In Pakistan, there is a disparity between the actual experiences of sex workers and how they are portrayed in popular culture. One way in which sex work has been sanitized is through narratives of the tawaif or courtesan. The term, which originally referred to a courtesan in the Mughal era known for patronizing arts and culture, has been misused and now signifies a sex worker.
Adaptations of the novel “Umrao Jaan Ada” by Mirza Hadi Ruswa gained popularity in the subcontinent, humanizing the character of Umrao Jaan while also condemning her as a “fallen woman.”While the character of Umrao Jaan became a romanticized symbol of old-world charm and glamour associated with the nobility of that time, her portrayal did not represent the reality of sex workers. This nostalgia-driven perspective persists today. In the popular Pakistani show “Alif, Allah aur Insaan,” aired in 2017 on Hum TV, the story revolved around a courtesan who provided shelter to homeless girls. However, it faced criticism for glamorizing brothels and presenting tawaifs as awe-inspiring figures. Recently, it was announced that another adaptation of “Umrao Jaan Ada” will be led by Pakistani star Sajal Aly.
In contrast, the writings of Sadat Hasan Manto, a Pakistani writer from the 1940s and ’50s, openly explored sex workers’ lives and faced obscenity lawsuits as a result. Manto’s stories portrayed sex workers without imposing moral judgments and allowed them to exist as individuals. His works, which challenged social constructs and emphasized the independence of the human body, often featured sex workers.
Despite such efforts, there has been a struggle to separate the basic rights of sex workers from inherent moral biases in Pakistan’s popular culture. Even when attempting to humanize sex workers, the predominant narrative focuses on young, innocent girls being trafficked or subjected to violence, thereby limiting the conversation and only eliciting sympathy for certain types of sex workers. The reality is that sex workers enter the industry through various circumstances, including trafficking, force, being born into it, limited financial opportunities, or the belief that it will lead to a glamorous lifestyle. Children, in particular, often have no choice as they are unable to leave the community. However, these situations are not always dramatic or conducive to empathy-inducing storytelling, which is why they tend to be overlooked.
Addressing the complexities of sex work in Pakistani society requires moving beyond simplistic narratives, understanding the full spectrum of experiences, and advocating for the rights and well-being of all sex workers. By challenging patriarchal norms and engaging in open dialogue, society can strive for a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of sex work and the individuals involved.