Daughters of darkness: in the brothels of Bangladesh, generations of outcast women have created their own communities

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LOOK ONLY at the stone walls and crumbling structures in these photos, and you might mistake the scene for a ghetto in Eastern Europe. The isolation is the same, the sense of being cut off, the dampness and squalor. Here are society’s rejects, making their own way in their own world.

But look into the haunting, kohl-rimmed eyes of the women, and images of the ghetto vanish. This is Kandupatti, an enormous, mazelike brothel that served for years as both home and workplace to at least 1,000 of the estimated 150,000 women employed in the state-regulated sex trade in Bangladesh.

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Located in the capital city of Dhaka, Kandupatti was a city unto itself for 200 years. with its own economy and subculture. In its harsh control of women, the brothel reflected the strict Muslim culture that created and sustained it. But in Kandupatti, women enjoyed the freedom that came from knowing they were absolute outcasts, freed from everything except the iron rule of the johns and their money. Unlike their countrywomen, they wore revealing clothing. They fought over men in public. Though often run by pimps, they controlled some money of their own. They kissed each other and made open displays of affection. They often looked for a way out–sometimes agreeing to marry steady customers in order to escape–but Kandupatti was what they knew. Some families included three generations–grandmother, mother, and daughter–who called it home.

Shehzad Noorani, who is a winner of one of this year’s Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography awards, spent almost a decade taking pictures of the “sex workers” of Kandupatti–much to the confusion of his compatriots, many of whom looked askance at his interest. A Bangladeshi photographer, Noorani became friendly with the women and girls, watched their fights, and witnessed their tragedies. The calm beauty and classicism of his photos reveal his respect for these women. In a world where prostitutes are seen only as sexual objects, he has captured the ordinariness of their daily lives.

Three years ago, prompted by the fear of AIDS and a growing religious conservatism, the government of Bangladesh decided to close the country’s brothels. Kandupatti was the first to be shut down and demolished. Last year, Bangladeshi newspapers reported that neighborhood “muscle-men and goons” attacked two more sprawling brothels in the red-light district of Dhaka, evicting the residents. Some of the women and children were shipped off to state-run centers miles outside the city–places not unlike prisons–for what the government called “rehabilitation.” Human rights activists say the women have been subjected to physical torture. Others, deprived of their homes and livelihood, have been left to fend for themselves.

Despite the evictions, the Bangladeshi sex trade, with all its risks and violent repression, still flourishes in a country where women who are alone have few other options for survival. The state has so far been unwilling to provide sex workers any real means of self-sufficiency. To do so would require seeing them as they appear in these photos–as immutably human, frozen in timeless postures of love, desperation, and betrayal.

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LIFE IN THE BROTHELS

Clockwise from left:

A woman attempts to drag a reluctant man into her hut, At as little as 41 cents per client, it can take 20 customers a day to make ends meet.

Public squabbles are not uncommon in the brothel, where emotions run high.

A woman kisses another on the cheek, an unusual display of affection in Bangladesh.

Children in the brothel have few options, and often follow their mothers into prostitution.

Clockwise from above:

In a room slightly larger than her bed, an exhausted girl rests for a moment between clients in the century-old Tanbazar brothel.

A fakir blesses and purifies a girl in Kandupatti; the women take part in many rituals seeking fortune and safety.

Shilpi, 20, lies in the arms of Sawar, her client and boyfriend in the Saeedpur brothel. He wants her to marry him and leave the brothel; she worries about her financial security.

Hina takes a puff of marijuana from a client’s pipe in the city of Jessore. Drug use makes it harder for women to escape the brothel.

Photo Essay by Shehzad Noorani