, and fragile walls.
The brothel resembles a cage— dignity and independence are limited within. 
The sex workers are forced to live in subhuman conditions, due to the state’s neglect in these areas. The brothels on GB road all have small kitchens. The meals cooked in these shanties are hopeful, warm, and adjusted to the worker’s own tastes, but the problems away from the heat of the stove are bigger, permanent, and beyond all control. 
The walls are adorned like the inside of a brightly colored painting, in stark contrast with the dimly lit rooms. 
Stuck in between a hyper-masculine patriarchal society and a system that is designed to fail them, sex workers on GB road have historically taken the issues of justice into their own hands. This year, through their own efforts, with help provided by some NGOs, the women of GB road have been able to set up the first health clinic dedicated to sex workers and their families, in order to receive proper treatment that is repeatedly denied to them in hospitals outside.
The common verandah to the rooms of sex workers is covered in washing lines running in both directions and sags under the weight of the laundry of their families, who often live with them. According to a study conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), children of GB road face massive educational barriers due to their identity— bullying, and harassment from staff and students alike becoming the bane of their time at schools. 
Despite the Supreme Court of India recognizing sex work as a ‘profession,’ the industry continues to be shaped by a caste-driven hierarchy between genders, of which migrants and minorities face the most violent brunt.


Mohammad Dawood

Mohammad Dawood is a photojournalist based in New Delhi, India. His work has appeared in various publications including Mongabay India, South China Morning Post, Scroll.in, Arab News, and Caravan India

Mariya Nadeem Khan

Mariya is a researcher within the Urban Socio-Spatial Development department at Erasmus University Rotterdam. She has an MA in Development Studies from Erasmus University and a Bachelor’s in International Relations from Leiden University. Her research builds on violence, nationalism, and social movements in South Asia and the GCC. Her other areas of interest include non-Western historiography, alternatives to the capitalist world economy, and Urdu literature.

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